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Thursday, January 27, 2011

Soccer Fans Play Key Role in Egyptian Protests


With Egypt entering its second day of unprecedented anti-government protests, soccer fans constitute a well-organized and feared pillar of the marshalling grassroots coalition determined to ensure that President Hosni Mubarak suffers the same fate as Tunisian President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali who was toppled earlier this month by mass demonstrations.

The soccer fans, including the ultras of Cairo’s storied Al Ahly (The National) Sports Club, are part of an alliance of youth activists, Islamists, and workers protesting against the government’s failure to alleviate poverty, eradicate corruption and provide jobs as well as its employment of repression and torture to stymie opposition. 

Protestor’s demands range from increased political freedoms, to dismissal of the hated interior minister to an end to Mubarak’s 30-year rule and guarantees that the 82-year old leader will not be succeeded by his son, Gamal.

“What we saw on the streets yesterday (Tuesday) are not just Muslim Brotherhood members or sympathizers but Egyptians at large; those are the Egyptians that you would see supporting the football national team – and their show of frustration was genuine and it had to be accommodated," a prominent parliament member of Mubarak’s ruling National Democratic Party told Egypt’s government-controlled Al Ahram newspaper.

A Facebook statement by Al Ahly’s feared ultras said earlier this week that the group was determined to remain non-political, but that its members were free as individuals to participate in the protests. “The group emphasizes that its members are free in their political choices,” the statement said.

Established in 2007, the ultras -- modelled on Italy’s autonomous, often violent fan clubs -- have proven their metal in confrontations with the Egyptian police, who charge that criminals and terrorists populate their ranks.

“There is no competition in politics, so competition moved to the soccer pitch. We do what we have to do against the rules and regulations when we think they are wrong,” said an El Ahly ultra last year after his group overran a police barricade trying to prevent it from bringin flares, fireworks and banners into the stadium. “You don’t change things in Egypt talking about politics. We’re not political, the government knows that and has to deal with us,” he adds.

The involvement of organized soccer fans in Egypt’s anti-government protests constitutes every Arab government’s worst nightmare. Soccer, alongside Islam, offers a rare platform in the Middle East, a region populated by authoritarian regimes that control all public spaces, for the venting of pent-up anger and frustration. 

Algeria earlier this month cancelled a weekend of association soccer matches in a bid to seal off a rallying point for demonstrations protesting rising commodity prices. Riots in Jordan late last year that left 250 people injured exposed a deepening rift between East Bankers of Bedouin origin and Jordanians of Palestinian origin.

“Soccer is bigger than politics. It's about escapism. The average Ahly fan is a guy who lives in a one bedroom flat with his wife, mother-in-law and five kids. He is paid minimum wage and his life sucks. The only good thing about his life is that for two hours on a Friday he goes to the stadium and watches Ahly,” said Assad, a leader of Ahly’s ultras, “People suffer, but when Ahly wins they smile,” 

El Ahly board member Khaled Motagi, scion of the club’s first post-revolution chairman added in a BBC radio documentary, The Power and The Passion. Ahly has given its fans reason to smile, winning Egypt’s championship 34 and the African cup six times; rival Zamalek secured the Egyptian title 14 and the African one five times.

It’s no wonder that Al Ahly’s rivalry with fellow Cairo club Al Zamalek is the world’s most violent derby. Their vicious rivalry on and off the pitch has caused death, destruction and in at least one case in the early 70s, the entire league to be cancelled.

So deep-seated is their rivalry that the government insists that matches be played on neutral ground with foreign referees flown in to manage the game.  Hundreds of black-clad riot police, soldiers and plainclothes security personnel, worried about what the teams’ ultras may have in store, surround the stadium on game day. Routes to and from stadiums are strictly managed so that opposing fans don’t come into contact with one another before or after the match.


17 comments:

  1. "Established in 2007, the ultras -- modelled on Italy’s autonomous, often violent fan clubs..."

    James, it is unfortunate that this negative element of Italian football has been embraced in Egypt. Italian ultras have strange relationships with some players and club officials.

    In 2004, you may recall during a Roman derby that one ultra chief came on to the pitch. He convinced AS Roma captain and icon, Francesco Totti, to stop a game due to an alleged death outside of the stadium caused by the police. The situation was a hoax, but spoke volumes about the power of the Roman ultras in this particular case.

    Source: http://www.cbc.ca/sports/indepth/feature-soccer-rome.html

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  2. Steve, indeed, I agree. The only caveat that I would make is that the Italian ultras, whatever one thinks of them, operate in an open, pluralistic society. In authoritarian Egypt as elsewhere in the Middle East, soccer is often the only subterfuge or release valve for any kind of critical expression.

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  3. Referee51 requested posting of this comment:


    The big fear in Egypt is a repeat of the Iran events of 78/79/80, when what started similarly as a mass and widely popular uprising of merchants, students, and all sorts of other groups, but gradually the better organized and motivated Islamists took over the revolution and once in power ruthlessly have repressed all the other groups since, imposing a new form of dictatorship, and one much less tolerant of diversity and enforcing strict social and religious orthodoxy.

    One man, One vote, One time. As the Brotherhood is the most widely organized and motivated group in Egypt by a wide margin, it is not surprising to hear US experts in think tanks worry about a repeat of Iran 79. Losing Lebanon to Hizbollah and Iran is bad enough. Losing Egypt to the Muslim Brotherhood would be catastrophic (not for USA so much, but for Israel).

    The hard right line in Israel will react by saying “see, we told you so, the Arabs now reveal their true political character (Islamist). Darn good thing we were not persuaded to withdraw from Judea and Samaria, and lets build that wall even higher.”

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  4. I agree about the fear. However in Egypt things began by groups outside of political frameworks and the Brotherhood and others are jumping on the bandwagon. The mosque was the rallying and organizing point in Iran and others had no choice but to jump on the bandwagon.

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  5. Referee51 responds:

    And the distinction of how the revolt started to how it turns out is essential. As the liberals and students and doctors and lawyers go back to life and work, it will be the organized Brotherhood that offers a national candidate and the broad local presence to win a national election.
    Just reality. And why the US so often voted in favor of stability despite having to ally with regimes who had to use repression as a tool of statehood.

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  6. Referee51:

    Oh yes, the US relationship with the Egyptian Brotherhood goes way back – a Brotherhood leader was wined and dined (?) at the White House in 1953 by Eisenhauer as part of an effort to organize various opposition elements against Abdul Nasser (the Brotherhood then tried to assassinate him at least 3 times). Sadat gave them refuge and encouragement to a degree as an effort to balance the Nasserite Arab Socialists who deeply opposed Sadats economic reforms, liberalizations, de-statization, and what he called Infetah – the Open Door. Of course, Sadat crossed the line and embraced Begin, and had to die, Sinai or no Sinai.

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  7. All true. Fact of the matter is however that they are force that cannot be ignored, not least as a result of Western policies that allowed Mubarak to become increasingly authoritarian.

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  8. referee51:

    I was not ignoring them. I was in fact going to recommend we take them seriously, and do what that requires – encourage expertise in our foreign affairs that has to deal with the region, not denigrate it; start to reevaluate our policies towards Israel that reflect these harsher realities; take more realistic attitudes towards Hamas, and Hizbollah, and stop calling them names and seeking to isolate them and start a genuine dialogue of principles and interests with them; …want more?

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  9. James,

    See also this piece about Geddo: http://www.almasryalyoum.com/en/opinion/geddo-and-messianic-football

    And Aboutreika:

    http://www.newvision.co.ug/D/8/30/608715


    -- Sean

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  10. Sean, thank you for this. The links go to the heart of what I believe was true until the current wave of protests and will only be clear over time to what degree it has changed. And that is that in the Middle East with its authoritarian regimes that choke off all public space, the mosque and the soccer pitch were the only two institutions capable of providing alternative public space. My guess is that there will be a some degree of expanded public space, at least in some countries like Egypt, as a result of the protests. An actual material improvement of people's lives is likely to take much longer and the impact once that sinks in remains to be seen. Whichever way it goes, my guess is that soccer will remain a release valve. Thanks again.

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