Al Ahly fans are used to success. In 2000, they received the highest honour from the Confederation of African Football by being named African Club of the Century, and who could argue with the decision. They have won the African Champions League a record eight times, the Egyptian Premier League a record 38 times and the Egyptian Cup a record 35 times. They stand triumphantly amongst the most successful teams in the history of football, rivalling the achievements of their European, South American and Asian counterparts.
However, behind every club there are the fans. The fans are the heartbeat of a football club; they provide the voice, the spirit and the most demonstrable expression of passion. Al Ahly’s fans are not like other fans, though. They are fans that played a key role in a revolution, showing once more that football and politics, despite so regularly proving to be an uneasy mix, continue to infiltrate one another.
In Egypt, Al Ahly’s fans are more than just support for the team – they are a largely influential revolutionary group that hastened the exit of former president Hosni Mubarak as the country became engulfed in a series of protests that left the world watching.
This is not a story of how the Egyptian revolution of 2011 played out nor is it a tale of its political or social origins. It is a chronicle of the Ahlawy – the ultras arm of Al Ahly’s support who played a crucial role in the revolution, once again portraying the inextricable bind between football and politics. The Ahlawy provided fuel for the revolution which ultimately overthrew Mubarak. They manned barricades, participated in songs of protest and produced banners denouncing the regime of Mubarak.
The Al Ahly ultras were formed in 2007, partly inspired by similar hardcore factions of football fans populating regions in Italy and Eastern Europe. They formed during the height of Mubarak’s power and the idea of an Egyptian revolution was incomprehensible as his regime became synonymous with ruthless repression of opposition and dissent. Two groups existed in Egypt that were allowed room to air their views; the Muslim Brotherhood and the ultras in the football stadium.
At the weekend, the rapidly growing Ahlawy ultra network would fight the violent police – a potent symbol of Mubarak’s reign – and slowly they started to strike fear into the hearts of the rulers. The ultras were helping to build an increasingly anti-government stance spreading throughout the country. The ultra group was the only viable outlet to voice their disenchantment. There were no political parties in opposition to Mubarak and no unions. The concept of an independent organisation became feasible largely in thanks to the Al Ahlawy ultra fans. The violence was building. Slowly, steadily, the reign of Mubarak began to show cracks, and the ultras were ready.
Of course, violence in football is not an alien subject in Egypt as the country’s most notorious rivalry, the Cairo derby, boasts a history of volatile and capricious encounters that established the Al Ahly-Zamalek hatred as one of the most intense in world football.
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Remember how Al-Ahly were named the African Club of the Century? Zamalek, their Cairo neighbours, were named second. Despite being placed close together on the Egyptian map, it is a rivalry that vastly transcends geographically-induced tensions. It is a derby, contested over the course of century, which represents a clash of nationalism, class and, to an extent, escapism from the politics and upheaval of their country. It has been called the world’s most violent derby and there is little wonder as to why it accredits such a title.
The roots of the rivalry are long-standing and deep-seated, dating back to when Egypt was occupied by the British Army. Al Ahly became a club associated with the nationalism and pride of disenfranchised Egyptians. In stark contrast, Zamalek became recognised as the sporting wing of the British Army and were closely connected with the hated King Farouk. Even from the beginning, the clubs were at odds. Those odds would become the source of increasingly violent clashes throughout the decades.
Even their rivalry, however, was put on hold during the Egyptian revolution. The Ahlawy group, together with Zamalek’s White Knight ultra faction, took action in 2011 and marched in their thousands on Tahrir Square. Since their formation in 2007, both sets of ultras had grown spectacularly and now numbered thousands and they used their numerical strength to become the leading voice on the front line of what became known as ‘The Battle of the Camels’ on 2 February 2011.
The majority of the Egyptian population had no experience of revolutionary acts and had little history in standing up to the brutality of the police but the ultras did. The men draped in the red and white colours of Al Ahly and Zamalek quickly became the voice and fist of the revolution. The reactive raids of President Mubarak were a dismal failure and his regime collapsed, representing one of the most significant days in the history of Egypt, with Mubarak resigning, the constitution suspended and the parliament dissolved. Suddenly Egypt found itself within touching distance of a realm of freedom. It is gladdening to think that football indirectly played a part in the advance to that freedom.
However, it would not be long after the triumph of the revolution that Al Ahly would experience one of the most heartbreaking days in its history.
A year on from the revolution and Al Ahly are taking on Al-Masry in the Suez city of Port Said. The match itself was a dramatic one with Al-Masry running out unexpected 3-1 winners. If only it had stopped there. Following the final whistle, Al-Masry’s fans stormed the pitch and attacked thousands of the Ahlawy, leaving 72 dead. It was one of the worst stadium riots and footballing disasters ever to occur and the Ahlawy were left to mourn in a time that had promised more happiness after the removal of Mubarak.
The majority of the 72 had been crushed to death in an exit tunnel under the stadium. Others were stabbed, beaten and thrown from the stands, while the police and army were nowhere to be seen. Embittered members of the Ahlawy faction placed the blame on the police, suspecting that the armed forces sought revenge for the revolution of 2011. It was a dark day, leaving several Al Ahly players to retire from professional football. Traumatised and disgusted, they couldn’t possibly find a way to go on in that moment.
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Read | How Egypt’s Pharaohs arose from the abyss
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The authorities reacted typically by blaming the tragedy on football thuggery and hooliganism but eyewitness accounts increasingly began to directly contradict the original versions. The new accounts depicted a police force that, through ineptitude or lack of compassion, stood back and watched as young men were beaten and stabbed and the horror unfolded. It was a return to the dark days for Ahlawy. In the post-Mubarak world there had been endless hope, opportunities for a new life that were seemingly shattered by a group of violent Al-Masry supporters.
Port Said left Egyptian football ravaged and shattered. In the aftermath of the horror, the league was cancelled, then suspended after the Egyptian FA resigned. The Ahlawy took to the streets, using their most potent weapon: their voices. They marched en masse to Tahrir Square, symbolising a kind of regression as they had been there in cataclysmic circumstances a year previous. It was a gloomy time for the Ahlawy, with many of them harbouring the conclusion that they had been punished for their role in the revolution.
The Ahlawy today have an exalted position in the hearts and minds of Egyptians. They were seen to be the protectors of the revolution, the voice of the poor and disenfranchised. They embodied, with great numbers and effective methods, the very ideal upon which Al Ahly football club was founded; to represent the lower echelons of society against the privileged.
The Ahlway was founded in 2007 to fervently support their football team but their short history is punctuated by events that comfortably transcend football. Revolution, conflict and death have permeated their existence and leave a cloud of lament over the current squadron of supporters. But there is no silencing these men. They stand up for their beliefs; they are determined to carry on. Determined to wear the eagle on the crest of Al Ahly as an emblem of pride, memory and, when necessary, revolution.
The club and the ultras have moved on from the Port Said massacre, continuing with a life of football, but they do not forget those they have lost. On the one-year anniversary of the disaster, thousands flooded to Port Said for an evening memorial service for the victims. On top of that, the Al Ahly players honoured the memory of the fallen by winning the African Champions League in 2012 and 2013, the latter a record eighth title. Some of the players who had threatened never to set foot on a football pitch again returned to help their side lift the Champions League and to participate in the commemoration for those that were no longer with them to taste the victory.
The Ahlawy continues to endure an uneasy existence, troubled still by the scars of an unimaginably horrific past. On top of being the most vociferous supporters of their football team, they have developed into a revolutionary aesthetic. In the past decade, football and politics in Egypt have been intertwined with devastating consequences.
The Ahlawy may be partly responsible for some of the havoc but they are also representative of a revolutionary ideal, one that galvanised the toppling of Mubarak in 2011 and one that still lives strong and true to this day. Staying clear of revolution and conflict is imperative for them, though; they started out as a football supporters group and football should be free to be supported without a sense of impending doom hanging over the stadium.
By Matt Gault. Follow @MattGault11