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Government and fans battle in court and on the pitch in Egypt and Turkey

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Egyptian and Turkish soccer pitches are set to re-emerge as battlegrounds between militant, street battle-hardened fans and authoritarian leaders in a life and death struggle that involves legal proceedings to brand the supporters as terrorists and efforts to undermine their widespread popular base.

Egyptian fans, barely a week after storming a Cairo stadium in advance of an African championship final, have vowed to break open Egyptian premier league games that have been closed to the public for much of the past four years. Fans played a key role in mass anti-government protests that in 2011 toppled President Hosni Mubarak.

Similarly a nationwide boycott of a government electronic ticketing system in Turkey viewed by fans who were prominent in last year’s Gezi Park protests against the country’s leader, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, as a way of identifying them and barring them from stadia has so far all but defeated the effort.

The struggles in Egypt and Turkey are heating up as criminal legal proceedings against militant fans or ultras are set to open in Cairo and Istanbul. In Istanbul, a trial begins on December 16 against 35 members of Carsi, the nationally popular support group of storied club Besiktas JK, accused of belonging to an armed terrorist organization and seeking to overthrow the government.

In Cairo, courts are preparing to hear a series of cases initiated by the head of the Egyptian capital’s Al Zamalek SC, Mortada Mansour, a controversial fixture of the Mubarak era and close associate of general-turned-president Abdel Fattah Al Sisi, charging that the club’s militant support group, Ultras White Knights (UWK), are terrorists who sought to assassinate him. Denying the allegations that led to the arrest of scores of UWK members, the group has dubbed Mr. Mansour ‘the regime’s dog.’ UWK leaders have gone into hiding to evade security forces.

In a statement, the Istanbul Bar Association denounced the charges against Carsi as belonging to the “fantasy world” of prosecutors. “What they are trying to do here is to dilute the concept of a coup in order to spark fear in people, justify police violence that may occur in the future, and intimidate a nation. The law cannot be manipulated for such purposes. Prosecutors’ right to open a case must be restricted by logic and rules of law,” the statement said.

The charging of the fans follows several ongoing court proceedings against other protesters in which prosecutors were also seeking harsh sentences. The cases were being prosecuted by a judiciary that like the police force in the past year has largely been cleansed of alleged supporters of Fethullalh Gulen, a frail, self-exiled 73-year old preacher, head of one of the world’s largest Islamist movements and one time Erdogan ally, whom the president accuses of seeking to create a parallel state in Turkey.

The legal proceedings in Istanbul and Cairo are part of an effort by the Egyptian and Turkish governments who despite differences over the Muslim Brotherhood both see cracking down on militant soccer fans as a pillar of their campaigns to severely restrict if not outlaw peaceful protest and dissent.

A vow by Ultras Ahlawy, the militant support group of Zamalek Cairo rival Al Ahli SC, to force their way into stadia where Egyptian premier league games are played came a week after they stormed Cairo’s International Stadium to make their point. It also came as Ultras Nahdawy (Renaissance Ultras), play a key role in months-long student protests on university campuses and in local neighbourhoods in the Egyptian capital against Mr. Al Sisi’s repressive regime and in favour of academic and other freedoms.

Nahdawy, whose name refers to the term used by the Brotherhood to describe its political and economic program, is the only militant soccer group that openly identifies itself as political and is not aligned with a club. The group, formed by Ahlawy and UWK members who sympathized with the Brotherhood that has been brutally suppressed by the Al Sisi regime and outlawed by Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, has since distanced itself from the group. Its leadership consists largely of university students while its rank and file are often still in high school.

“We took the culture of the ultras in the stadiums and tried to copy and paste it into the street,” a Nahdawy member and Ahli supporter told The Los Angeles Review of Books.

For a regime that has shown little mercy for its opponents, the Sisi government has balanced its tacit backing for the legal proceedings against UWK with a more deft approach to Ahlawy that holds the military and security forces responsible for the death of more than 70 of its members in a politically loaded brawl in 2012 in Port Said. The Egyptian Football Association (EFA) recently postponed a match between Al Ahli and the Port Said’s Al Masri SC, which haven’t faced off since the worst incident in Egyptian sport history.

Rather than confronting the ultras when they stormed the stadium last week, security forces negotiated their departure as well as their attendance under a temporary lifting of the spectator ban for Ahli’s match against Ivory Coast’s Sewe Sport The game earned Ahli the African club championship title. Ahlawy unfolded a huge banner during the match that referring to the ban asserted “Football is for Fans.”

In a statement on the Facebook page with its 1.1 million followers Ahlawy said that “the fans have every right to be present in stadiums and cheer on their teams. Therefore, Ultras Ahlawy group has decided to be present in the upcoming league games… We will be at Cairo Stadium to support our team even if we remained separated by a fence. We will no longer watch our team on television.”

The security forces’ response to Ahlawy’s insistence on attending matches will serve as a litmus test of whether their decision to negotiate rather than confront the fans before the African match constituted an exception in a successful bid to ensure that the game would take place or whether it signal’s the first softening of Mr. Al Sisi’s policies that have led to sentencing to death of hundreds of Muslim Brothers, the deaths of more than 1,000 protesters, and the incarceration of tens of thousands of critics of his regime.

Brutal police action radicalised the ultras in the waning years of the Mubarak regime and turned stadia into the only battlegrounds on which his opponents persistently confronted his repressive forces physically. The rise of the ultras and other militant fan groups not only in Egypt but also elsewhere in the Middle East and North Africa has repeatedly prompted governments since the popular revolts of 2011 to close stadia to the public. In an exception to the rule, Algerian authorities have tacitly agreed to allow fans to vent their pent-up anger and frustration in stadia provided they don’t take it from there into the streets.

In Turkey, the government has sought to drive a wedge between militant fans and other supporters by arguing that e-ticketing was a way to combat illegal ticket scalping, increase tax revenues and ensure that stadia are safe for families.

To be fair, Turkish stadia have a long history of violence. A third of Carsi’s original founders have died since the group’s founding in the early 1980s a violent death. A truce arranged at a gathering of heavily armed rival supporters after a Besiktas fan was trampled to death in 1991 by his Galatasaray SK adversaries reduced but did not put an end to the violence. Two Leeds United fans in Istanbul for their team’s match against Galatasaray were stabbed to death in 2000 during a soccer riot on Taksim. Stray bullets fired into the air to celebrate the Turkish team’s victory killed a third person and wounded four others.

The high stakes battle over e-ticketing goes to the heart of a struggle for Turkey’s soul that erupted with the mass anti-government Gezi Park protests in Istanbul in 2013 sparked by Mr. Erdogan’s increasingly illiberal policies that seek to impose greater control on people’s lives and restrictions on personal and political freedom and unfettered access to information. Fans moreover are irked by the president’s manipulation of due process in what was the most serious match fixing scandal in the history of Turkish soccer, a run-up to his squashing of an investigation into the most serious corruption scandal in his career.

Plummeting stadium attendance as a result of the e-ticket boycott has severely affected ticket sales. A match in October in Istanbul’s 82,000-seat Ataturk Olympic Stadium between Besiktas and Eskeshehirspor Kulubu that would normally have been attended by some 20- 30,000 spectators drew only 3,000 fans. Ticket sales for Galatasaray matches are down by two thirds with fans gathering in cafes and homes to watch matches they would have attended in the past.

The boycott prompted the government to suspend the e-ticketing system for a friendly in November between Turkey and Brazil. As a result, sales spiked with more than 40,000 tickets sold for the match shortly after the suspension.

The boycott, the court cases and the battle for stadium access all are elements of a struggle by militant soccer fans in Turkey and Egypt for their existence in an environment in which some, particularly in Egypt, feel that their options are being cut off with violence one of the few alternatives left.  “If anyone dies it’s a victory, if anyone goes to jail it’s a victory. And if we go back to the football stadium it’s the biggest victory for us,” a UWK member told the Los Angeles Review of Books.

Published in permission with James M. Dorsey, a senior fellow at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies, co-director of the University of Wuerzburg’s Institute for Fan Culture, and the author of The Turbulent World of Middle East Soccer blog and a forthcoming book with the same title.