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Wednesday, February 13, 2013

Post-revolt Arab Transitions: Driven by Distrust and Inexperience

RSIS presents the following commentary Post-revolt Arab Transitions: Driven by 
Distrust and Inexperience by James M. Dorsey. It is also available online at this 
link. (To print it, click on this link.). Kindly forward any comments or feedback 
to the Editor RSIS Commentaries, at

No. 027/2013 dated 13 February 2013
Post-revolt Arab Transitions:
Driven by Distrust and Inexperience

By James M. Dorsey


Post-revolt Middle Eastern and North African countries are struggling to 
manage the transition from autocratic to more transparent, accountable 
societies. Increasingly prejudice, distrust and inexperience are proving to be 
greater obstacles to a successful transition than resistance of vested interests 
of former regimes or alleged Islamists.


POST-REVOLT Arab nations are experiencing tumultuous times. The 
assassination of a prominent Tunisian opposition leader has sparked mass protests 
against Islamists held responsible for his death. Prime Minister Hamadi Jebali has 
called for the replacement of the Islamist-dominated Cabinet by a government of 
technocrats that would lead the country to elections, to the chagrin of his Ennahada 
party that fears loss of power.

Egypt has been wracked by violent street protests that have left more than 60 people 
dead in three Suez Canal and Red Sea cities, forcing President Mohamed Morsi to 
declare emergency rule and bring the military back into the streets and soccer 
stadiums to maintain law and order.

Underlying fault lines

Underlying the volatility in Egypt and Tunisia as well as difficult transitions in Libya 
and Yemen is the increasing lack of confidence between Islamists and 
non-Islamist forces. That fault line is fuelled by an ever deeper secularist suspicion 
that the Muslim Brotherhood and other Islamists who by and large have emerged 
from the revolts as the largest, most organised political force, are bent on creating 
Islamist states and enforcing Islamic law. This mistrust drives the weakening of the 
civilian and armed opposition to President Bashar Al Assad in the continuing civil 
 war in Syria.

For their part, Islamists, including moderates, are not certain where the allegiances 
of non-Islamists lie and whether significant segments of the secularists would opt for 
a less free society in cooperation with institutions like the judiciary, the police and 
security forces in a bid to halt what they see as an Islamist power grab.

To be sure, the militancy and violence of more radical Islamists in Tunisia in recent 
months as well as Morsi’s imperious style of government, his failed attempt to 
acquire absolute power, his unilaterally pushing through of a controversial constitution, 
his failed attempt to fire a state prosecutor and increased reliance on the despised 
police and security forces, have done little to assuage anti-Islamist fears. 

Similarly, Syrian opposition forces with Islamists in the lead have failed to convince the 
country’s key minorities who could have made a difference in reducing the regime’s 
power base, that there would be a place for them and that their rights would be 
secured in a post-Assad Syria.

Yet, lost in the mixture of misperception and prejudice is the recognition that Islamists 
came to power virtually unprepared for government, having a history of a pressured 
existence either underground, a legal nether land or exile. The Muslim Brotherhood, 
two years after the overthrow of Mubarak and seven months after Morsi’s election as 
president, remains nominally an illegal organisation in Egypt. As a result, this reinforces 
a sense that he and the Brotherhood fail to truly understand the concept of democracy 
and are more focused on fending off threats and settling old scores.

A mental transition

Morsi, like his counterparts in other post-revolt Arab nations, (apart from Libya that 
suffers the consequences of Muammar Gaddafi’s refusal to build institutions), have 
inherited states dominated by police and security forces and populated by institutions 
molded by the former autocratic regimes with their own vested interests. It takes a 
degree of political savvy, mastering of electoral politics, backroom horse trading, give-
and-take and an ability to manage public expectations rather than the bunker mentality 
in which Islamist leaders operated in the past. With few exceptions, they have yet to 
demonstrate that they can make that mental transition.

In retrospect, Morsi’s deft alliance late last year with the second echelon of Egypt’s 
military command that allowed him to sideline long-serving commanders who 
unsuccessfully sought to grab power in the period between his election and his 
assumption of office, seems more an exception than an indication of his ability to 
manoeuvre the minefield that constitutes Egyptian transition politics.

Jebali’s call for an interim technocratic government in a bid to avert a second 
popular revolt in Tunisia comes closest to Morsi’s rare display of political deftness
in his handling of the military. It contrasts starkly with Morsi’s surprising reluctance 
to tackle reform of the police and security forces who for many years targeted the 
Muslim Brotherhood, his seeming willingness to maintain Mubarak-era structures 
and his increased reliance on them despite the existence of reformists within all of 
those institutions.

Relative calm has returned to the streets of Egyptian cities, giving Morsi at best a 
month to build bridges in advance of the country’s next flashpoint when a court in 
Cairo pronounces verdict in the case of the remaining 52 defendants accused of 
responsibility for the deaths of 74 soccer fans a year ago in a politically-loaded 
brawl in Port Said.

Flashpoint offers leverage

To do so, Morsi would have to convincingly reach out to his detractors in a bid to 
convince them that he has put the bunker mentality behind him, wants his government 
to be inclusive rather than exclusive and that he is serious about reform of key state 
institutions and is focusing on a turnaround of the country’s economy. 

As much as the Port Said case constitutes a flash point – the court’s sentencing last 
month of the first batch of 21 defendants to death sparked the most violent protests – 
it also gives Morsi leverage. In the absence of a justification of the court’s ruling, a 
leaked summary of the prosecution’s case put the blame for the brawl as much on the 
police as it did on spectators in the stadium.

The prosecutor’s case, coupled with human rights reports that document that the police 
and security forces are a law unto themselves, provide Morsi with the ammunition to 
start the difficult process of reforming law enforcement. It is a move that would prove 
immensely popular and would help restore political calm needed to embark on a road 
of economic recovery.

A convincing move to amend the constitution in ways that removes fears of an Islamist 
takeover would further serve to bridge the widening gap in Egyptian politics. It is too 
early to write Morsi off as a failed leader. The ball is in his court, though time is running 
James M. Dorsey is Senior Fellow at the S. Rajaratnam School of International 
Studies (RSIS), Nanyang Technological University, co-director of the University 
of Wuerzburg’s Institute for Fan Culture, and the author of The Turbulent World 

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