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CAIRO (AP) — An Egyptian court on Saturday banned the country's hard-core soccer fan clubs, known as "ultras," over terrorism accusations.
The ultras took part in protests during and after the 2011 uprising, and frequently clash with police in and around stadiums. The ruling by the Court of Urgent Matters in Cairo appeared to be the latest effort by the judiciary to prevent demonstrations.
During the 2011 uprising that forced out President Hosni Mubarak, ultras often provided muscle, directed demonstrators and led chants. They are considered one of the most organized movements in Egypt after the Muslim Brotherhood, which the government outlawed as a terrorist organization following the 2013 military overthrow of Islamist President Mohammed Morsi.
"They see themselves as a buffer, a channel that offers frustrated, despairing hopeless youth a chance to vent pent-up anger, frustration, and protest peacefully, rather than leaving them with the option of either apathy or violence," said James M. Dorsey, a senior fellow at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies who closely follows the ultras.
He called the ruling a "dangerous gamble" for the government.
The case was filed by Mortada Mansour, the head of the Zamalek Football Club, one of Egypt's most popular teams. Mansour has long been at odds with his team's ultras organization, known as the White Knights.
Last month, 11 fans were sentenced to death in a retrial of over 70 defendants accused in a 2012 soccer riot that left 74 people dead. An initial verdict in 2013 set off violent protests by fans in Cairo, who torched a police club and the soccer federation's headquarters.
Since the 2012 stadium violence, authorities have sharply limited attendance at matches.
"Egyptian soccer clubs are hurting," Dorsey said. "They've either not been playing for the last four years, or a good part of the past four years, or they've been doing it in empty stadia."
Authorities said at least 19 people were killed in February when police fired tear gas into a crowd of fans waiting in a fenced, narrow corridor trying to enter a match. Many of the dead suffocated or were crushed.