Coworkers today, knowing of my deep interest in football supporter culture, asked me what I thought of what happened in Egypt yesterday, where 70+ people were killed in violence in Port Said after a match in which al-Masri defeated visitors al-Ahly 3–1. I meekly responded that the football pitch is often a proxy for the society around it, since nothing I had read so far about the violence sounded right. Violence on that scale at a football match—I’m thinking of Heysel and Hillsborough—features vital extenuating circumstances that move the catastrophe beyond a question of “hooliganism” or something similar that is as easy to excuse as it is to pathologize (and, in fact, the former relies on the latter).
I’m not even a semi-pro on Egypt or Egyptian football. But I do remember reading about how ultras groups had participated in the street protests (and been crucial to the organization of said) against the Mubarak regime. This makes perfect sense. Ultras can boast of two main characteristics that help in these endeavors, despite their often apolitical official positions: top-notch organization and deep knowledge of police tactics. It’s not surprising that the Cairo ultras groups—those supporting al-Ahly and those supporting their bitter rivals Zamalek—have long-standing beef with the Egyptian police, and that as recently as last week the al-Ahly ultras were using the space of the stadium to air their grievances against the post-revolutionary Egyptian state, which remains a far cry from the democratic fantasies of Tahrir only a year removed.
So as a non-expert, what more can I add? As anyone who has talked to me at length about my ideas regarding supporter culture (or has read what I have written about it) may recall, the willing participation in the collective mass object of the ultras group of a (democracy?) of (liberal) political atoms—individual agents—suggests a means of thinking political action differently in our current moment. Ultras are often criticized with vocabulary identical to that used to criticize other, more obviously political contemporary actors, like Anonymous and #Occupy: “inarticulate,” “inconsistent,” “uncertain.” But these collective objects are also, to some extent, effective.
The Zamalek and al-Ahly ultras may not have caused or led the protests in Tahrir, but their role was important, as was their continued support of their democracy-minded neighbors, as one can see in this video of Zamalek’s Ultras White Knights:
Look at the signage. Even with no Arabic, one can notice the old Libyan flags, at least one Tunisian flag, V’s logo from V for Vendetta. “We rule Egypt,” “No way back,” “25 January,” and so on.
An object (the ultras) is made up of (and yet independent of) constitutive objects (the supporters) held together at the moment by the internal relations of the larger object, which include the larger object’s history as an object, and its intelligence regarding other objects (the state, Cairo, the abilities of its member objects). That fact is undeniable, and it’s a source of political hope. The ultras object’s organization and its knowledge of police tactics make it a powerful opponent against the arm of governmental violence.1
Ultras definitionally don’t have politics with which I agree—to presuppose that all ultras objects have monolithic (or consistent, or articulate, etc.!) political leanings would be foolish, as the ontology on which their existence depends does not have a preexisting politics. But ultras groups (and Anonymous, and #Occupy) show that it is conceivable for objects as political actors that are more than the (silenced, discouraged) “voters” that we have come to associate with contemporary (neoliberal) democracy.
As I finish this up, it seems that ultras (and their supporters) are marching (and being injured by Egyptian police) in Cairo. This story, and its consequences, are not yet finished.
- I appreciate the irony here that Graham Harman, on whose philosophy much of this depends, teaches in Cairo. In his initial comments on his blog about the violence, he writes “Please do not be lured into thinking that this was just a hooliganism incident gone terribly awry. 79 are dead, virtually all of them from among the al-Ahly fans, who as a group happen to be ardent revolutionaries. In my email conversations with people back in Cairo, I haven’t heard from one person who thinks this was anything but organized.” [↩]