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Soccer and Egypt’s “State of Emergency”

If you want to understand why Egyptian President Mohamed Morsi has declared a “state of emergency” or if you want to understand why the country’s defense minister warned Tuesday of “the collapse of the state”, you first need to understand the soccer fan clubs in Egypt—otherwise known as the “ultras”—and the role they played in the revolution that toppled Hosni Mubarak in 2011. Under Mubarak’s three decade kleptocratic rule, the hyper-intense ultras—made up almost entirely of young Egyptian men—were given near-free reign to march in the streets, battle the police and, of course, fight each other. This has been a common practice in autocracies across the world: don’t allow political dissent, but for the young, male masses allow violent soccer clubs to exist as a safety valve to release the steam. Mubarak, surely to his eternal regret, underestimated what could happen when steam gets channeled into powering a full-scale revolt. After revolution in Tunisia spurred the Egyptian uprising, the ultras transformed themselves in the moment and played a critical role in securing Tahrir Square, setting up checkpoints, and fighting off the police. This is not to say it was seamless. As one Egyptian revolutionary said to me, “In those first days, the Ultras were indispensable. But the hardest thing, it felt like at times, was to keep them all focused on the goal [of removing Mubarak] and keep them from killing each other.”