Raucous Soccer Fans Make Ideal Egyptian Protesters

Raging soccer fans have been active in the popular uprising in Egypt. They made news recently when dozens of them were killed in a riot at a soccer stadium in northern Egypt. The riot appears to have rejuvenated their political resolve, and they are being linked to violent protests against the ruling generals.

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Egypt is still reeling from the deadly riot earlier this month at a soccer match. Seventy-four people died. The attackers and victims were raucous soccer fans known as ultras. The riot was the worst in Egyptian soccer history. It sparked another round of protests against the ruling generals in Cairo and other Egyptian cities. Many Egyptians blame the police for not doing enough to stop the bloodbath.

And as NPR's Soraya Sarhaddi Nelson reports from Cairo, the survivors are vowing revenge.

SORAYA SARHADDI NELSON, BYLINE: Ultra Mamdouh Eid takes his commitment to soccer very seriously. The architectural engineer wears a training suit of the popular al Ahly team, whose fan club the 27-year-old helps manage. Team memorabilia adorn his lavish home on the outskirts of Cairo. Eid explains his obsession.

MAMDOUH EID: It's more of a mentality and a way of life and a way of thinking.

NELSON: It's all about supporting the team, he says, adding they'll stand during an entire match cheering and trying to drown out their rival's fans. Eid says the ultras' passion makes them ideal protestors.

EID: That soul is always fighting for the freedom and for the liberty to do what they believe in.

NELSON: Sometimes that passion translates into violence at games between rival groups of ultras. But the ultras were also quick to join the uprising that ousted Hosni Mubarak from the presidency a year ago this month.

They penned anthems like this one posted on Youtube that are still sung by millions here. The lyrics warn officials that the government's time is at an end.

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UNIDENTIFIED GROUP: (Chanting in foreign language)

NELSON: Such threats and the ultras' significant role in the revolution deepened a long-standing enmity between the authorities and these soccer fans. Analyst James Dorsey is the Singapore-based author of the blog The Turbulent World of Middle East Soccer, and closely tracks Egypt's ultras.

JAMES DORSEY: Under the Mubarak regime, and particularly in the last decade, the soccer pitch became a battlefield. It was, together with the mosque, the only place where people could release pent up anger and frustration.

NELSON: Since then, Cairo's Tahrir Square has become another outlet. And the Ultras - with their in-your-face approach and charged slogans - are often there. These days, they protest against the generals who took over after Mubarak left. But they never miss a soccer game, including in Port Said. The fatal riot happened there following a match between the Ahly and al Masry teams.

When Masry won, its fans poured onto the field and began attacking their rivals. By many accounts, policemen in the stadium did not intervene. The Interior Minister said the officers turned out the lights to get people to leave. A stampede ensued. But the main stadium gates were locked.

Analyst Dorsey says the incident sparked a widespread backlash by a shocked Egyptian public.

DORSEY: I think, increasingly, the sense is that what happened in Port Said was not spontaneous but that it was planned and deliberate.

NELSON: The attack also generated rare empathy for the ultras among Egyptians who deplore their extreme antics.

One is Fadhi Bebawi. He's been watching the ongoing protests near the Interior Ministry from his pharmacy. He says his business is suffering but he dismisses media reports that say the ultras are responsible.

FADHI BEBAWI: Killing because of football is not Egyptian, it's not human anyway. But the ultras did not do anything here.

NELSON: Bebawi, like many Egyptians, also blames the security forces for failing to prevent the ultra deaths in Port Said. For their part, the ruling generals and appointed ministers have denied any responsibility. Their fact-finding team blames the fans and stadium managers for what happened.

Ultra Mahmdouh Eid says he and his friends don't believe that explanation. He adds, what happened in Port Said only strengthens their resolve to fight for their rights.

EID: We want justice for our losses and we won't do stupid actions to lose the rights of the people that we already lost.

NELSON: Exactly what they will do, Eid won't say. He adds that, for now, he and other ultras are mourning their friends who were killed.

Soraya Sarhaddi Nelson, NPR News, Cairo.

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