Taking a stand

The CAF Champions League final and the politics of North-African football ultras.

All images courtesy Maher Mezahi © 2024.

In North Africa, there’s a time-honored saying: “When it comes to football, the spectacle is not on the pitch but in the stands.” Over the past two decades, the region has produced some of the football world’s most electrifying atmospheres at matches, despite attempts by some countries to sanitize the game. This is largely thanks to the ultra groups that have emerged from Morocco to Egypt in the 21st century.

According to Martino Simcik, an expert on global fan culture, being part of an ultra group is about “living your passion for your team 24/7.”  Ultras engage “in certain rituals that [distinguish them] from the average fan.” As Simcik explains, these actions include choreography, singing, making graffiti, and often physical confrontation and violence.

On May 18, the spectacle in the stands was on display in the Curva Sud (“southern stand”) of the Stade de Rades in Tunis during the 2023-2024 CAF Champions League final between Tunisia’s Espérance de Tunis and Egypt’s Al Ahly. Fifteen minutes before kick-off, Espérance’s three main ultra groups collaborated in a legendary tifo, or choreographed message.

The first part of the message was a simple gray tarp that read, “Free land in an occupied world: here are our values.”

© Maher Mezahi 2024

A few moments later, that tifo was replaced with another that read, “Unspoken humanity, unshaken faith, unmasked courage.” Simultaneously, the east stand of the Stade de Rades  unfurled a gargantuan tifo that covered the entire section of the venue: “Be on the right side of history.” 

© Maher Mezahi 2024

The banner featured personalities considered to have been at the forefront of the Palestinian cause over the last several months. Among those depicted were International Court of Justice lawyer from South Africa Adila Hassim, Colombia president Gustavo Petro, Palestinian doctor Ghassan AbuSittah, Palestinian journalist Saleh Al-Jafrawi, and United Nations Secretary-General António Guterres. The banner also included images of American university students, Glasgow Celtic ultras, and Houthi fighters.

Broadcast coverage of the match reached television sets in over 60 countries, including Israel, and highlighted the impressive displays from supporters, ensuring their message went viral on social media. But it wasn’t just the stunning artwork or the timeliness of the message that impressed many; the layered message and nuanced understanding of world events dispelled the notion that football supporters are indifferent to politics.

While the Espérance ultras’ choreography drew most of the world’s attention, a similarly compelling story was unfolding across the stadium in the northern stand, where Ultras Ahlawy led the visiting support in song and chant. This might seem like a normal occurrence, but for those familiar with the group’s history, the return of Ultras Ahlawy to the stands over the last few months is a story equally as impressive as Espérance’s choreography.

Since their inception in 2007, Ultras Ahlawy had often clashed with security forces. In 2011, during the Egyptian revolution, many of them descended upon Tahrir Square to protect fellow demonstrators and fight violent counterrevolutionary tactics from Egypt’s security apparatus.

“On the streets people saw Ultras Ahlawy like they saw Che Guevara—a symbol of freedom and a symbol of pride. People saw that no one police officer could bully or oppress us and that we could stand for our rights alone.” Ramy, a member of Ultras Ahlawy, explains. “When people saw Ultras Ahlawy in Tahrir Square, they had more faith in the revolution. We used to fight back against any attacks from the police and military, and people would think, ‘These people don’t lose.’” 

In 2012, 2,000 traveling Al Ahly fans were attacked in Port Said by Al Masry supporters. Seventy-two fans were tragically killed in the ensuing violence, which many believe was facilitated by the local police, due to Ultras Ahlawy’s vocal opposition to military rule. Ramy was at the match in Port Said. He explains, “For around a month, we were going to two to three funeral services per day, from one ground to another, from one family to another. There were some that lost fathers, others who didn’t see their sons, others whose wives were pregnant.”

Following the Port Said massacre, the Egyptian Premier League was suspended for over a year. When it resumed, Al Ahly would play its home matches hundreds of kilometers from Cairo, where police could easily monitor who was entering and exiting stadiums. A few years later, in 2015, Ultras Ahlawy were labeled a class-A terrorist organization. Still, members would play cat and mouse with authorities, sometimes sneaking their banner into the stadium.

In 2018, however, just one day before President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi threw a celebratory event at Cairo International Stadium, Ultras Ahlawy returned home. “We decided that we would attend the match against CF Mounana and sing ‘freedom,’ and entered with our banner into the stadium. Sisi’s son, Mahmoud, who runs intelligence agencies was at the stadium,” Ramy recalls.

It was dangerous, yes. “But it was for history!” he exclaims.

© Maher Mezahi 2024

Widespread crackdowns on Ultras Ahlawy ensued after the match against CF Mounana. Many ultras were imprisoned, scores of them moved abroad. And the Ultras Ahlawy banner had not appeared at any Egyptian league match since then.

In the last few months, the Ultras Ahlawy banner has made its long-awaited return to African stadiums, but not at home. Due to their team’s unprecedented success on the pitch—Al Ahly have qualified for a record fifth consecutive Champions League final this year—Ultras Ahlawy has been able to congregate abroad.

“These days we can’t really support the club in Cairo,” Ramy says. “Instead, we go all over Africa. Usually there are knockout stage matches we can go to, the Club World Cup or the final. We support with the same passion, maybe we’re even more passionate, because when you try to forbid someone from loving something, they’ll love it even more.”

He continues: “There’s a lot of danger in traveling to watch Al Ahly. It’s possible that just for lighting a flare, even if it’s outside of Egypt, that someone can be arrested at the airport upon arrival. But during those 90 minutes, we feel like we’re at home when we’re together. Those 90 minutes with my group are enough for the rest of the year for me.”

Due to the repressive measures in Sisi’s Egypt, the return leg of the CAF Champions League final at Cairo International Stadium will undoubtedly lack the excitement of the first match in Tunis. For starters, foreign flags, including the Palestinian one, will be prohibited in the stadium. Ramy and the rest of Ultras Ahlawy will not risk attending, and even Espérance ultras may face difficulties bringing their paraphernalia. If recent years are any indication, this second leg will have the same commercialized atmosphere that has stifled Egyptian football. The 90 minutes are unlikely to be a spectacle either on the pitch or in the stands.

Still, there’s a measure of comfort knowing that, though they are temporarily barred from their home venue, Ultras Ahlawy are making their presence felt across the rest of Africa. “For sure there will be a day when we go back,” Ramy concludes with a knowing smile.

Until then, home is 90 minutes away from home.

Further Reading

The (African) Arab Cup

Morocco’s World Cup heroics are forging a new, dissident Third-World solidarity, reflecting the multifaceted nature of Moroccan identity itself: simultaneously Arab, African, and Amazigh.