Militant soccer fans and crowned Cairo club Al Zamalek FC are calling for the release of 18 soccer fanatics arrested by security forces during a match on the eve of Egypt’s largest protest demonstration since the toppling of President Hosni Mubarak.
The militants reinforced the call by their group, Ultras White Knights (UWK), and the club’s board with chants against the police and the country’s military tribunals during Friday’s mass protest on Cairo’s Tahrir Square.
UWK published on its Facebook page the names of those arrested in the clashes with security forces during a Premier League match against Wadi Degla on Thursday.
Friday’s protest on Tahrir Square brought tens of thousands of people back onto the streets to protest the fact that they have seen little if any progress since 18 days of mass demonstrations earlier this year forced Mr. Mubarak to resign on February 11.
The protesters fear that their revolution is being derailed by the military authorities that succeeded Mr. Mubarak with a pledge to lead Egypt to free and fair elections within six months. Popular anger was fuelled by the fact that Egypt has suffered economically as a result of the turmoil and witnessed sectarian discord and rising crime since then.
Adding oil to the fire, authorities have yet to punish anyone responsible for the deaths of some 850 people in the protests leading to the ousting of Mr. Mubarak. Militant soccer fans were among those who died.
The UWK together with militant supporters of arch rival Al Ahly SC played a key role in the battles early this year with police and Mubarak loyalists in and around Tahrir Square.
Steeled by several years of street battle experience, the ultras manned the front lines of the protesters who camped out on Tahrir Square for 18 days in late January and early February. They garnered their experience in clashes with security forces on the soccer pitch, a key battlefield alongside the mosque between the Mubarak regime and dissenters.
The ultras -- militant, violence-prone soccer fans modelled on similar groups in Serbia and Italy – arrested during Thursday’s match hurled stones and bottles at police injuring two, at the beginning of the game’s second half when their team was training Wadi Degla 0:1. The match ended in a 1:1 draw.
Zamalek said in a statement on its Website that club CEO Alaa Mekled had been instructed to work with authorities to achieve the release of the 18 ultras.
Zamalek’s support for the ultras comes at a time of mounting tension between the militants and the police as a result of a string of incidents in which they disrupted domestic and international matches.
The ultras have played a leading role in demanding the resignation of soccer officials appointed during the Mubarak era as well as an end to corruption in Egyptian soccer. Their militant campaign has at times put them in direct conflict with the clubs they support and at times brought them together.
The UWK militants supported Zamalek’s campaign to end corruption among referees whom it effectively has accused of match fixing and for the resignation of the board of the Egyptian Football Association (EFA), the country’s governing soccer body.
The allegations of corruption are one major reason why the militants repeatedly stormed pitches and threw stones in recent months during matches in which they disagreed with a referee’s decision.
UWK members have demonstrated in front of the EFA headquarters to demand the board’s resignation.
Zamalek accused the EFA in May of “oppression” and said board decisions constituted “a failure to satisfyingly manage” Egyptian soccer.
(James M. Dorsey, formerly of The Wall Street Journal, is a senior researcher at the National University of Singapore’s Middle East Institute and the author of the blog, The Turbulent World of Middle East Soccer. He can be reached via email at: email@example.com)