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In Egypt, Military Blamed For Targeting Soccer Fans


There were more protests today in Egypt stemming from anger over violence at a soccer match on Wednesday, when more than 70 people died. It involved groups of extreme soccer fans, known as Ultras in countries around the world. In Egypt, they play a central role in political conflict going back years.

Adel Iskandar, of Georgetown University, has written about the Ultras and he explains their roots.

PROFESSOR ADEL ISKANDAR: The Egyptian Ultras groups are groups that came together at a time when the police state was extremely suffocating for youth in the country. And they came together because it was the only venue, the only environment where they could support something publicly and gather in large numbers and be organized. So, it almost became sort of an alternative or a de facto political party. And, while at the outset the original loyalty that they had was to the team, but their greater goals are actually deeply-seated values and principles that challenge the political structure in the country.

BLOCK: What was the role of the Ultras in Egypt during the Arab Spring last year? What did they do?

ISKANDAR: Well, the Ultras don't like to take credit for things. But anybody who was in Tahrir Square, for instance, in Egypt during the 18 days - especially during the moments of significant confrontation with the police - will recognize that the Ultras played a major role in protecting the protesters against Mubarak's forces. They came in and attacked them.

But many of them, you know, came out without their banners, without their flags, without their slogans, so as to meld into the Egyptian society, so that they didn't appear to be factional or divisive in any way.

BLOCK: This melding of the Ultras, the soccer fans, with the politics in Egypt is fascinating. I want to play some tape from a soccer match last year after the fall of the Mubarak regime.


BLOCK: Adel Iskander, what are they chanting here?

ISKANDAR: Well, in this case, these are the Ultras' fans of El Zamalek, they're called the Ultras' White Knight. And in this case, there is saying: We have not forgotten Tahrir, and sort of a slew of profanities directed at the police force. So, in this case, they're taunting the police and telling them we haven't forgotten Tahrir; we're willing to take you on again and you're not going to take us back to the prerevolutionary days; that, you know, we're the leaders of our own destiny.

BLOCK: How do you explain what happened this week? This was fans of one team attacking another with pipes, with clubs, throwing them off the stands and at the same time, the accusation is now made that the security forces, the police who were at the stadium, stood by and allowed this to happen precisely because these Ultras were in the vanguard of the revolutionaries. They were the foot soldiers on the streets. And in a way, one politician has called this black vengeance against the Ultras because of their role in the revolution.

Do you think that's a plausible argument to be made?

ISKANDAR: I think it's not a particularly implausible argument. It's convincing to a large extent. At the very least, I think, most fingers are being pointed at the Supreme Council for the Armed Forces, because if one were to judge and assess their ability to manage the country's transition - if they cannot guard a small stadium in Port Said and prevent fans from attacking others and costing this many lives, then how can they manage the country?

BLOCK: I've been talking with Adel Iskandar, a lecturer in media studies at Georgetown University. He's working on a book on Egypt's revolution.

Adel Iskandar, thanks so much for coming in.

ISKANDAR: Thanks for having me. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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