On March 23, Sayyed Fahim’s father, Ali, died following a long battle with cancer. Fahim, more commonly known as Sayyed Mushagheb and a founding member of the Ultras White Knights (UWK) — an association of hardcore fans of Zamalek Football Club — was not at his father’s side when he passed. The 31-year-old was in a prison cell where he has spent the last five years serving a seven-year sentence on a variety of charges.
The day after his father’s death, Mushagheb was escorted under heavy guard from prison in Cairo to his hometown of Tanta to attend the funeral. By the time they arrived, the burial had ended. Mushagheb was allowed to visit his father’s grave and stay for a memorial service with the family at his uncle’s home for about half an hour before he was escorted back to prison.
In the weeks before Ali Fahim succumbed to his illness, a social media campaign was launched online calling on authorities to grant Mushagheb a furlough to visit his ailing father. Fahim had fallen into a coma, and his last wish had been to see his eldest son, Sayyed.
In February, Mushagheb was allowed to visit his father for one hour at the healthcare facility where he was hospitalized, also under heavy guard. The visit came as an unexpected surprise to his family and friends — an acknowledgment by authorities that Sayyed Mushagheb still exists.
For the past five years, Mushagheb has been detained in harsh conditions at the Maximum Security Wing 2 — commonly known as Aqrab (Scorpion) — of Tora Prison Complex. He was sentenced to a total of seven years in prison in a case related to an incident on February 8, 2015, when more than 20 people were killed outside Cairo’s Air Defense Stadium after security forces used tear gas to bar football fans from attending an Egyptian Premier League match, causing a stampede.
In the aftermath, 16 people, including Mushagheb, were charged with possession of explosives, vandalism of public facilities, assault against security forces, and murder. Mushagheb was acquitted of the murder charge in September 2017 but was handed a seven-year sentence by the Northern Cairo Criminal Court on the other charges. In November 2018, the Court of Cassation — Egypt’s highest appeals court — upheld the verdict against Mushagheb and the other defendants. Over the course of his imprisonment during the last five years, Mushagheb has also been interrogated in connection with no less than twelve other cases.
The ultras associations have long been a target for Egyptian authorities, especially following the 2011 revolution, when they took part in raging street battles against security forces. Over the years, hundreds have been rounded up and imprisoned.
As a founder of the White Knights, Mushagheb was a charismatic figure in the stadium during football matches, often donning a white cap and leading fans in fierce chants. His popularity, influence and leadership role within the group appear to have prompted authorities to make an example out of him.
Egypt’s ultras associations were first established in 2007 and 2008. Before that, fan groups were less independent from club administrations. Mushagheb was a Zamalek supporter, always there in “ level three, right side” as the hardcore fan section of the stadium is famously known, according to a member of the family who spoke to Mada Masr on condition of anonymity.
As a young player, Mushagheb sought to join the Zamalek junior team. However, he and the coach did not see eye to eye, so he joined Sharqiya lel Dokhan (Eastern Company)’s junior team. But before long, he was back at Zamalek, this time as a leading supporter, eventually helping to co-found the Ultras White Knights.
Another source close to the family, who also requested anonymity, says that Mushagheb rose to prominence on account of his boldness, bravery and charisma. Just before a Cairo derby in 2009, he mobilized a march from the Zamalek Club premises to al-Ahly as a challenge to their arch-rivals — a first for Zamalek fans. These qualities earned him the rank of “capo” at the UWK at a young age. The fierce rivalry between the ultras of Egypt’s two major clubs — Ahly and Zamalek — was just beginning at the time, though the government’s involvement was still limited to propagating rumors about the groups, painting them as drug users and thugs, according to the source.
“Members of these groups were rebellious. They were looking to prove themselves and despite their young age, they were able to brave new experiences, take on responsibility and make decisions,” said the source who is close to the family. “And Mushagheb was at the forefront. Whenever the government would try to deny the group entry to a match, Sayyed would lead members in any way. On the anniversary of the founding of the Zamalek Club on January 5, 2011, just days after the Two Saints Church bombing, the club blocked them from the premises on security grounds. So he and his group held their celebrations in the street.”
Mushagheb’s leadership and organizational abilities were also demonstrated in his success at expanding the group’s membership base and establishing strongholds in working-class neighborhoods, factors that helped the UWK fortify itself and bolster a defiant reputation.
At this stage, it was still all about football and supporting the team, according to the source close to the family. Meanwhile, he also worked several freelance jobs. His most recent, just before his imprisonment, was a post in online marketing, according to the family member. He has a wife, an eight-year-old daughter and a five-year-old son, who all live with his parents. His 21-year-old younger brother was arrested in April 2018 as a suspected member of UWK and jailed for five months at Tora.
In 2011, the ultras became embroiled in the political upheaval that erupted on the streets. On January 27, 2011, both UWK and Ultras Ahlawy (UA) announced that they would be joining the revolution and taking part in the mass street mobilization scheduled for the following day, known as the Friday of Rage.
The ultras had experience clashing with the police on the streets. The Interior Ministry had often tried to clamp down on them to counter their growing popularity among the youth. And the ultras made their presence felt during Egypt’s uprising. In one photo from January 28, Mushagheb appears alongside fellow UWK members and dozens of other protesters as they march defiantly past police trucks.
Even though the ultras had no prior direct involvement in politics beyond struggles against club administrations and the police over spaces to gather, it was not surprising that they took part in the revolution, the source close to the family says.
“All the UWK members wanted out of the first few days of the revolution was a confrontation with the Interior Ministry. They quickly retreated to their strongholds after that and helped secure their neighborhoods with local public action committees,” he said. “The group only re-entered the political arena after some of their members were killed, namely during the Mohamed Mohamoud clashes in November 2011 and outside the Cabinet building that December.”
As the confrontation between the ultras and the Interior Ministry intensified, so did the confrontation between the two main ultras groups: Ahly and Zamalek. This helped the security apparatus perpetuate the narrative that all ultras are rioters and troublemakers.
In January 2012, the UWK released a statement titled, “For the good of the Egyptian ultras movement” in a bid to rein things in. “In recent months,” the statement read, “as the ultras have gained traction and the movement won new ground, fights between different groups began to deviate from our principles of honorable competition. Some newbies have been under the impression that a group’s strength is not determined by how effective and creative it is in the stadium, but by how many members of rival groups are taken down.” The statement called attention to the increased number of injuries inflicted on fans by rival fans during games.
“We introduced this movement to Egyptian stadiums five years ago with the aim of giving Egyptian football a breath of fresh air. The first thing we did was sing, light flares, fly flags, chant and practice other forms of ultras art,” the statement said. It went on to highlight the police repression that followed. “Then came the revolution and a moment of revenge presented itself. Members from all ultras groups took to the streets, side by side, seeking retribution for themselves and because they are a part of the fabric of this country. They fought, and still fight, the regime.” The statement called for the saving of the Egyptian ultras movement and asserted that its goal was the long term continuity of ultras groups.
Two days later, Ultras Ahlawy embraced the reconciliation initiative. The very next day, on February 1, 2012, 74 Ahly supporters were killed in a football match between Ahly and al-Masry Club. The incident sparked fierce clashes between Ultras Ahlawy and the police in downtown Cairo, which the UWK joined in solidarity. Altercations between the two rival groups waned after that.
In the first post-Mubarak presidential elections in 2012, Mushagheb endorsed Salafi candidate Hazem Salah Abu Ismail and campaigned for him independently from the UWK. Ismail was eventually barred from running. The Muslim Brotherhood candidate Mohamed Morsi eventually won, only to be ousted from office a year later.
Around that time, Mushagheb’s name began to appear in several cases. He was accused of instigating various events, including some he claims he had nothing to do with. His targeting may have been a result of his wide network of personal connections and his participation in a number of street protests following the brutal dispersal of the pro-Morsi Rabea al-Adawiya sit-in in August 2013 and the subsequent crackdown on any and all political opposition.
The security apparatus’s hostility against the ultras was not the only source of contention at the time. In 2013, violence was also escalating between club administrations and supporters. In September of that year, Amr Hussein, a member of UWK, was killed in clashes between the group and security guards who work for Zamalek Club. UWK marched multiple times to protest the killing and then-Zamalek Club president Mamdouh Abbas. “If you love Amr Hussein, don’t pick fights or cause trouble. That’s why we fail to avenge him,” Mushagheb said as he led a march on October 13. “Bloodshed should be the last thing on anyone’s mind. Every one of us should behave responsibly. It wouldn’t please Amr to see any more of you get hurt. We should all be alert. And if someone tries anything with us, we’ll take them down.”
In March 2014, Mortada Mansour, a member of parliament, was elected president of Zamalek Club, which would only deepen the rift between UWK and the club administration. The UWK backed then-coach Mido against Mansour in several disputes and vocally opposed the club’s move to offer discounted memberships to judges, journalists and prosecutors, said the source who is close to Mushagheb’s family.
Security forces were also reinforcing their presence in games, prompting various ultras groups — including UWK — to release a joint statement in March 2014 demanding that Interior Ministry personnel be barred from stadiums. Instead, in May of that year, Mansour barred UWK members from the club premises. According to the source close to the family, Mansour used the Interior Ministry to enforce his decision, triggering a wave of arrests and a security crackdown against UWK members. The group marched in support of their detained members in August, but the protest ended in clashes with security forces.
In a televised interview in August 2014, Mansour claimed that a number of ultras had made an attempt on his life outside the club premises. He labeled Mushagheb a terrorist and a criminal and threatened to have him thrown in prison. Two months later, two unidentified individuals threw a bag of yellow liquid at Mansour. Some say the liquid was urine, but Mansour stated in his police report — in which he accused the ultras group of carrying out the attack — that it was a chemical substance. Shortly afterward, Mansour told the media that the ultras “belong in prison or in the grave.”
By January 2015, security forces had been targeting the UWK for months. Nevertheless, the group, including Mushagheb, attended a match at the club’s stadium in Agouza, formerly known as Hemly “Zamoura” Stadium and sang one of their more popular songs, “Football should be for enjoyment and for the people.”
Less than a month later, over 20 Zamalek supporters were killed at the Air Defense Stadium when security forces fired tear gas as the fans were stuffed into a narrow, cage-like passageway leading to the stadium’s internal gate. UWK believed the incident was an ambush — the club administration had announced that admission would be free, as an olive branch to supporters. Later, the administration claimed that supporters tried to force their way into the stadium without tickets.
Mushagheb was not at that game, according to the family member. Nevertheless, he was charged in connection with the death of his fellow supporters and was arrested on the street on March 16, 2015, according to his attorney Osama al-Gohary. Mushagheb disappeared for about a week before he resurfaced at the Supreme State Security Prosecution, which ordered his official detention, Gohary said.
According to Gohary, Mushagheb has been investigated in 12 cases since his arrest. The earliest one, heard by the military judiciary, was in relation to the May 2013 storming of the main headquarters of State Security Investigations Service (replaced by the National Security Agency later that year). Mushagheb was eventually acquitted in that case. He was also charged with “unlawful assembly” in five other cases though none of them were referred to court, and he eventually received release orders in connection with them.
Three of the cases involved Zamalek Club and pertained to events that took place in 2014. Two were in relation to the assault on Mansour in which Mushagheb was acquitted. The other was in connection with an attempt to storm the club premises for which he received a one year sentence that he has already served.
Mushagheb was also tried in two other cases, one in a military court and the other in a civilian court — both known as the “White Knights organization” case which were connected to fires that broke out in the Cairo International Conference Center, Cairo Stadium and Hadaf Stadium in 6th of October City. Mushagheb was acquitted in both.
The only remaining case is the Air Defense Stadium case, for which he has served five years of a seven-year sentence.
Mushagheb spent approximately a year and a half of his imprisonment in solitary confinement, a period that ended in 2018, during which he was held in an entire ward by himself. During that time he was not allowed to socialize with other detainees, often denied yard time, denied access to letters, paper and pens, and occasionally denied family visitations, conditions that prompted him to declare a number of hunger strikes in protest.
When Mushagheb’s family is allowed to visit, a prison officer sits in on the meeting. A National Security officer who interrogates Mushagheb on a weekly basis and regularly accuses him of taking part in actions that occurred while he was behind bars also sits in on the family visits.
According to the source who is close to the family, Mushagheb’s physical and mental health has deteriorated as of late.
“They have seen him as a security threat ever since they arrested him,” the source said. “They even asked him to disband the group while in prison, even though he isn’t in contact with anyone. Whatever old cases they have lying around, they implicate him in them. That’s why he was acquitted of everything except that one case. All the charges are based on information by National Security, but there is no evidence. He did nothing except support a football team and co-found an ultras group like all ultras groups around the world.”
In May 2015, the Cairo Court of Urgent Matters banned ultras groups and designated them terror organizations. Since then, dozens of UWK and Ultras Ahlawy members have been targeted and arrested. Several of them were handed lengthy prison sentences and are still in detention even though a number of the groups have disbanded.
On March 19, Gohary lodged a petition with the Public Prosecutor on behalf of Mushagheb and 10 other detainees who remain in prison in connection with the Air Defense Stadium incident. The petition, which Mada Masr received a copy of, demands the release of Mushagheb and his fellow detainees – even if on a temporary basis – because of the risk of an outbreak of the coronavirus in prisons, which are inherently crowded, in accordance with the government’s ban on gatherings. Meanwhile, an online campaign continues to call for the release of Mushagheb and the other detainees in the case, amid wider calls for prisoners to be freed amidst the pandemic.