Reclaim the Spectacle: Ultras Fandom and the Politics of the Sporting Event in Egypt

Ronnie Close, The American University in Cairo


The Ultras football fans in Cairo became a counter-hegemonic force to the Egyptian state through their participation in the spectacle of sport. This exuberant fandom constituted a vast social movement that operated across a historic period of upheaval (2007–2018), preceding the 2011 uprising and into the authoritarian rule of Al Sisi’s regime. The Ultras were a part of the street activism that ousted the Egyptian president, Hosni Mubarak, and, although affiliated to different teams in the domestic league, they often joined forces in the battles against the corrupt rule of the National Democratic Party (NDP). The Port Said incident a year later, on February 1, 2012, saw 72 Al Ahly Ultras (UA07) die and hundreds injured in a violent attack at a football game in the port city. This tragic event projected the Ultras back onto the political stage, but this time as revolutionary martyrs. The motivation behind this orchestrated attack most likely came from within the military regime, in a reprisal for the role some Ultras played in the 2011 protests. This violence was likely strategically designed to intimidate the opposition at a time of transition as the military sought out ways to regain control, thereby reasserting vertical power relations in Egypt.

Although the Ultras phenomenon first emerged in Europe, it has become deep-rooted in the MENA region over the last decades. The first Ultras group to appear in Egypt was the UA07, founded in 2007 and affiliated with Egypt’s most successful club, Al Ahly S.C., which has a rich football heritage. This team dates back more than a century, having been established in 1907 during a period of anticolonial struggle against British rule. As in the case of other Arab countries, Egypt’s nationalists used football as part of their independence struggle and the Al Ahly club was founded by leading figures, such as Saad Zaghloul, to conceal their political activities in the conflict against colonial rule. The establishment of a domestic football league followed, and Al Ahly was the first club to allow Egyptians to become members. A century later, Egypt’s Ultras were formed in 2007 to emulate other existing fan associations, such as Morocco’s Green Boys Ultras affiliated to Casablanca’s Raja F.C, and the Ultras L’Emkachkhines of the Espérance Sportive de Tunis F.C. Like their other MENA counterparts, Cairo’s Ultras fused the contentious “hooligan mentality” of the Ultras with North African sensibilities to challenge political authority of Arab states through their own brand of football fan behavior. The Ultras of Morocco, Algeria, Tunisia, and Egypt have a subversive allure for the disaffected youth population of these regulated societies because they upheld raucous attitudes that are often antiauthoritarian in character and opposed to the commodification of sport. This fusion of male bravado, posturing, and antagonistic displays was an explosive combination within a tightly controlled police state like Egypt, and Cairo’s Ultras commanded the football terrace space through their visceral display of collective power. Mubarak’s regime perceived this brash youthful attitude as a threat to state power and, over time, members were arrested, harassed, and tortured in Egypt’s infamous incarceration system. Partially as a consequence of such oppression the appeal of the Ultras extended over the domestic football league as rival groups were formed in other cities to number a total of twelve Ultras groups associated with different teams across the nation.

The extraordinary political upheavals during 2011 challenged the Egyptian Ultras groups in new ways. Despite their history of conflict with the police state the Ultras publicly avoided direct political involvement and preferred a sport-based stance. When protesters first took to the streets in 2011, the main organizations, UA07, Ultras Devils, and Ultras White Knights (UWK), remained ambivalent towards joining the opposition movements in Cairo and elsewhere, reiterating the neutral stance of football on social media platforms. Regardless of the widespread claims to the contrary, there is only circumstantial evidence to affirm their role in the political drama, from January 25 to February 11, that forced Mubarak to resign. However, individual members felt they had considerable reason to support the 2011 uprising and confront the state, because they were, like many, moved to participating in street activism. Therefore, protests included members of the Ultras movements and they were involved in the clashes with the police and security forces. The Ultras did defend the Tahrir Square camp from state violence and in November 2011 one well-known member, Karika, was shot by the police in clashes. This was proof of the Ultras’ involvement in the revolutionary politics of the time and forced the UA07 group to post condolences for Karika on the group’s Facebook page. As Mohamed, a former member, put it: “The bullet just went in the air and hit him. He died, passed away but it struck us too.”[1] The historical narrative of the Ultras changed at this point as they acted on long-held grievances akin to much of the youth population.

The unifying movement of 2011 was traumatically undermined in a catalogue of brutal attacks on street protesters by the military state, and political uncertainty followed. Such state repression targeted the Ultras groups, amongst others, and the death of Karika accelerated the conflict between the newfound political agency of this football subculture and the military regime that set about dismantling the spirit of activism in 2011. This was illustrated most vividly by the Port Said incident in 2012, when approximately one thousand Al Ahly fans travelled from Cairo to the coastal city of Port Said for a mid-week domestic league match against Al Masry F.C., the local team. This fixture was of no particular significance in football terms but there had been a history of antagonism between the fans built up over intercity rivalries, and Port Said’s Green Eagles Ultras had a reputation for violence. As the match concluded, Al Masry was rather uncharacteristically ahead 3:1 when the home crowd invaded the pitch for a second time, armed with various weapons, including knives and clubs. The ensuing violence resulted in the death of dozens of UA07 fans, shown live on TV to a shocked public audience. This violent rerouting of the football game from sporting fixture to murderous spectacle sought to refute the Ultras their political agency and highlight their notoriety on the national stage. This single traumatic attack had a devastating impact on UA07 group collectivity and reminded the wider public of the brutal potency of the military regime; a message broadcast on media channels in real time to a traumatized nation. There was an initial emotional response to the violent incident across the nation but, ultimately, Port Said acted as a blockage to the Ultras movement thereby serving the interests of the political hegemony. The criminal investigative process was flawed, with only four full‐body autopsies performed and little forensic evidence gathered on site, which hindered the legal proceedings in court cases that followed.

Cairo’s Ultras believe that the murderous attack in Port Said was not a random tragedy but a reprisal that had been anticipated by many inside the domestic football community. The death of Karika in November 2011 had occurred during one of the most violent episodes that became known as the “battle of Mohamed Mahmoud,” when over fifty protesters were murdered in a five-day period.[2] This street was a focal point as it was adorned with revolutionary murals and led into Tahrir Square’s protest camp. Also, these clashes occurred at a point when the activist opposition movements had lost coherence and the security apparatus sought to exert control over the fluid situation. The shooting of Karika radicalized the movement as the military escalated the violence against protesters, and the transition process into democratic politics was further stalled.

A league game was scheduled between Cairo’s Al Ahly and Ghazl Al Mahalla F.C. in the Nile delta in what the UA07 believe was a dress rehearsal for the Port Said attack.[3] During the New Year’s Eve game, the local fans invaded the pitch and attempted to attack the Cairo fans in a tense atmosphere. Later, as the Al Ahly fans returned home they were shot at by police near the Presidential Palace in Cairo. Preceding the Port Said game there was a pattern of violence emerging in the domestic league.[4] After the Mahalla game, the situation compelled Al Ahly’s Ultras to seek a resolution with other fan groups; they met with their Cairo rivals, Zamalek’s Ultras White Knights (derby game was to follow in February 2012) and even Green Eagles Ultras (before Port Said), amongst others groups in Alexandria and Ismailia. However, with the exception of the UWK, these attempts at unifying Ultras in solidarity to decrease tensions was unsuccessful as old animosities prevailed ahead of the Port Said fixture. Ahmed, a former UA07 member comments that, “they [Green Eagles Ultras] wanted revenge, with the help of the police, and the army…they collaborated with them to get rid of Ultras Ahlawy because of the headache we caused them. They all conspired against us.”[5]

Ominously, before the game in Port Said, Cairo’s Ultras were heavily controlled by police upon arriving in the city and were removed from trains before the main station. In the stadium, the atmosphere was aggressive and the Al Ahly players could not even warm up on the pitch because of the hostile home crowd. The ugly atmosphere was increased by the Al Masry fans taunting the Cairo fans with a banner reading “Death is Here” and warning them on Facebook to bring a Kafan (the Muslim white martyrdom sheet) with them to Port Said. Furthermore, despite the history of crowd violence at football games a new head of security was appointed in Port Said just days before the game, adding to the speculation that the violent attack was planned by the security apparatus. The ensuing violence at the end of the game was seen on TV and widely reported by media channels. The Al Ahly players had to escape quickly to the dressing room and the injured and dying fans were brought there for safety. As the morgues filled up with the bodies of the dead in Port Said, the injured UA07 fans were flown to hospitals in Cairo, while other survivors made their way back by train to the capital. Farid, a former member who was seriously injured, described the dejected mood:

After we landed at Almaza airport we met the military ruler [Al Sisi], who was then the Field Marshal, welcoming us. You planned this for us, then welcome us when we get back with chocolate and water with the media here. No one had any energy to object to what was happening. We were all traumatized.[6]

Immediately following the Port Said incident, the domestic football league was suspended. Over the next years, only some African Championships and international fixtures permitted fans to attend stadium games under heavy police presence. Football games in Egypt were mostly played inside empty ghost stadia and this curtailment of fans blocked the Ultras groups from their aesthetic expressions in the grandeur of Cairo Stadium, with an official capacity of 75,000 but often holding 120,000 spectators in the past. Under emergency legislation, the main Ultras groups, UA07, Ultras Devils, and UWK, were classified as terrorist organizations by the Al Sisi regime in 2015 and were prohibited from gaining access to football matches. Cairo’s Ultras responded to the football ban by switching from football to other less high-profile team sports. These, however, had far smaller stadium spaces, and so the prohibition of football spectatorship fractured the sense of the Ultras community. Moreover, the heightened police harassment saw hundreds of members imprisoned on spurious charges. As a result of this state crackdown, the UA07 and UWK disbanded in 2018 with the symbolic burning of the Ultras banners, although some members dispute the credulity of the staged events. Nonetheless, the dissolution of the groups enabled some prison releases of members but the North African Ultra scene had lost its iconic groups, signalling the end of the Ultras era in Egyptian football culture.

This brief profile of the Ultras movement in Egypt outlines a political process that confronted power head on and paid a heavy price. In a society governed by autocratic rule and a chronic lack of socioeconomic mobility, the Ultras football fan movement embodied the radicality of horizontal social relations—albeit compromised by heteronormative gender structures but nonetheless subversive to the status quo. The dramatic deaths in Port Said can be seen as a single event amongst others that demonstrate the extreme manifestation of violent state power. Port Said was a public trauma designed to bring down to earth the emboldened Ultras youth and block other radical actors from assuming meaningful political agency. The rather short-lived social emancipation of the 2011 uprising and the sense of hope it offered for a different future no longer exists. Military regime rule and emergency laws operate as a normal state of affairs, while an acquiescent media continues to censor and divert any public malcontent.

Over their short lifespan, the Ultras groups in Egypt attempted to emerge as political beings—self-aware and self-determined, mostly from working-class communities—to reinterpret what it means to be a football fan. The momentous political awakening of 2011 has faded from the event horizon but those experiences are retained as eidetic memories, abstracted but still real for many, including Cairo’s Ultras. By acting as though they were indeed equal to those above them, the Ultras’ activism disrupted the dominate social order itself. Despite the claustrophobic political atmosphere in contemporary Egypt, the sorry state of its football league, and the absence of the Ultras as an organized domestic force, some of the idealism is still visible as the movement lives on. One sign of hope occurred on the eleventh anniversary of the Port Said incident in February 2023 as the Al Ahly team played in the FIFA Club World Cup in Morocco. Over the course of four games, ending with a high-profile match against Real Madrid, Egyptian Ultras were visible in the stadium and displayed a large banner defiantly emblazed with the prescient words “Never Forget” in English. This slogan was utilized by UA07 in the aftermath of Port Said in 2012 through various materials, such as t-shirts, graffiti, and murals. However, these words can serve as a timely reminder to those quick to dispatch the potency of the Ultras phenomenon in Egypt to the historical past. On April 23, 2023, at an African Champions League quarter finals fixture between Al Ahly and Casablanca’s Rafa team, the security state reacted when football fans were attacked inside the stadium and suspected Ultras members arrested.[7] As the Al Sisi regime flounders under economic uncertainty and widespread public discord it remains determined to repress the Ultras phenomenon and control football culture in Egypt.

[1] Interview with author, Cairo, 2023. Credit to Abdullah Nasaf for translation work on the interviews.

[2] “5 Arrested for Protesting in Memory of Mohamed Mahmoud Clashes,” Mada Masr, November 19, 2015,

[3] Interview with author, Cairo, 2023. Credit to Abdullah Nasaf for translation work on the interviews.

[4] A conference held at Cairo University in 2012 examined the management of football fans at matches and the overall mismanagement of the domestic league at the time; Ultras groups were excluded from the event. Sherif Tarek, “Ahly Ultras Show Patience in Quest for Justice, but for How Long?” Ahram Online, February 19, 2012,,-bu.aspx.

[5] Interview with author, Cairo, 2023. Credit to Abdullah Nasaf for translation work on the interviews.

[6] Farid interview with author, Cairo, 2023. Credit to Abdullah Nasaf for translation work on the interviews.

[7] Football fans were attacked and arrested by police and secret police in Cairo at an Al Ahly match against Moroccan team Raja in the quarter-finals of the African Champions League. “Assaults on Football Fans: New Instance of the Egyptian Police State,” Egypt Watch, April 28, 2012,