Just a year after the anniversary of the start of the revolution in Tahrir Square, Egypt has again captured world headlines due to the violence at last week's football game and the ensuing riots.
In the aftermath of the football game between rival teams al-Masry and al-Ahly in Port Said, 74 people were killed while the police stood by, reluctant to intervene. Since Thursday, over 2,000 people have been hurt in protests that have engulfed Cairo.
The irony of the situation is this: The riots at the football stadium have nothing to do with football. Those happening in Tahrir Square today are intrinsically connected with the sport. Although the match provided the environment to ignite the protests, the riots currently tearing through Egypt are not motivated by the outcome or events of the football game. However, many Al-Ahly supporters have themselves been on the front lines of the Egyptian revolution. What we see in Tahrir square today is bringing to light some of the forces driving the momentum behind the revolution of the past year.
In the past few days, questions have arisen as to whether this was just a heightened version of football hooliganism that we see all over the world. From England’s Hillsborough disaster in 1989, which killed 96 people, to the 300 football fans who died in Lima, Peru, during an Olympic qualifying match in 1964, violence in the aftermath of games, especially in rivalry matches, is sadly not uncommon. Yet the attack at Wednesday’s football game did not occur because of the outcome of the game – indeed, it was the fans of the winning team, al-Masry, who attacked the loosing Al-Ahly team supporters. Testimonies from supporters of al-Masry state that they were not searched when coming into the stadium, and that many were carrying weapons simply for the goal of inciting violence. As such, the reason for the largest football tragedy in Egypt’s history cannot be attributed to football hooliganism.
Instead, the root of the explanation lies in the political involvement of many of Al-Ahly’s supporters, who call themselves the Ultra’s and were instrumental in the overthrow of former Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak last year. Since then, they have played a large role in the revolution and the protests that have occurred since. Many believe that the violence at Wednesday’s football game was an attack on this involvement. There is speculation that those who started the fights on Wednesday were not in fact al-Masry supporters, but instead were provocateurs working for the ex-Mubarak administration, seeking to ignite unrest and hamper the transition to democracy.
The Ultra’s also believe that their connection to the overthrow of the previous regime is the reason that the police stood idly by during the violence, an act that has led to huge backlash in the revolutionaries and sparked the protests that we are now seeing in Tahrir. The Egyptian people, in their new era of freedom of expression, are holding the police and officials to account in the way they have become accustomed to: protest. And it is these football fans, which have a long history of experience in standing up to police, who are on the frontlines of these protests. In a country in youthful post-revolution, politics drives even the basic play of football.
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