Egyptian prosecutors have charged 38 members of a die-hard soccer fan club with belonging to an illegal group and other offenses, one of the first signs of a crackdown on the powerful sports organizations that have been at the forefront of the country’s protest movement, lawyers said Thursday.
Soccer fans, known as Ultras, became a major political force during the uprising that toppled Hosni Mubarak in 2011 and the subsequent tumultuous transition. They are known for their longstanding animosity with the police.
The charge of belonging to an illegal group appears to be an attempt to pressure the powerful Ultras network, one of the most organized movements in Egypt after the Islamist Muslim Brotherhood. But a crackdown could also backfire, as Ultras are some of the country’s most active protesters and regularly clash with police.
Ahmed Ezzat, a rights lawyer who is looking into the Ultras case, said the 38 Ultras Devils were arrested Wednesday during a protest in the Nile Delta city of Shebeen al-Kom. They were also charged with attempting to set fire to a provincial court house and insulting police officers.
He said security has already been beefed up around police stations and the detention facility in the town, amid concerns that supporters of the detainees may rally demanding their release.
Ezzat said some members of the group had been protesting the arrest of one of their members, Mohammed Gamal Helal, who is charged with attempting to overthrow the government. He said others were picked up at random. Ezzat said at least 15 in the group are minors.
Protests are unusual in Shebeen al-Kom, the capital of Menoufia province -- a region known for its support of Mubarak-era officials but not otherwise a hub of political activity.
Egypt’s state news agency quoted prosecutor officials as saying the arrested will be held for 15 days pending investigation.
Tensions between the Ultras and the police spiked Saturday when a Cairo court issued verdicts related to soccer riots in February 2012, in which 74 people -- mostly members of a Cairo Ultras club -- were killed. Most of those convicted were from a rival sports club.
Two police officers received 15 years for gross negligence and failure to stop the killings, in a rare incident of security officials being held responsible for deaths. But the soccer fans wanted more police to be held accountable for the incident and other episodes of violence. Seven other police were acquitted, and when the verdict was announced suspected Ultras set fire to a police club and a soccer federation in Cairo.
Ezzat denied that the protesters set the court building on fire, saying that a flare -- commonly used by Ultras at rallies -- hit the building. He said the detainees reported being beaten.
The charge of belonging to an illegal group was frequently used against the Brotherhood when Mubarak was in power. The group was outlawed for decades yet unofficially tolerated. The Brotherhood still does not have legal status, and bringing it under the regulation of the law has been one of Egypt’s opposition’s main demands.