We Die For Football - Ultras Ahlawy
Under authoritarian rule, stadiums were amongst a few places where Egyptians were free to express their own opinion. The Ultras Ahlawy, hardcore fans of Egypt's most famous football club Al Ahly Cairo, never made a secret of their hatred against the regime and clashed with state security prior to the Egyptian Revolution in early 2011. Thus, the Ultras were the only movement in Egypt who had combat experience with the regime. So they went to the front lines of the uprising. But the Ultras paid a price. In early February they were attacked in a stadium by angry masses. 74 people died, most of them Ahlawy. Until now, they blame remnants of the regime for seeking revenge for the Ultras’ role during the revolution by staging the riots. German photographer Ben Kilb followed the Ultras for 3 weeks.
Due to my main interests, the Middle East and football, I was instantly fascinated when I read about the role the Ahlawy played during the Egyptian Revolution in early 2011 and its aftermath. The more I was shocked after learning about the massacre in Port Said in February 2012. Then I wondered why no journalist had already picked up the story.
I flew to Cairo and went to a sit-in the Ultras were holding in front of the People’s Assembly where they were demonstrating for a retribution for the massacre. After meeting Amr, 20, who has been an Ultra for two years, he introduced me to his comrades. Little by little I gained almost complete access to the Ahlawy. Everything worked out as I hoped, but it could have been different since the Ultras usually don’t talk to media, let alone allow photojournalists to photograph their faces.
After being in Egypt for three weeks, I was allowed to photograph almost any Ultra. I interviewed their leader Karim Adel, their founding member Tika and met relatives of Port Said victims. Amr and me became really good friends. I have never been with a group of young people that was as energetic, as motivated and as furious as the Ultras.
Founded in 2007, the Ahlawy’s leaders had been inspired by Ultra movements in Italy, Serbia and Tunesia. Their favorite club Al Ahly had a history of regime critique uttered in their fan blocks, so it was clear who would be the subject of the Ultras chants.
The regime itself couldn’t accept an organized movement that was able to mobilize young men by the thousands. It provoked the Ultras with arrests and started street battles that made the Ultras gain experience in combat strategies. When it was clear that the uprising also required violence from the protesters, the Ultras went to the front lines around Tahrir Square, the focal point of the revolution. The Ultras helped to fight the famous “Battle of the Camel” and fought state security on Qasr al-Nil Bridge. The revolution’s outcome might have been different without the Ultras contribution. By successfully fighting state security, the Ahlawy gained in popularity amongst Egyptians. But many say that they also further infuriated remnants of the old regime inside the transitional military government SCAF, the Supreme Council of Armed Forces.
After Al Ahly met with Port Said’s Al Masry in February, the Ahlawy were attacked by angry masses from its rival’s block. Some of the 74 victims were stabbed or beaten to death by the mob. Most suffocated in a stampede or were crushed when the gates were torn down. For some their cause of death wasn’t cleared at all. Their families took their bodies home after the massacre. Others victims had “Port Said” scarified into their foreheads.
Some say it was only Masry Ultras, called Green Eagles, who attacked. Others claim Masry fans mixed with armed thugs paid by SCAF that was punishing the Ultras for their role during the revolution. Most reports from Port Said tell that security forces gave an armed mob easy access to the Masry stadium. The authorities, the Ultras claim, locked the gates of the arena and tolerated, maybe even encouraged the mob when it attacked.
These days, the Ultras are holding sit-ins in front of government buildings and protest in front of the Police Academy in New Cairo where the Port Said trial is held. They are demonstrating for a retribution for the massacre, harder sanctions for Al Masry and a suspension of the cancelled football matches in Egypt’s professional leagues, but most of all they are demanding that the government has to be cleaned of any remnants of Mubarak’s regime.
The lesson I learned: If you’re truly fascinated in a subject approach them with honesty, tenacity and a smile in your face, then doors will open up and you will become not even a the famous fly on the wall but friends with the ones you photographing. With the Formula One Grand Prix in Bahrain and the Euro 2012 in Ukraine in mind, the Ahlawy are also proof that sometimes sports and politics aren’t and shouldn’t be separated.