By James M. Dorsey
President Mubarak fetes a player (Source: Al Ahram)
Egyptian soccer star Mohamed Zidan in controversial remarks in a television interview put his finger on the problem Egypt and other post-revolt Arab countries face in transition from an autocratic to a more open society and the battles to be fought on the soccer pitch.
In an interview with satellite channel CBC Egypt, Mr. Zidan, a striker in the Egyptian national team and for Germany’s FSV Mainz 05, focused attention on the neo-patriarchal role of Arab autocrats as their nation’s father figure, the refusal of a majority of soccer players and managers to join the region’s anti-autocratic revolts and the deep-seated rivalry between crowned Cairo clubs Al Ahly SC and Al Zamalek SC despite the fact that militant soccer fans of both clubs stood shoulder-to-shoulder in the mass protests last year that forced president Hosni Mubarak out of office.
“I kissed Mubarak’s hand when he honoured Egypt after the 2010 African Cup of Nations as I saw him as a father of all Egyptians,” said Mr. Zidan said reflecting the attitude of most soccer players and managers in Egypt and elsewhere in the Arab world.
Egyptian soccer players stood aside during the mass protests while some prominent managers, including then starred national coach Hassan Shehata and twin brother Ibrahim and Hossam Hassan, who were at the time a Zamalek board member and the team’s coach openly supported Mr. Mubarak, only to be later blacklisted by the protesters.
Mr. Zidan’s description of Mr. Mubarak as a father echoed repeated statements last year by the Hassan brothers and others who said they supported the objectives of the anti-government protesters, but were concerned about the impact on soccer and believed that Mubarak had served his country and should be treated with respect.
Elsewhere, Libyan soccer players only joined the rebels four months into the NATO-backed armed revolt against Moammar Qaddafi when family and friends of theirs were killed in the fighting. In Bahrain where majority Shiite Muslim national soccer team players and other sportsmen organized their own protest against the minority Sunni Muslim government, the royal family failure to ensure equal rights for the religious minority meant that the king was not perceived as the country’s father figure. Abdelbasset Saroot, a 20-year old player for Syria's national Under-23 team who is one of the leaders of the protest in the embattled city of Homs, is perhaps the foremost exception to the rule.
At the heart of the failure of soccer players and managers to join the popular revolts sweeping the Middle East and North Africa is what Palestinian-American historian Hisham Sharabi call neo-patriarchy in a controversial book published in 1992 that is still banned in many Arab countries. Mr. Sharabi argued that Arab society was built around the "dominance of the Father (patriarch), the centre around which the national as well as the natural family are organized. Between ruler and ruled, between father and child, there exist only vertical relations: in both settings the paternal will is absolute will, mediated in both the society and the family by a forced consensus based on ritual and coercion."
In other words, Arab regimes franchised repression so that in a cultural patrimonial society, the oppressed participated in their repression and denial of rights. The regime is in effect the father of all fathers at the top of the pyramid. In the words of Egyptian journalist Khaled Diab quoted by journalist Brian Whitacker in a book exploring the nature of Arab soicety, Egypt's problem was not simply an aging president with little to show for himself after almost thirty years in power, but the fact that "Egypt has a million (president Hosni) Mubaraks.”
As a result, the patriarchal values that dominate soccer in addition to its popularity made it the perfect game for neo-patriarchs. Their values were soccer's values: assertion of male superiority in most aspects of life, control or harnessing of female lust and a belief in a masculine God. The identification of the presidents of Egypt, Iran and Yemen - Mubarak, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and Abdullah Ali Saleh - as well as Libyan leader Colonel Moammar Qaddafi’s son, Al Saadi al Qaddafi, with their country’s national teams turned their successes and failures into barometers of how their regimes were faring.
It also meant that managers were either appointed or approved by the Middle East’s and North Africa’s autocratic regimes while players were feted by autocrats and showered with gifts including expensive real estate and cars as well as significant amounts of cash for their successes on the soccer pitch.
With the region’s militant soccer fans or ultras – highly politicized, well organized street battle-hardened groups modelled on similar groups in Serbia and Italy – likely to refocus their attention on the beautiful game after having played a key role in revolts that toppled various Arab autocrats and a year of vicious street battles with security forces in downtown Cairo, Mr. Zidan’s remark highlights the strained relations between fans who view themselves as their club’s only truly supporters, players and managers in the region’s post-revolt soccer.
To the ultras, players are hired guns willing to switch allegiances for money while management consists largely of corrupt appointees of autocratic regimes. Al Ahly ultras unfolded a year ago a huge banner addressed to players during their team’s friendly against Harras El-Hodoud that read: "We followed you everywhere but in the hard times we didn't find you." Many reject Egypt’s national team as ‘Mubarak’s team’ rather than that of the nation. Players have since the overthrow of Mubarak pressured the ultras unsuccessfully to moderate their support tactics that include the use of fireworks, flares, smoke guns and abusive chanting because the clubs were being penalized.
In the interview, Mr. Zidan attempted to explain his failure to acknowledge the 74 soccer fans who died in a lethal clash in Port Said earlier this month immediately after a match between Al Ahly and the Sue Canal city’s Al Masry SC. His failure to do so highlighted the intense rivalry between Ahly, established in the early 20as an Egyptians-only meeting place for opponents of Britain's colonial rule as well as the monarchy that was toppled in 1952 and Zamalek, the pro-monarchy club of the British imperial administrators and military brass as well as the Cairo upper class. Their rivalry was so deep-seated that matches between them became the world’s most violent derby.
Ironically it was Mr. Mubarak that brought the arch rivals together. For the first time in the two clubs’ history, Mr. Mubarak emerged as the figure that fans of both clubs hated more than they hated each other. As a result, ultras of the two clubs joined forces last year on Cairo’s Tahrir Square to throw the country’s father figure off his pedestal.
“I really didn’t mean to provoke the emotions of the Egyptians,” Mr. Zidan said apologizing for his lack of empathy with the killed Ahli fans. “I was really close to a move to Ahly in the past and I respect the club and its fans,” Mr. Zidan insisted.
James M. Dorsey is a senior fellow at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies at Nanyang Technological University in Singapore and the author of the blog, The Turbulent World of Middle East Soccer.