Cairo's Red Devils: From Football Fans to Revolutionary Heroes

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Hard-core fans of Cairo's Al-Ahly football club have played a leading role in contesting authorities both during and since Egypt's revolution. Though they have powerful enemies and many have died in recent violence, they refuse to be cowed.

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It's a cool February evening in Cairo's Tahrir Square, and Omar has covered his face with a black-and-white kaffiyeh scarf. He's wearing faded jeans and a hooded sweatshirt. His eyes are still red and swollen from teargas the night before.

Omar points to a side street that leads from Tahrir Square to the Ministry of the Interior. Half-burnt car tires and toppled dumpsters lie along the sidewalk.

"We've been fighting in these streets for months," he says. "In November, they hurt one of our guys really bad. He's blind now, but we still take him to all the games."

The wiry, young man is an avid football fan and an "ultra" for Al-Ahly, Egypt's best-known football club. Ultras are the hard-core fans, the ones who give everything for their club. Although the movement started in Europe, it has also taken root among Africa's largest clubs in recent years. Ultras are passionate, loud and occasionally violent. The al-Ahly ultras call themselves the "Red Devils" and welcome their team onto the field with flares.

The young men are mainly concerned with having fun. But now they've been thrust into the center of Egypt's political storm.

War in the Stands

In early February, the greatest catastrophe in the history of Egyptian football shocked the country and the world. Al-Ahly, the Cairo team that has dominated the Egyptian league for seven seasons, played an away match against its rival al-Masry in the city of Port Said, about 200 kilometers (125 miles) northeast of Cairo on the Suez Canal. After the final whistle, thousands of fans stormed the pitch, armed with knives, clubs and even guns. Security forces either pulled back or merely watched as the mob attacked defenseless al-Ahly fans in their section of the stadium.

The young men were driven against a wall and beaten. Then, mass panic broke out. With the back gates of the stadium locked, the stadium became a death trap impossible to escape. In the end, the clashes would leave 74 dead and over a thousand wounded.

Omar never misses one of his club's matches and was in the Port Said stadium, as well. He watched helplessly as friends bled to death until he was attacked himself. A man with a knife approached and ordered him to remove his al-Ahly jersey. "Now my time is up," Omar thought. But then he stumbled out of the stands and ran for his life until the attacker lost sight of him.

"They wanted to wage war on us that night," Omar recalls in a trembling voice.

Hard-Core Fan Culture

Omar is 18-years-old and graduated from secondary school a year ago. The young man, who prefers not to provide his real name, has belonged to the Red Devils for years.

Ultras see themselves as the avant-garde of fan culture. The groups are tightly organized and self-contained. Their leader, known as "capo," uses a megaphone to lead chants that are repeated in unison by fans in the stadium.

Although Omar isn't sure exactly how many Red Devils there are, he estimates their number at between 5,000 and 10,000. Only the capo knows the actual figure. Most of them are students, unemployed people or blue-collar workers between the ages of 16 and 26. Each Red Devil is assigned a specific role. Some just sing or drum, while the tougher among them are sometimes called upon to pick fights with the police or groups of rival fans. Omar is one of the flag bearers.

Heroes of the Revolution

Omar wasn't sure at first whether he wanted to speak with a journalist. For ultras, the media are not considered allies. And in the wake of the attack in Port Said, the Red Devils have grown even more cautious. They trust no one.

"The military council, the police and the old regime want to annihilate us because we supported the revolution," Omar says.

The al-Ahly ultras were founded in 2007. The group advertised itself as "the only genuine opposition of young Egyptians" already during the dictatorship of Hosni Mubarak. They would organize clashes with police at games without fearing their billy clubs or tear gas.

Cairo's Red Devils were also there when the mass protests against Mubarak's regime broke out on Jan. 25, 2011. Their most important battle of the revolution occurred soon thereafter, on Feb. 2, the day of the so-called "camel fight." Mubarak's henchmen tried to storm Tahrir Square on camels and horses. The Red Devils fought back with determination and drove the horsemen from the square. But, more than anything, they helped other demonstrators overcome their fear -- and, in doing so, became heroes of the revolution.

Rumors now circulating in Cairo claim that the old regime orchestrated the attack in Port Said as a way of exacting revenge on the Red Devils. Witnesses say that only the al-Ahly fans were searched for weapons before the game. On the night of the match, there were noticeably fewer policemen on duty in the stadium than usual. Some have even suggested that groups of thugs were secretly herded into the stadium during the game.

In the wake of the Port Said attack, the Egyptian Football Association indefinitely suspended matches in the country's top league.

Born for Confrontation

Al-Ahly's clubhouse lies among a vast expanse of gardens and parks on Gazira Island, located on the Nile River in central Cairo. A large sign over the entrance reads "Only God is eternal" to commemorate club fans killed in Port Said. Passing drivers will stop to offer up prayers to the deceased. A sidewalk vendor sells club memorabilia, such as keychains bearing the names of the club's stars, as well as wristbands and fireworks.

Al-Ahly is the largest football club in Egypt and one of the most successful on the continent. In 2000, the Confederation of African Football (CAF) voted it the continent's "Club of the Century." Nationalist-minded students founded the club in 1907, during a time when football and politics were already inseparable in Egypt. Wishing to send a message to their British colonial rulers, the club's founders named it al-Ahly, or "the National." They also made the players' jerseys red, the color of Egypt's pre-colonial flag.

Al-Ahly's arch nemesis, Zamalek, was supported by the country's unpopular Egyptian ruler, King Farouk. It was a team of British officers and affluent Egyptians. Their jersey's were white, the symbolic color of colonialism.

Even after Egypt gained its independence in 1953, Zamalek strengthened its reputation as the club of the middle and upper classes, while al-Ahly became a club for a hodgepodge of working-class Islamists and nationalists. Their fans have passionately hated each other to this day, and their matches regularly devolve into street battles.

The Zamalek ultras call themselves the "White Knights." Omar, the al-Ahly flag-bearer, is blunt when discussing his club's rivals. "We don't like the Knights, and they don't like us," he says.

Joining Forces against a Common Enemy

These days, though, animosity between the two ultra groups has been overshadowed by a new common enemy. A few weeks ago, they even came to a reconciliation agreement. In a statement on their website, the White Knights offered a truce "for the good of Egypt." The Red Devils accepted by putting a smiley-face icon on their homepage.

"We have a common enemy that we both profoundly despise: the ravens," says Omar, referring to the black-uniformed and universally hated security forces. Al-Ahly has even come up with a song about the ravens that has achieved cult status throughout the ultra scene. One part goes: "He was already always incapable, and he was only able to get a proper high school degree with a bribe. Come on, you raven, why are you destroying what's beautiful in our country?"

The song is one of many meant to taunt the police. Omar even believes the songs might have led police to take revenge on al-Ahly fans on that tragic night in Port Said.

In recent years, football has been a constant problem for those in power in Egypt. Stadiums have transformed into open spaces in which people let of steam -- most of which is anger directed toward the ruling regime.

In an effort to keep fan protests in check, the state has deployed riot police and soldiers at matches. At the same time, politicians and the military have tried to co-opt the clubs so as to be able to better control them. But those in power have never managed to rein in the ultra movement.

Commemorating the Fallen, Continuing the Fight

Many large Egyptian clubs now have hard-core fan bases that don't shy away from violent confrontations with the police. "We love our club unconditionally," Omar says. But now the ultras are also fighting for their country, for the idea of a new society.

The Red Devils' flag can now be seen every day in Tahrir Square. The fans have not allowed themselves to be cowed by the attacks in Port Said. In fact, they may have even grown stronger.

Omar took part in the street battles with police in the days following the Port Said massacre. He joined thousands of other demonstrators as they tried to storm the Ministry of the Interior. They threw stones at police vans and demanded the "field marshal's head," referring to Mohamed Hussein Tantawi, the commander of the Egyptian armed forces and leader of the ruling military council. While unleashing their rage, the Red Devils of al-Ahly have fought side by side with the White Nights of Zamalek.

Indeed, both clubs are now intent on sending a message. The clubs' presidents have announced a friendly match "in memory of the martyrs" of Port Said. It will be the first game played since the catastrophe. Al-Ahly players plan to wear black shirts to commemorate the fallen among their ranks.

Omar won't be at the game. He says it's still too early for him to think about football. He first wants to avenge the death of his friends. He is awaiting his capo's orders.

Translated from the German by Alex Macbeth

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