For fans in Morocco, watching Wydad Casablanca take on rivals Raja Casablanca is about more than just footballmustapha_ennaimi/Wikimedia Commons

Tolerated political dissent is a hard thing to come by in North Africa. In Morocco, Algeria, Tunisia, and Egypt, protest is often suppressed by heavy-handed governments with violence, torture, or imprisonment. In these extreme situations, dissenters must adapt.

Few North African football clubs are known internationally, even fewer for their football. North African terraces, however, have afforded a viable outlet for dissenting youth in oppressive circumstances. Stadia offer invaluable anonymity, relative impunity and an excuse to gather en-masse to sing passionately. From Cairo to Casablanca and Tunis to Tetouan, football stadiums serve as a vibrant channel for fans, especially hardcore supporters of the game, otherwise known as ‘ultras’, to display their opposition and dissent towards unpopular political regimes.

“fans were not just expressing their views, they were helping topple a leader”

English football songs are often one or two lines long, ranging from Bobby Zamora’s row Z accuracy to Luis Suarez’s offside teeth - hardly chants of a political nature. In North Africa, the terraces resound with four or five minute revolutionary anthems and fans’ politics are ragingly evident, particularly in Morocco. Raja Casablanca’s ‘Oppressed in My Country’, or في بلادي ظلموني (‘In my country they wronged me’), has nearly 10m views on YouTube and contains extremely political lyrics: “You’ve stolen all the national income, you’ve given it to foreigners, you’ve tyrannised the generation”.

Although Raja are one of North Africa’s most successful teams, winning Morocco’s top division a total of twelve times, Moroccan football’s politicisation extends far beyond its echelons. Despite currently playing in Morocco’s second division, Kénitra AC are known internationally for their ‘Today 13.12 And Forever’. In a four-minute, flare-filled cacophony, ultras cry: “This message is for the police and for the government, from its injustice we are already fed up […] We hate you all, we’re ready for war”.

Even Wydad Casablanca, Raja’s arch rivals, protest similarly with ‘Free and Unbowed’, addressing Morocco’s youth unemployment, privatisation of public services, and corruption. In fact, most Moroccan ultras are politically active at games. The ingenuity of these fans is commendable and deserves more attention. In restrictive surroundings, and a system that does not provide the disenfranchised youth with agency, ultras have beaten the odds to bellow complaints at the government. Their common voice travels into the night sky and out of televisions across the world for all to hear.

“So paramount is the political agency that North African fans gain in the terraces that they will adapt and sometimes risk life to achieve it”

Moroccan journalist Abderrahim Bourkia described Raja’s ‘Oppressed in My Country’ as “straddling sport and politics”, a sentiment made clear when the song was heard in Algeria’s 2019 protests that saw the ousting of long-term strongman Abdelaziz Bouteflika. The politically active Algiers ultras were key then, putting their differences to one side by boycotting the Algiers Derby the day before national elections, and both helping to organise demonstrations the following day. This was momentous. With most of North African ultras’ political ambitions and yet little-known actions, fans were not just expressing their views, they were helping topple a leader.

Turning to Egypt, ultras’ political activity also extends beyond the terraces. In the ‘Arab Spring’ protests of 2011, football fans turned out in force. Football writer Matt Gault described Cairo’s Al Ahlawy ultras as crucial in promoting social change: “the Ahlawy provided fuel for the revolution”. He continued: “they manned barricades, participated in songs of protest and produced banners denouncing the regime of [Hosni] Mubarak […] They were the protectors of the revolution, the voice of the poor and disenfranchised”. In the same year, Tunisian ultras acted similarly, as they emphatically protested against then-President Ben Ali’s regime. Here again, fans demonstrated their capacity to enact serious and meaningful change as a unified political force.

Unfortunately, yet unsurprisingly, governments have often responded brutally and outrageously to such widespread fan-led dissent, resulting in violent policing and death. The most infamous and horrific incident, known as the Port Said Massacre, came in Egypt in 2012, as 74 football fans were killed in stampedes and clashes as a result of the police’s refusal to open stadium gates. Instead, the police barricaded fans in and turned off stadium lights as violence and killing raged. This appalling behaviour is symptomatic of autocracy, but equally demonstrates the political weight that ultras have to make governments hold them in such disdain in the first place. Clearly, terraces afford enough political agency for governments to feel the need to suppress it in any way possible.


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The same can be said for the occasional outright bans and stadium ID checks ultras have faced elsewhere, which threatens to destroy the dissident anonymity offered by terraces. In spite of this, fans have continued to adapt and use football stands as areas for political protest. In Morocco, Kénitra AC’s fans did not vacate the terraces following an ultra ban, but instead ditched the flares and tifos to assemble themselves into letters spelling out PHILOTIMO (‘love of honour’ in Greek), whilst continuing their anti-government singing. So paramount is the political agency that North African fans gain in the terraces that they will adapt and sometimes risk life to achieve it.

As long as football stands remain open and the youth feel disenfranchised, North Africa’s ultras will stay politically active. Such fans have the capacity to inspire other repressed youth through their inventiveness, colour, and passion, while they have already given people an invaluable outlet for meaningful political protest that deserves praise and recognition.