Sunday, July 3, 2011

Football and revolution

As folks may have heard, there were major demonstrations last week after police attacked a gathering of families of the martyrs. Tahrir Square was retaken by demonstrators on Tuesday night into Wednesday. Since it received a good bit of media coverage (and I was not there), I won’t go into the details of what happened, but I am intrigued by a sidebar related to a big football scheduled for Wednesday.

On Wednesday night, there was slated a big football match between arch-rivals Ahly and Zamalek, with the season nearing the end. I can’t think of an appropriate comparison for folks in the US, but this is a huge rivalry and this was the first match between the two sides since the end of the revolution. Ahly was up a few points up in the standings with the season nearing the end, so Zamalek was in a tough position to catch up.

Relatively early in the day on Wednesday, it was announced on Reuters and elsewhere that the match was postponed. I understood why the authorities wished to cancel an event that had the potential to destabilize things further. But they changed course and it was announced that the match would be held Wednesday evening.

I was confused at first, but came to understand it through some conversations with friends. First, the background is that the ultras, militant groups of football fans, had organized in January and February to defend the revolution and, along with younger members of the Brotherhood, were on the frontlines. By all accounts, their role was heroic (and partly inspired by their own experiences of police brutality). There was some coverage of the ultras on CNN recently, so you can get some background. Frankly I myself had not fully appreciated their role though it has received some coverage.

On Wednesday morning, it looked like demonstrators, with the support of the football ultras, had control of Tahrir Square. If the match were cancelled, demonstrators would have probably stayed in the square on Wednesday and Thursday, and probably been joined by others on Friday. But with the match on, the ultras left the square (disappointing some activists).

This morning (Sunday), when I came downtown, there is a small encampment in Tahrir, but traffic looks to be flowing freely.

The match was a 2-2 tie (which amounts to a victory for league leaders Ahly).

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