Egypt's "ultras" soccer fans target ruling generals

CAIRO Thu Feb 2, 2012 3:04am EST

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CAIRO (Reuters) - Some of the Egyptian soccer fans who had a front-line role in toppling Hosni Mubarak have a new target - the man who replaced him at Egypt's helm, Field Marshal Mohamed Hussein Tantawi.

"We want your head, you traitor Tantawi. You could have carved your name in history, but you were arrogant and you believed Egypt and its people could take a step back and forget their revolution," the Ultras Tahrir Square (UTS), a group of soccer fans, wrote on its Facebook page.

The rage of these "ultras," as dedicated soccer supporters are known, was sparked by a pitch invasion on Wednesday after a match between Port Said's al-Masry and rival Al Ahli of Cairo, Egypt's most successful club. In the violence that ensued, 74 people were killed and at least 1,000 were injured.

For the ultras, as for many politicians and ordinary Egyptians, the anger was not that soccer fans clashed but that security forces appeared to have done little to stop them. It has added to the mounting frustration at the army's failure to restore law and order almost a year after taking charge.

"Today, the Marshal and the remnants of the regime send us a clear message. We either have our freedom or they punish us and execute us for participating in a revolution against tyranny," the group said in the statement, quickly circulated online.

Residents of Port Said, as well as some politicians and ultras themselves, feel the group was the target.

"Ultras are very popular and respected among the revolutionaries," said 45-year-old Port Said trader Ahmed Badr.

"The ultras were the target (on Wednesday). This was a setup for them, a massacre. The military council and the security forces are the only parties held accountable for such events."

BATTLE-FRONT

Ultras employed years of experience dealing with police at matches to devastating effect against Mubarak's security forces when they used heavy-handed tactics to try to crush the revolt.

The ultras are not a single, coherent body. Major soccer clubs each have their own ultras fan groups, such as Ultras Al Ahli or Ultras White Knights, fans of Zamalek, another major Egyptian soccer club. UTS, which said Tantawi was in its crosshairs, is a group of fans from various clubs who united in Tahrir Square, the focus for revolutionary campaigning.

Daring cat-and-mouse tactics by ultras, often teenagers or men in their early 20s, and steadfastness at front-line barricades under tear gas and rubber bullets wore the police down until they cracked. Within days of the anti-Mubarak uprising erupting, the police were replaced by the army.

Since then, ultras have stayed at the battle-front, scuffling with the army and police, in the upsurges of violence since Mubarak's downfall in and around Tahrir, where protesters have demanded the army hand over power immediately to civilians.

Ultras for months chanted in stadiums against the army, sending their message into people's living rooms as ordinary Egyptians turn on their televisions to watch matches. Many Egyptians, though worried by lax security, still feel the army is still the best placed to keep order.

"Military police, you are dogs like the Interior Ministry. Write it on the prison's walls, down down with military rule," one chant they coined rings through stadiums.

Soccer fans on Thursday reflected the hardening lines. "The people want the execution of the field marshal," thousands of Egyptians chanted at Cairo's main train station early on Thursday as fans returned from the Port Said match.

MOURNING

Responding to the violence, Tantawi said the army would not let anything derail the transition, which the military says means handing over power to civilians before the end of June. He also vowed to track down the culprits of Wednesday's violence.

An army statement announced three days of national mourning.

Ultras Al Ahli responded with a statement on one of their Facebook pages saying that mourning should not be just for the dead but "for everyone who lost his morals, mourning for everyone who sold his soul, mourning for everyone who did not care for the country."

The violence flared on Wednesday after Al Ahli fans unfurled banners insulting Port Said's al-Masry. One man went onto the pitch carrying an iron bar at the end of the match, which al-Masry won 3-1. Al-Masry fans reacted by pouring onto the pitch and attacking Ahli players before attacking fans on the terraces. The police appeared to have no ability to stop it.

"For the first time in the history of matches between these two teams, we did not find police officers or state security. Police withdraw from the stadium and yes, your plot is as clear to us as daylight," the UTS group said in its statement.

Echoing condemnation by politicians, presidential candidate Hamdeen Sabahy said those killed in Port Said were victims of "systematic chaos." He said: "What happened was black vengeance against the Ultras because of their role in the revolution."

(Additional reporting by Sherine El Madany and Yusri Mohamed in Port Said; Editing by Louise Ireland)

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