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Turkish and Egyptian ultras fight for their existence

Besiktas fans invade the pitch

By James M. Dorsey

Much like the Muslim Brotherhood, militant soccer fans in Egypt and Turkey are fighting for their existence.

Turkish police raided the homes of and arrested 72 militant supporters of Istanbul’s top clubs – Besiktas JK, Fenerbahce FC and Galatasaray SK -- after a derby between Besiktas and Galatasary was abandoned because fans invade the pitch. Penalizing Besiktas, the Turkish Football Federation (TFF) ordered the club to play its next four games behind closed doors.

Critics of Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan suspect that his ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) engineered the incident in a bid to further repress Besiktas’ popular militant fan group, Carsi that played a key role in mass anti-government protests earlier this year. They point to the fact security was lax at the match and that a youth leader of the AKP boasted on Facebook how he had obtained a free ticket to the Besiktas Galatasary derby and was one of the first to invade the pitch.

Turkish journalist Mehmet Baransu moreover documented links between 1453 Kartallari (1453 Eagles), a rival conservative Besiktas support group named in commemoration of the year that Ottoman Sultan Fatih the Conqueror drove the Byzantines out of Constantinople, and the AKP. 1453 members reportedly shouted ‘God is Great’ and attacked Carsi supporters during the pitch invasion.

The incident has strengthened the government’s hands in discussion with world soccer governor FIFA and European soccer body UEFA over the replacement of private security companies with regular police in stadia. FIFA and UEFA as of matter of principle favor a low key police presence in stadia. The move is part of an effort by Mr. Erdogan to gain control of and depoliticize Turkish soccer and criminalize fan groups in response to the key role they played in mass anti-government protests in June. Carsi lead the unification of Istanbul’s rival fan groups who constituted the front line in confrontations with the police.

The government has since banned the chanting of political slogans during matches and has said it was monitoring the communications of militant fans. It further is enforcing Breathalyzer tests at matches and demanding that clubs oblige spectators to sign a statement pledging to abide by the ban before they enter a stadium.

Fans have defied the ban by chanting during matches “Everywhere is Taksim, everywhere is resistance," a reference to Istanbul’s iconic Taksim Square, which was the focal point of the protests sparked by plans to turn Gezi Park which abuts the square into a shopping mall.

Strengthening the government’s campaign, Besiktas president Fikret Orman criticized the performance of a private security firm hired for ten matches in Istanbul’s Ataturk Olympic Stadium because the club’s own facility is under renovation. “Private security does not run away from the fans, they chase them. What we witnessed amounted to a comedy,” Mr. Orman said. He said that fans had entered the stadium without tickets. Up to 10,000 were believed to have entered the already packed stadium illegally.

Sports and youth ministry official Mehmet Baykan said “three entry points were broken into, the power supply to the turnstiles and eight ticket readers were sabotaged. 65 people have been caught with equipment which could have been used to cut the cables."

Aware that the protests had reduced Istanbul’s chance of winning the hosting of the 2020 Olympic Games despite long being a frontrunner, government officials prepared the ground for blaming the activists for the Turkish capital’s loss. The protests were a major reason why the International Olympic Committee awarded the tournament earlier this month to Tokyo. Turkish EU minister Egemen Bagis warned that “those who protested at Taksim's Gezi Park tried twice to drop Istanbul’s candidacy off the candidates list, but they failed. If Istanbul loses, it will be because of them.’’ Mr. Bagis’ comment was in response the anti-government protests and a report by Turkish activists, architects and urban planners calling on the IOC not to award the games to Istanbul.

“Prosecutors and courts continue to use terrorism laws to prosecute and prolong incarceration of thousands of Kurdish political activists, human rights defenders, students, journalists and trade unionists… Free speech and media remain restricted and there have been serious violations of fair trial rights. Great obstacles remain in securing justice for victims of abuses by police, military and state officials. … Press members are fired, contracts of academicians who supported Gezi are not renewed, film stars are searched for narcotics, and students are arbitrarily detained… The powers of the Chambers of Engineers and Architects were curbed. This was a reprisal for their role” in the protests the report said.

The report noted that police had used tear gas and water cannons earlier this year during protests at the opening of the Mediterranean Games in Mersin in southeastern Turkey. It asserted that 80 percent of the tickets for the event were awarded to government loyalists rather than to the public to prevent potential protests against Mr. Erdogan who was scheduled to attend the opening. Mr. Erdogan was booed during the 2010 World Basketball Championship finals in Istanbul and the 2011 opening of the Turk Telekom Arena stadium in the Turkish capital.

In a similar development, Egyptian officials are discussing how to deal with the ultras, militant soccer fans who played a key role in the toppling in 2011 of President Hosni Mubarak as well as in post-Mubarak protests against the military. State-owned Al Ahram newspaper, long a mouthpiece for the government, recently 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 paper’s focus on the Ultras follows a series of incidents in which supporters of storied Cairo clubs Al Ahli SC and Al Zamalek SC attacked their clubs and players, demanding resignation of company officials. Zamalek chairman Mamdouh Abbas rejected the calls for him to step down, saying that he would only leave his post if club members adopted a motion of confidence, not in response to the “terror of the Ultras”. Abbas urged the military-backed government to take action against the Ultras White Knights (UWK), the militant Zamalek support group, whom he denounced as sports terrorists.

UWK buries one of their own

Thousands of Zamalek fans last week buried one of their members killed by security forces while trying to storm the club’s headquarters. The attempted storming occurred after Zamalek lost an African Championship match to its rival Al Ahli. ”The safe exit of the club’s board of directors after the blood of fans has been shed became impossible,” the UWK said in a statement. At the same time relations deteriorated between Ultras Ahlawy, the Al Ahli support group, and players who rejected conciliatory gestures by the fans.

Relations have long been strained between the ultras and players because the militants see them as mercenaries who play for the highest-paying club and resent the fact that they largely remained at best aloof during the anti-Mubarak protests because of the perks the regime granted them. Five Al Ahli players - Ahmed Fathi, Sherif Ikrami, Abdallah Al-Said, Shehab Ahmed and Sherif Abdel-Fadil —recently launched a campaign against the ultras following failed attempts in the past to moderate fan militancy. Relations improved briefly last year after 74 Ahli supporters died in a politically-loaded brawl in the stadium of Port Said. The players’ current campaign portrays the ultras as a threat to their safety and security.

The players as well as club officials charge that the ultras’ militancy is hurting them economically at a time that clubs are struggling financially as a result of reduced sponsorship, advertising and ticket sales because league matches have been suspended for much of the almost three years since the anti-Mubarak protests erupted. Professional soccer matches are scheduled to resume in October.

Arrest of UWK militant

In a frontal attack on the ultras who pride themselves on their financial independence, officials of Al Ahli and Zamalek suggested that they were being funded by third parties and challenged them to make their finances public. “Now it is not only firecrackers but also bird shot that is being used in attacking us. They don’t spend money on tickets anymore but spend it to destroy the club,” Mr. Abbas said. Al Ahram noted that the ultras “spend much money on their trips buying tickets and firecrackers and other tools to support the teams. Their social background doesn’t show that they have that kind of money. Their main income comes from selling T-shirts.”

Major General Talaat Tantawi, a retired military officer-turned security consultant, charged that the ultras much like their counterparts in Argentina were being manipulated by groups seeking to exploit their popularity. “It is so easy to penetrate these groups and make use of their enthusiasm and youth. They have become easy targets to achieve political goals and to distract them from focusing on their main vision and mission which was supporting sports. Others joined in and became Ultras and are acting as we see now,” Mr. Tantawi said ignoring the fact that the ultras were politicized and steeled in years of confrontations with security forces during the Mubarak era.

James M. Dorsey is a senior fellow at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies, co-director of the University of Würzburg’s Institute for Fan Culture, and the author of The Turbulent World of Middle East Soccer blog.


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