CAIRO — Chanting slogans, carrying signs and waving flares, these eager young men who gather in Egypt could be mistaken for Arab Spring demonstrators.
And in this country, the recently-banned hardcore soccer fans known as ultras have played a political role.
Ultras, whose name comes from the Latin word for “beyond,” started in Latin America and Europe in the 1950s before coming to Arab countries. The first to form in Egypt, Ultras White Knights, emerged in 2007 to support the Zamalek team. Groups backing archrival al-Ahly and others followed.
Security forces and the media criticize ultras as being little more than violence-prone thugs. It was during Egypt’s 2011 revolt that ousted longtime autocrat Hosni Mubarak that ultras first took on a political role.
Often providing muscle at protests, ultras also directed demonstrators and led chants. They were considered one of the most organized movements in Egypt after the Muslim Brotherhood, which the government outlawed as a terrorist organization following the 2013 military overthrow of Islamist President Mohammed Morsi.
Since 2011, ultras have clashed frequently with police. In 2012, a soccer riot involving ultras killed more than 70 people and injured hundreds.
In May, a Cairo court banned them over terrorism accusations. The case was filed by Mortada Mansour, the head of Zamalek who has long been at odds with his team’s own ultras. White Knights leader Sayed Moshagheb is in jail on incitement charges.
Observers have said Egypt’s ultras see themselves as offering marginalized youth a chance to vent pent-up frustration through peaceful protests, as opposed to apathy or violence.