Government and Fans Battle in Court and on the Pitch in Egypt and Turkey
Egyptian and Turkish soccer pitches are set to re-emerge as battlegrounds between militant, street battle-hardened fans and authoritarian leaders in a life and death struggle that involves legal proceedings to brand the supporters as terrorists and efforts to undermine their popular base.
Struggles Heat Up
Egyptian fans, after recently storming a Cairo stadium in advance of an African championship final, have vowed in a statement on their Facebook page to break open Egyptian premier league games that have been closed to the public for much of the past four years.[i] Fans played a key role in mass anti-government protests that in 2011 toppled President Hosni Mubarak.
Similarly a nationwide boycott of a government-sponsored electronic ticketing system in Turkey viewed by fans who were prominent in the 2013 Gezi Park protests against the country’s leader, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, as a way of identifying them and barring them from stadia has so far all but defeated the effort.[ii] “The e-ticket system does not only demote the concept of supporters to a customer, but it also files all our private data. The system aims to prevent supporters from organizing and is designed to demolish stadium culture and supporter identity,” some 40 soccer fan groups said in a statement.[iii]
The struggles in Egypt and Turkey are heating up as criminal legal proceedings against militant fans or ultras have opened in Cairo and Istanbul. In Istanbul, a trial began on December 16, 2014 against 35 members of Çarşı, the nationally popular support group of storied club Beşiktaş JK, named after a working class neighbourhood along the Bosphorus, accused of belonging to an armed terrorist organization and seeking to overthrow the government. The trial was postponed until April after a first day of hearings, according to Çarşı lawyers.
In Cairo, courts are hearing a series of cases initiated by the head of the Egyptian capital’s Al Zamalek SC, Mortada Mansour, –a controversial fixture of the Mubarak era and a close associate of general-turned-president Abdel Fattah Al Sisi–, charged the club’s militant support group and considered the UWK as terrorists who sought to assassinate Mansour. Denying the allegations that led to the arrest of scores of the UWK members, the group has dubbed Mr. Mansour as ‘the regime’s dog’. UWK leaders have gone into hiding to evade security forces. A first case on whether to ban the group or not is scheduled to resume on December 29th, lawyers for the UWK said.
In a statement, the Istanbul Bar Association denounced the charges against Çarşı as belonging to the “fantasy world” of prosecutors.[iv] “What they are trying to do here is to dilute the concept of a coup in order to spark fear in people, justify police violence that may occur in the future, and intimidate a nation. The law cannot be manipulated for such purposes. Prosecutors’ right to open a case must be restricted by logic and rules of law,”the statement said.
The charging of the fans follows hundreds of ongoing court proceedings against more than 5,000 other Turkish protesters in which prosecutors were also seeking harsh sentences. The cases were being prosecuted by a judiciary that like the police force in the past year has largely been cleansed of alleged supporters of Fethullah Gülen, –a frail, self-exiled 73-year old preacher, head of one of the world’s largest Islamist movements and one time Erdoğan ally–, whom the president accuses of seeking to create a parallel state in Turkey. Mr. Erdoğan alleged days before the trial opened against the Çarşı fans that “Gezi was a coup attempt”.
In a statement in September after the fans had been indicted, Çarşı, which writes the ‘a’ in its name as a circle-A, the symbol of anarchism, emphasized its social engagement beyond soccer. “We have advocated a Turkey without nuclear power, and said donating blood would save lives. There was an earthquake in Van, we went to help. The Foundation for Children with Leukaemia built new shelters, and we led the way. Our friends filled buses after the mining disaster in Soma to see if they could make themselves useful there. We said, ‘Take your dirty hands off our children’ for child workers. We still campaign for our citizens with disabilities. What we have done for animal shelters is also well-known,” the statement said.[v]
The legal proceedings in Istanbul and Cairo are part of an effort by the Egyptian and Turkish governments which, despite differences over the Muslim Brotherhood, both see cracking down on militant soccer fans as a pillar of their campaigns to severely restrict, if not to outlaw peaceful protest and dissent. Turkish authorities arrested more than 30 journalists and media workers in December 2014, many of whom were associated with outlets owned or were linked to Mr. Gülen’s movement, as well as police officers and script writers. Afterwards, most of them have been released, but Hidayet Karaca, the head of Gülen-linked Samanyolu Television, and three others were retained in custody. Ekrem Dumanlı, editor-in-chief of the Zaman newspaper, was released, but forbidden to travel abroad before trial. Seven more people whom prosecutors sought remanded in custody, were among those released pending trial, according to media reports.
The trial against Çarşı is part of a government effort to purge dissent from the pitch. This effort began immediately after the Gezi Park protests with the banning of chanting of or display of banners with political slogans and a demand that spectators sign a pledge before entering a stadium that they would refrain from participating in activities during matches which could ‘trigger mass, political or ideological events’. Çarşı’s response to the government efforts was to chant during matches, ‘everywhere is Taksim, everywhere is resistance’.
A video released shortly after the Gezi demonstrations by the prime minister’s Anti-Terrorism Office, when Mr. Erdoğan was still prime minister, warned that protests were a precursor to terrorism.[vi] The 55-second video featuring a young woman demonstrator-turned suicide bomber warned the public that “our youth, who are the guarantors of our future, can start with small demonstrations of resistance that appear to be innocent, and after a short period of time, can engage without a blink in actions that may take the lives of dozens of innocent people”. Throughout the video, the words “before it is too late”were displayed.
Critics of Mr. Erdoğan asserted that the stepped up pressure on opposition forces and activists is intended to strengthen his Adalet ve Kalkınma Partisi’s (Justice and Development Party-AKP) position in the parliamentary elections scheduled for June. Mr. Erdoğan is hoping to win a sufficient majority to be able to change the constitution so that it would grant him executive powers.
Basing his charges on wiretaps, Adem Meral, Istanbul Terrorism and Organized Crime Unit prosecutor, charged that the soccer fans had not been driven to join the protests by environmental concerns and opposition to plans to replace the historic Gezi Park on the city’s iconic Taksim Square with an Ottoman-style shopping mall. Instead, Mr. Meral said in his 38-page indictment: “It is understood that they were trying to overthrow the democratically elected Turkish government and to facilitate this objective, they were attempting to capture the Prime Ministry offices in Ankara and İstanbul”. In line with Mr. Erdoğan’s assertions at the time of Gezi Park protests, the prosecutor asserted that the protests were a foreign conspiracy.
The indictment cited as evidence statements by various defendants in tapped telephone conversations. One defendant allegedly said he was ‘not interested in the construction of the mall or the demolition of trees’, but wanted to ‘topple the government’. Another supposedly suggested that the protests could lead to civil war, adding that ‘we will today occupy the prime ministry’s residence’. Others were said to have suggested attacking the police to fuel public anger.
“Charging these Beşiktaş football club fans as enemies of the state for joining a public protest is a ludicrous travesty. It reveals a great deal about the enormous pressure being exerted on Turkey’s justice system by the government,” Emma Sinclair-Webb, a Turkey researcher at Human Rights Watch, said in a statement.[vii]
In a repetition of the Gezi Park protests when rival fan groups in a rare demonstration of common purpose came together to confront police, fans from İstanbul three major competing clubs gathered together with trade unionists, opposition politicians and activists outside the court house to chant ‘shoulder-to-shoulder against fascism,’ ‘Çarşı is conscience and cannot be judged,’ and ‘Çarşı will never walk alone,’ according to participants in the protest. Fans in Europe expressed solidarity with supporters of Germany’s Borussia Dortmund displaying placards during a recent match that called on Çarşı to ‘never give up,’ urged it ‘to fight for your way’ and demanded ‘freedom to ultras and Turkey’.
As Çarşı was fighting for its existence, their counterparts in Egypt were struggling for access to stadia. A vow is made by Ultras Ahlawy, –the militant support group of Zamalek Cairo and rival of Al Ahli SC–, in order to force their way into stadia where Egyptian premier league games are played, a week after they stormed Cairo’s International Stadium to make their point. It also came as Ultras Nahdawy (Renaissance Ultras) played a key role in months-long student protests on university campuses and in local neighbourhoods of the Egyptian capital against Mr. Al Sisi’s repressive regime, in favour of academic and other freedoms.
Nahdawy, whose name refers to the term used by the Brotherhood to describe its political and economic programme, is the only militant soccer group that openly identifies itself as a political group that is not aligned with a club. The group formed by Ahlawy and UWK members, who sympathized with the Brotherhood that has been brutally suppressed by the Al Sisi regime and outlawed by Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates. Since then, they have distanced themselves from the Brothers. Nahdawy’s leadership consists largely of university students while its rank and file are often still in high school.
“We took the culture of the ultras in the stadiums and tried to copy and paste it into the street,” a Nahdawy member and Ahli supporter told the Los Angeles Review of Books.
For a regime that has shown little mercy for its opponents, the Sisi government has balanced its tacit backing for the legal proceedings against the UWK with a more skilful approach to Ahlawy –who holds the military and security forces responsible for the death of more than 70 of its members in a politically loaded brawl in 2012 in Port Said. The Egyptian Football Association (EFA) recently postponed a match between Al Ahli and the Port Said’s Al Masri SC, which have not faced off since the worst incident in Egyptian sporting history.[viii]
Rather than confronting the ultras when they stormed the stadium, security forces negotiated their departure as well as their attendance under a temporary lifting of the spectator ban for Ahli’s match against Ivory Coast’s Sewe Sport. The game earned Ahli the African club championship title. Ahlawy unfolded a huge banner during the match that referring to the ban asserted “Football is for Fans”.
In a statement on their Facebook page having 1.1 million followers, Ahlawy said that “the fans have every right to be present in stadiums and cheer on their teams”.[ix] Therefore, Ultras Ahlawy group has decided to be present in the upcoming league games and said that “We will be at Cairo Stadium to support our team even if we remained separated by a fence. We will no longer watch our team on television”.
The security forces’ response to Ahlawy’s insistence on attending matches will serve as a litmus test of whether their decision to negotiate with the fans rather than to confront them before the African match constitutes an exception in a successful bid to ensure that the game would take place. Or does it signal the first softening of Mr. Al Sisi’s policies that have led to sentencing to death of hundreds of Muslim Brothers, to deaths of more than 1,000 protesters, and the incarceration of tens of thousands that were critical of his regime? The security forces’ negotiations with Ahlawy were followed a few weeks later by the resignation of Egypt’s long-time hard line intelligence chief and Al Sisi’s mentor General Mohammed Farid El Tohamy for health reasons. Press reports said that General El Tohamy had recently had a hip operation.[x]
In a bid to exploit the avoidance of confrontation in advance of the African championship, the EFA announced on its website that the interior ministry had agreed to allow a limited number of fans to attend domestic premier league matches for the first time since the Port Said incident.[xi] The EFA accepted 10,000 fans for matches in four stadia –Cairo International Stadium, Cairo June 30 and Arab Contractors Stadium and the Burj Al Arab Stadium in Alexandria. Attendance would be limited to 5,000 fans in other stadia to be identified by the EFA. The ultras have demanded a complete lifting of the ban on spectators.
Brutal police action radicalised the ultras in the waning years of the Mubarak regime and turned stadia into the only battlegrounds on which his opponents persistently confronted his repressive forces physically. The rise of the ultras and other militant fan groups not only in Egypt but also elsewhere in the Middle East and North Africa has repeatedly prompted governments to close stadia to the public since the popular revolts of 2011. In an exception to this rule, Algerian authorities have tacitly agreed to allow fans to vent their pent-up anger and frustration in stadia provided they do not take it from there into the streets.
In Turkey, the government has sought to drive a wedge between militant fans and other supporters by arguing that e-ticketing was a way to combat illegal ticket scalping, to increase tax revenues and to ensure that stadia are safe for families.
There is some substantial logic behind such a policy; Turkish stadia have a long history of violence. A third of Çarşı’s original founders died violently since the group’s founding in the early 1980s. A truce arranged at a gathering of heavily armed rival supporters after a Beşiktaş fan was trampled to death in 1991 by his Galatasaray SK adversaries. The truce reduced, but did not put an end to the violence. Two Leeds United fans in Istanbul for their team’s match against Galatasaray were stabbed to death in 2000 during a soccer riot in Taksim. Stray bullets fired into the air to celebrate Turkish team’s victory killed a third person and wounded four others.
The high stakes battle over e-ticketing goes to the heart of a struggle for Turkey’s soul that erupted with the mass anti-government Gezi Park protests in Istanbul in 2013 that was sparked by Mr. Erdoğan’s increasingly illiberal policies to impose greater control over people’s lives and restrictions on personal and political freedom and unfettered access to information. Fans moreover are irked by the president’s manipulation of due process in what was the most serious match fixing scandal in the history of Turkish soccer, a run-up to his squashing of an investigation into the most serious corruption scandal in his career.
Plummeting stadium attendance as a result of the e-ticket boycott has severely affected ticket sales according to soccer club executives and fans. A match in October in Istanbul’s 82,000-seat Atatürk Olympic Stadium between Beşiktaş and Eskişehirspor Club that would normally have been attended by some 20-30,000 spectators drew only 3,000 fans. Ticket sales for Galatasaray matches are down by two thirds with fans gathering in cafes and homes to watch matches they would have attended in the past.
The boycott prompted the government to suspend the e-ticketing system for a friendly in November between Turkey and Brazil.[xii] As a result, sales spiked with more than 40,000 tickets sold for the match shortly after the suspension.
Options Cut Off
The boycott, the court cases and the battle for stadium access are all elements of a struggle by militant soccer fans in Turkey and Egypt for their existence, in an environment in which some, particularly in Egypt, feel that their options were narrowing with violence one of the few alternatives left. “If anyone dies it’s a victory, if anyone goes to jail it’s a victory. And if we go back to the football stadium it’s the biggest victory for us,” a UWK member told the Los Angeles Review of Books.[xiii]
When groups like the UWK first emerged in Egypt –less than a decade ago–, militant Turkish soccer fans were not on their radar. The Egyptians borrowed substantially from militant fans in Serbia, Italy and Argentina, but would have likely found greater communality with the likes of Çarşı. Communalities notwithstanding, Egyptian and Turkish fans travelled different trajectories in the 25 years between their emergences in the two countries, only to find themselves in very similar circumstances. In many ways, militant Turkish fans are the Egyptian’s more experienced elder brother.
In the last quarter of the 20th century, Turkey returned to pluralistic, democratic government, albeit with a powerful military in the background that was only became subjected to civilian rule in the early 21st century. While Egypt three years after its popular revolt reverted to a military and security force-dominated autocracy, in Turkey, the Gezi Park protests sparked a period of political crisis and increased authoritarianism and government control.
In Egypt, the ultras’ battle for freedom in the stadia and in Tahrir Square, their opposition to the military rulers who succeeded Mubarak and also to the elected and then toppled Muslim Brotherhood government of Mohammed Morsi, made them political by definition. The same is true for Çarşı and other Turkish support groups.
The principle shared by Egyptian and Turkish fans of All Cops Are Bastards (ACAB), was however more deeply felt in Egypt where ultras confronted security forces, not only in stadia or in protest squares, but also in popular neighbourhoods of cities where they made life difficult for them as well as their families.
Egyptian and Turkish fan groups though confront similar internal issues. Much like the embattled Brotherhood, they struggle to define themselves. In the Brotherhood’s case, the determination of whether it is a social or political movement, has become a mute issue as a result of its banning in Egypt as a terrorist organization. For the militant fans or ultras in Egypt and Turkey, who refuse to acknowledge that they are as much about politics as they are about soccer, the issue is being used by authoritarian leaders attempt to discredit and criminalize them.
Twelve militant soccer fans are sentenced to five year-prison in May 2014 by an Egyptian court due to expansion of the military-backed regime’s crackdown on its Islamist and non-Islamist opponents that re-positioned soccer as a major platform of protest. The fans, members of Ultras Ahlawy, the well-organized and street battled-hardened militant support group of storied Cairo club Al Ahli SC, –who played a key role in the popular uprising and protests of the last three years–, were sentenced in absentia for organizing an illegal gathering and vandalism.
The convicted were accused of blocking a road in Cairo to protest the arrest of Ultras Ahlawy members who had clashed with police last October as they attempted to storm Cairo airport’s international terminal.
The verdict came shortly after newly elected president Abdel Fattah El Sisi, the general who toppled Morsi and Egypt’s first and only democratically elected president, defended Egypt’s recently adopted draconian anti-protest law. The law is part of a regional trend visible in Saudi Arabia and Turkey as well as in debates in Jordan that equates protest with terrorism or categorizes it as a precursor to political violence. “We are talking about a country going to waste. People must realize this and support us. Whoever imagines otherwise, only wants to sabotage Egypt and this will not be allowed. This chaos will bring it down, because of this irresponsible protesting,” said Al Sisi, according to Egyptian media reports and warned in advance of the election that he would do “whatever it takes to restore security”.
The verdict against the fans and the crackdowns, which involve greater brutality by security forces than during the Mubarak era, have contributed to Egypt’s various militant fans or ultras groups’ shift from their highly politicized founders to charismatic young men, –who are often un- or under-employed and un-or under-educated, and whose opposition to law enforcement that has made their lives difficult is visceral.
‘All the old people have left. There was a fight within the group. Some were kidnapped and held for three days. We were attacked with knives. People were injured. Their leader is enormously charismatic,’ said a founder of one of more prominent group of ultras.
The former ultra, who keeps close contact with militant fans, said that a recent fall in soccer protests –that is fuelled by a ban on allowing supporters to attend soccer matches in a bid to prevent stadia from again becoming a platform of anti-government agitation– occurred in part due to a pledge by the Minister of Interior Affairs to replace security forces in stadia with private security firms.
‘It’s likely to be the quiet before the storm. I don’t know a single young person who voted in the presidential elections. Even my parents, simple people who are not Islamists, do not believe in what is happening. People will lose faith in the military. They are losing faith in everything,’ he said.
Fuelling potential trouble, Egyptian officials were discussing how to deal with the ultras more systematically. State-owned Al Ahram newspaper, long a mouthpiece for the government, asked: “Will the Ultras be shown the red card after crossing the red line? Are they digging their own grave? Football Ultras of soccer powerhouse Egyptian clubs Ahli and Zamalek have become a dangerous phenomenon… These days the Ultras are a symbol of destruction, attacking the opposition and sometimes their own kind,” the paper said.
The writing was on the wall during the January 2014 referendum on a military-backed constitutional referendum, which seemed to indicate that Al Sisi could count on the support of just fewer than 40 percent of the electorate, enough to allow him to emerge as the candidate with the single largest voting bloc. 38 percent of the electorate cast their vote in the constitutional poll and 98 percent of them approximately voted in favour. This pattern appeared to be repeating itself in the May presidential election that brought retired general Abdel Fattah Al Sisi to power. Al Sisi’s supporters did not include tens of thousands of young men who joined the ranks of the ultras in the last four years of the Mubarak regime since the fans emerged as the foremost civic group that physically resisted against the regime in almost weekly clashes with security forces in stadia during the soccer season.
The power of these alienated young men became evident within months of the overthrow of Mubarak, when members of the UWK, the highly organized radical fan group of crowned Cairo club Zamalek SC, stormed Cairo International Stadium’s soccer pitch in the 90th minute of the first post-revolt game between an Egyptian and a Tunisian team, disrupting the match and destroying goal posts and everything else in their path. The group’s founders realized that they were losing control. ‘These guys know the security forces are waiting for them to make a mistake. That’s why they have refocused their attention on football… I do not know how long that will last. We could face something like Syria. Islamists will lead the next revolution. It will be an Islamic revolution, not a fight for the state,’ the former ultra said.
The key role of soccer fans in in Egypt as well as Turkey in expressing dissent serves as evidence of scholars Paul Aarts and Francesco Cavatorta’s notion developed in their book Debating Civil Society Dynamics in Syria and Iran that the “real protagonists of the Arab Spring did not come from the usual suspects within established and formal civil society but from sectors of society that have been largely under-explored”. They note that the post 9/11 trend in academic literature to view the region through the prism of the resilience of autocratic or authoritarian regimes meant that research focussed on “the mechanisms of state domination and co-optation, ignoring informal and unofficial loci of dissent and activism, presenting therefore a picture of a stability that did not exist”. It also meant that new civil society actors such as the ultras represented new interests and modus operandi which did not necessarily conform to liberal democratic notions of activism. Their emergence reflected political, economic and social changes in the Middle East and North Africa as well as autocratic attempts to adapt to a more globalized, more interdependent world.
Sociologist Asef Bayat anticipated Aarts and Cavatorta’s notion that the revolts in the Middle East and North Africa originated in under-researched sectors of society like soccer fans by developing the concept of ‘social non-movements’ that “interlock activism with the practice of daily life”. These movements feature significant elements of what constitutes a social movement –an organized and sustained claim directed at the authorities, a repertoire of performances, and public representation of their cause– but operate separately. That was certainly true for rival groups of ultras who largely were as hostile to one another as they were towards security forces as the repressive face of the state. They defied however notions of classical social movements like those formulated by political scientist Cyrus Zirakzadeh given that that they lacked a clear idea of the alternative order they were seeking to achieve or the basic means to build it. Instead in line with scholars David Snow, Sarah Soule and Hanspeter Kriesi’s observations in their Blackwell Companion on Social Movements they acted “outside of institutional or organizational channels”. The fans’ protests broke with classical models of protest not only because of their definition of what support for a club entailed but also because they were dictated by the logic and the rhythm of the game.
The role of soccer fans cast as new actors with new interests and modus operandi allows for an innovative application of social movement and asymmetric warfare theory to the understanding of the Middle East and North Africa, its nexus of sports, politics and society and the fans’ role in popular revolts. The world of the ultras is one of ‘transgressive contention’ that challenges an autocrat’s narrow, tightly controlled institutional framework as defined by political scientists Doug McAdam, Sidney Tarrow and Charles Tilly in their seminal work, Dynamics of Contention.
James M. Dorsey, Writer, Journalist, Senior Fellow at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies
Please cite this publication as follows:
Dorsey, J. M. (January, 2015), “Government and Fans Battle in Court and on the Pitch in Egypt and Turkey”, Vol. IV, Issue 1, pp.37-45, Centre for Policy and Research on Turkey (ResearchTurkey), London, Research Turkey. (http://researchturkey.org/?p=7809)