Academic journal article Arab Studies Quarterly

Unusual Suspects: "Ultras" as Political Actors in the Egyptian Revolution

Academic journal article Arab Studies Quarterly

Unusual Suspects: "Ultras" as Political Actors in the Egyptian Revolution

Article excerpt

Abstract: The Egyptian revolution that started on January 25 engaged many people who theretofore had not been considered political actors. Among them were the Ultras, a particular group of football fans who are widely credited to have played a part in the more physical aspects of the uprising. In this article the Ultras are studied by means of an analysis of their own written material, their internet presence, and fieldwork conducted in Cairo. It is argued that the Ultras have quite naturally developed into a revolutionary social movement.

Keywords: Egypt, Arab Spring, January 25 revolution, Ultras, social movement, street politics

Among the more surprising actors in Egypt's January 25 revolution were the so-called Ultras or hard-core football-supporters. Apart from casual to elaborate recognition of the Ultras' role in securing areas of protest1 little analysis has been conducted thus far. More attention has been paid to the role of social media, "youth" and the Muslim Brothers, three factors that are - rightfully or not - more commonly identified as potential buildings blocks for political change. This article starts from the premise that in order to understand a revolution that came unexpectedly, and took an unprecedented shape,2 it is useful to look at the role of "unusual suspects" in the unfolding of events. To my knowledge, this premise was first argued by Aarts and Cavatorta, who state that "the real protagonists of the Arab Spring do not come from the usual suspects within established and formal civil society, but from sectors of society that have been largely under-explored."3

The role played by the Ultras may be seen as an example of the way in which political agency in Egypt was transformed in the early months of 2011. Until January 25 of 201 1, conventional wisdom had it that the Egyptian population was politically apathetic. In the 18 days that followed, the political arena in Egypt was not dominated by politicians, be they regime or opposition, but by common Egyptians invading the public realm with a remarkable combination of discipline and volume. The Ultras were among those Egyptians, whose activism compels us to re-evaluate the assessment that this population was aloof from politics. After providing the international context of the "Ultras phenomenon," this article sketches the emergence of Ultra groups in Egypt, and the role these groups played in the last revolution. Apart from these descriptive matters, this article offers a theoretical point of view. I try to understand the Egyptian Ultras from the perspective of Asef Bayat's notion of bottom-up politics by social movements.4 Much of the article is based on primary sources, such as the book Kitäb al-Ulträs written by Muhammad Jamal Bashïr, posts on Ultras' Facebook pages, and fieldwork conducted in Cairo in June 2012.

International Context

Judging from the literature, Ultras are overwhelmingly a (south-)European phenomenon that first emerged in the 1 960s in the football stadiums of Italy5 It appears however that this development may have been inspired by the Brazilian Torcidas, a particular kind of (informal) fan club the first of which was already established in the 1930s.6 Not much research has been done into the Ultra phenomenon. A recent Council of Europe study is the best starting point for an overview of Ultra culture in its European context.7 Although they form a diverse collection of fan groups, the groups that label themselves "Ultras" can be described as

particularly passionate, emotional, committed and- above all- very active fans who are fascinated by a south European culture of spurring on their team and have made it their job to organize a better, traditional atmosphere in the football stadium in order to be able to support their team creatively and to the best of their ability.8

Two aspects of this definition require clarification. Firstly, the "south European culture" in this case means the non-stop singing, drumming and chanting along with huge banners, flags, pyrotechnics and "terrace choreography. …

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