Saturday, December 22, 2012

Ultras and Protest Politics

I've wondered why the soccer fans called "Ultras" have been such an important force in Arab revolutionary politics, especially in Egypt.  Toby Matthiesen points toward this article on the topic by James Dorsey in the scholarly journal Mobilization:
For years, ultras in the Middle East have staged frequent stadium battles with the police and rival fans, a zero-sum game for control of a venue they saw as their own. States in the region viewed these autonomous, militant groups as a challenge to the regime’s monopoly on the means of coercion, and a potentially serious threat to their authority. In the name of public safety they turned football pitches into virtual fortresses, ringed by black steel and armed security personnel. The ultras, for their part, radicalized in response to the militarization of the stadium, though they did not always frame their militancy as political. We steer clear of politics. Competition in Egypt is on the soccer pitch. We break the rules and regulations when we think they are wrong. You don’t change things in Egypt talking about politics. We're not political, the government knows that and that is why it has to deal with us,” said one Egyptian ultra in 2010, after his group overran a police barricade erected to prevent it from bringing flares, fireworks and banners into a stadium (Dorsey 2011). In recent years, violent clashes erupted almost weekly...
In these countries and elsewhere, ultras and other soccer fans came to view soccer officials as tools of the regime, and even disparaged some of the athletes as mercenaries, playing only for money. The ultras considered themselves the only defenders of the true values of their squad...
For more than a decade, Tunisian ultras had forged links with Takriz, a secretive self- described “cyber think tank and street resistance network,” founded in 1998, whose name is a street-slang profanity that expresses a feeling of frustrated anger. In 1999, several Takriz activists attended a Tunisian soccer cup match that erupted in violence with scores injured, several fatally. The ultras’ militant spirit impressed the activists, who reached out to fan groups and developed a web forum for ultras from different teams. At the end of 2009, Takriz and the ultras decided the time was right to mobilize. “So we turned up the heat in the stadiums and started boiling the Internet. We decided to fuck everybody,” said Foetus, one of Takriz’s founders, who identifies himself only by his alias (Pollock 2011). They used Facebook to put opposition forces on the spot for being too timid and intimidated. We had to electroshock’ them to get people to do that last step. Then we built momentum, momentum, momentum,” said Waterman, the alias for another Takriz founder. (Pollock 2011). In the street  battles  that  ensued  with  security  forces  in  earl2011  in  thrun-up  tBeAli’s departure into exile on January 14, in which some 300 people were killed, ultras and members of Takriz formed the protestors’ fighting core (Pollock 2011).
(In Egypt) the ultras’ street-battle experience helped other protesters break down barriers of fear that had kept them from confronting the regime in the past. "We were in the front line. When the police attacked we encouraged people. We told them not to run or be afraid. We started firing flares. People took courage and joined us, they know that we understand injustice and liked the fact that we fight the devil,” said Hassan.

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