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Ronnie Close: Cairo’s Ultras

Ronnie Close is a writer, filmmaker, and assistant professor of visual media at the American University in Cairo. His book Cairo’s Ultras: Resistance and Revolution in Egypt’s Football Culture (AUC Press, 2019) explores how football communities offer ways of belonging and instill meaning in everyday life.

What initially sparked your interest in Cairo’s Ultras, this particular group of Egyptian football fans, and how did this evolve into a book?

This subject was at first personally curious to me, as I have been a football fan since childhood. When I visited Cairo in 2011 I heard of the Ultras and I was surprised to encounter Egyptian football culture. I learned about the Al-Ahly and Zamalek clubs and was struck by the rich heritage of and role of football in Egypt.

I moved to AUC in January 2012 to take up my academic post in the university and within a few weeks of arriving the Port Said incident happened. The mood was suddenly transformed an even though in 2011 there were many other tragedies, Port Said was my introduction to that type of experience. I began to film the street protests and developed this into a film More out of Curiosity. By 2016 I started to consider a book iteration.

How would you describe Cairo’s Ultras and where and how do they fit into Egypt’s social and political landscape?

As I began to engage with the football communities in Cairo, I soon realized that they had offered a powerful form of expression of Egyptian youth culture. The Ultras were non-sectarian, non-class-based, apolitical, and even had female members.

This seemed to be a unique form of social mixing and offered a release for many ordinary working-class Egyptians. This culture is in keeping with the appeal of other Ultra movements in other countries, and the Egyptian version became modified to suit local social norms.

In the book, you look at the aesthetic displays and social organization of the Ultras. Why are these important?

The cultural practices of the Ultras involve group displays called Tifos that are highly choreographed collective actions where banners, flares, and fireworks create an intense experience in the football stadium. Ultras groups are in competition with these Tifos, often trying to outdo each other.

What interests me is how such creative activities, which take a lot of planning, preparation, and organization, can form a community and powerful group experience. These actions are in contrast to the football establishment and media industry, who often oppress this type of behavior and prefer football fans to be more passive.

It seems to me that this is a form of resistance to larger coercive forces that increasingly commodify daily life. Ultras movements hold a global appeal to something more human and this is what makes them so popular across cultures. It is this transformation of sport fandom that interests me and makes Cairo’s Ultras such a fascinating research area.

How easy was it for you to gain access to the groups for research and do you feel that the book objectively reflects the football culture of the Ultras?

The Ultras in Cairo were straightforward to deal with and although cautious they were very supportive of my film when I first met with them. The book research did not involve much additional research on the Ultras. Moreover, the writing process is a very different form of work and I was mostly involved in theoretical research, such as how everyday aesthetics can become political.

I used the Ultras as a lens through which to explore the concept of ‘Dissensus’ by the French philosopher Jacques Rancière. This means challenging the status quo, what is considered normal in a time or place, and I would suggest the Ultras in Egypt performed their own equality.

In what ways would you say that Cairo’s Ultras are unique?           

I think the book shows that the history and culture of Cairo’s Ultras are distinctive. They were initially modeled on Italian football fan culture and Ultras groups are now a global phenomenon. However, the Egyptian Ultras intersected with the 25th of January uprising and the consequences of this time make their history remarkable.

Although many football fan groups have had similar histories and political struggles, few can match the mercurial fate of Cairo’s Ultras over 11 years. I also tried to write a book that is more expansive than a straightforward history of Ultras, one that invites us to think about the role of the media and how sports culture can embody emancipatory politics.

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