Soccer: A Surprising Player In Egypt's Unrest

Violent protests are breaking out in Egypt, just two years after a massive uprising led to the fall of the former dictator. One of the unexpected driving forces is soccer. Host Michel Martin talks to Dave Zirin, sports editor at The Nation about how the sport affects Egypt's political landscape.

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MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

I'm Michel Martin and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. Later in the program, we are going to learn what we can about a very sad story out of Chicago. An honor student who had just performed at President Obama's inauguration was shot to death this week just about a mile north of the president's Chicago home. It was apparently a case of mistaken identity. We'll try to find out more in just a few minutes.

But, first, more on Egypt. Since the Arab Spring protests began, we've heard a lot about how traditional players, like the military and a once banned group, the Muslim Brotherhood, are shaping the country's political life now, but there's another unlikely player that we are starting to learn more about: soccer fan clubs.

As we talked about earlier, violent protests have been going on in the coastal city of Port Said. This came after 21 people were sentenced to death in connection with a riot a year earlier after a soccer match in which scores of people died. Some were beaten or stabbed, but most people died of asphyxiation after they were crushed against locked stadium doors.

Now, many members of these clubs, as well as their families, have been outraged by these sentences. Dave Zirin has just written about Egypt's popular soccer fan clubs and the role they are playing in what is going on in Egypt, so we have asked him to tell us more. He is, of course, a frequent participant in our Friday Barbershop roundtable. He's sports editor of The Nation, where his piece was just published.

Welcome back, Dave. Thanks so much for joining us.

DAVE ZIRIN: Well, great to be here, Michel.

MARTIN: So tell us about these soccer fan clubs. I understand that they are known as Ultras. They are mostly young Egyptian men. Tell us, how popular are they? How many people belong to them?

ZIRIN: Absolutely. I mean, Ultras exist in countries all around the world. It's another name for hyper-intense fan clubs for the local soccer teams. Now, it's not uncommon in autocracies to give these Ultras far more liberties in the streets of the country than other, say, more traditional political protesters would have.

It's generally seen as something that they can blow off steam. They go in the streets. They fight. They fight the police. They fight each other. They set off fireworks and people like Hosni Mubarak thought for decades that, well, this is fine because it's not political.

Now, after Tahrir Square started to swell and build and the revolution started to build with the Arab Spring two years ago, the Ultras found themselves in Tahrir Square and they found themselves, to the surprise of everybody, not to themselves and to the more traditional protesters, to actually have a position of leadership inside of Tahrir Square because they were the people who had the most experience in how to fight the state police, how to set up a checkpoint, how to secure an area and even how to set up various pyro distractions from the state police. And they earned a great deal of respect among the more traditional reform and revolutionary forces because of their - really, their endurance and willingness to fight the state police for hours on end.

MARTIN: And what's the role in what's going on now? We just heard from Cairo bureau chief Leila Fadel about the protests and she talked a lot about how a lot of these are motivated by just a lot of anger about the fact that people's lives have not improved. But what about these specific groups that you're talking about, the Ultras? Do they have a specific role in what's going on now?

ZIRIN: Yes, absolutely. One of the things that's made them consistent and continual fighters over the last two years is that their focus has always been on the violent edge of the state apparatus of Egypt and, as your last interview made clear, that has not changed. Whether it was under Mubarak, under the military junta and now under President Mohamed Morsi, it's the same figures as in a straight line of continuum.

And over 800 people have died in the last two years in various protests and whatnot and no one has had to stand trial for that. And there were a lot of hopes that, after the massacre in Port Said - or it's really the soccer riot - the deaths of 74 people at the stadium in Port Said after a soccer match - that people in the state apparatus would be held to account because it was thought by the leading political figures, by the head of the Egyptian Soccer Federation even, put out statements saying, we don't blame the soccer fans. We blame the state police because they allowed people to be asphyxiated against the doors and against the bleachers and it was something that got out of control.

So it was widespread in Egyptian society that the fault for the 74 deaths in Port Said was with the state apparatus and yet, when 21 people were sentenced to be hanged, not one member of the security forces or the state police were among those 21 people. So among the families and among the Ultra fan clubs in Port Said for a team called Al-Masry, they have been in a state of upheaval about that and Al-Ahly, the people whose fans were killed - at first, they put out words of - not celebration, but just appreciation for the verdict, but that very quickly soured as they saw what was taking place around them.

MARTIN: I just want to play a short clip from a young Egyptian soccer fan. This is from an interview that we heard on Al Jazeera. This is from a young man named Mohamed Saad.

MOHAMED SAAD: (Through Translator) Ultras are there. We were among the first to support the revolution, alongside the rest of the youths. We fought against Mubarak and then against the military. The Port Said massacre was an act of retaliation by interior ministry forces because of this.

MARTIN: Can you explain that, Dave Zirin, that the idea that this - that what happened to all these people was somehow retaliation by - for the role that these young men played in the revolution? Explain that.

ZIRIN: Sure. Of course, what I'm about to say is both theory and conjecture, but I should make clear that this is theory and conjecture that's shared by - that was said by spokespeople in the Muslim Brotherhood. They were not the ruling party at the time, of course. The military was still in power. Said by every political party in Egypt and, in fact, and as I said before, said by the head of the Egyptian Soccer Federation. It caused the most popular player in Egypt, a player named Mohammed Abu Trika, to actually quit and retire from the sport. He was so disgusted by what he saw that day and what he saw the state officials do.

What happened was Al-Masry won the game three to one against Al-Ahly and it was considered to be an upset and very exciting. They stormed the field. They engaged in violence. There were stabbings. There were beatings and then thousands of Al-Ahly fans attempted to flee and you can see this on video. This is well available online and I link to it at my article on The Nation. There is video evidence of the state police standing by idly while people are getting crushed when they had the capacity to either open the doors or, at the very least, try to clear the crowds away.

So they are given a lot of the blame and so, when people in Port Said see 21 people about to be hanged to death because of what took place, yet see the state not be called into account, it raises then a ton of other issues. It becomes a Pandora's Box for all the ways that there hasn't been justice in the last two years in instances of state violence.

MARTIN: OK. Very briefly, Dave Zirin, to the degree that you can determine this, what is the - how are these current protests affecting the people's attitude about the soccer clubs? Because, as you indicated earlier, they got a lot of respect for their endurance, for their smarts, for their kind of tactical skill - if you want to call it that - during the Arab Spring protests. What about now? How are they being viewed now in the wake of this?

ZIRIN: Well, they're being viewed as being the most courageous and consistent fighters against a regime that is growing in unpopularity and this is very interesting because, certainly, people don't associate sports fandom with these kinds of street actions.

MARTIN: Dave Zirin is sports editor of The Nation. He's host of Sirius XM's "Edge of Sports" and he was kind enough to join us today from NPR's bureau in New York.

Dave Zirin, thank you for joining us.

ZIRIN: My privilege, Michel.

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