Football was extremely popular in Egypt under the dictatorship of Hosni Mubarak. Mubarak himself encouraged this as a way to build national spirit and channel attention away from his repressive regime. Because dissenting political organizations were prohibited, intrepid young Egyptians flowed into networks of Ultras, fanatical football enthusiasts. During games, these “apolitical” groups engaged in increasingly open conflict with the police. When the revolution broke out in January 2011, they were at the front of the clashes, and their songs and cultural signifiers spread far and wide along with the street-fighting tactics they had developed.
In the ferment of social upheaval, energy sublimated into vicarious pursuits returns to real concerns—while the apparently irrational violence of marginalized groups can become a gift to all, reintegrating excluded sectors of the population and excluded practices, such as self-defense, into public life.
“The more they tried to put pressure on us, the more we grew in cult status. The Ministry and the media, they would call us a gang, call us violent… It wasn’t just supporting a team; we were fighting the system and the country as a whole. Our role was to make people dream, letting them know if a cop hits you, you can hit them back.”
–Egyptian Ultra from Al Ahlawy, quoted by CNN