Now We're Talking Football
“The Turbulent World of Middle East Soccer has helped me immensely with great information and perspective.”
Bob Bradley, former US and Egyptian national coach
"James Dorsey’s The Turbulent World of Middle Eastern Soccer (has) become a reference point for those seeking the latest information as well as looking at the broader picture."
Alon Raab in The International Journal of the History of Sport
“Dorsey’s blog is a goldmine of information.”Play the Game"Your expertise is clearly superior when it comes to Middle Eastern soccer."
Andrew Das, The New York Times soccer blog Goal."No one is better at this kind of work than James Dorsey"David Zirin, Sports Illustrated
"Essential Reading"Change FIFA"A fantastic new blog'Richard Whitall of A More Splendid Life"James combines his intimate knowledge of the region with a great passion for soccer"Christopher Ahl, Play the Game"An excellent Middle East Football blog"James Corbett, Inside World Football
Thursday, January 31, 2013
Adding to the powder keg: The Black Bloc (Source: Dalia Rabie/Egypt Independent)
By James M. Dorsey
Egypt’s military has authorized the Egyptian Football Association (EFA) to resume league matches this weekend a year after they were suspended in the wake of a politically loaded brawl that left 74 soccer fans dead.
The move a day after Defense Minister and armed forces commander Gen. Abdel Fattah El Sissi warned of a potential “collapse of the state” signals the military’s expanding involvement in Egypt’s worsening crisis and threatens to pit it against militant soccer fans or ultras who hold it co-responsible for the worst incident in Egyptian sports history.
The emergence of the Black Bloc, a group of battle-hardened militant soccer fans or ultras dressed in black with their faces hidden behind black mask that has intervened in recent days to protect protesters against the security forces and what they describe as Muslim Brotherhood thugs, adds to the powder keg. A militant Islamist group has already asserted that Black Bloc members should be killed.
It was not immediately clear what motivated the military to assume a responsibility of the interior ministry whose police and security forces are preoccupied with quelling protests against the government of President Mohammed Morsi by authorizing the resumption of soccer.
Analysts are divided about whether it constitutes an ill-conceived attempt to maintain a façade of normalcy and demonstrate that the military and the security forces can secure Egypt’s streets or the creation of an opportunity to crack down on militant, highly politicized, well-organized and street battle experience fan groups as well as others that may be organizing themselves as militias or vigilantes. In doing so, the military would be tapping into a yearning among a majority of protest-weary Egyptians who yearn for a return to normalcy.
The government and the EFA have been further under pressure from clubs and players to lift the suspension of soccer that has hit them hard financially and undermined player morale.
Ultras, 21 of which were sentenced to death last weekend on charges of responsibility for the deaths in Port Said, play an important part in the anti-Morsi protests. Their relationship with the military soured in the last two years after their key role in the toppling two years ago of President Hosni Mubarak because of their militant opposition to military rule that led Egypt from the rule of Mr. Mubarak to that of Mr. Morsi and their growing rejection of the Muslim Brotherhood leader’s government.
The resumption of professional soccer in the midst of a political crisis that has erupted on the streets of Egyptian cities constitutes a rejection of the ultras’ insistence that matches only be restarted once justice has been served in the Port Said case and their insistence that fans in contradictions to the military-endorsed terms of the interior ministry be allowed to attend matches.
The 21 condemned to death row, supporters of Port Said’s Al Masri SC, were among 73 people, including nine mid-level security officials on trial for the death of primarily supporters of crowned Cairo club Al Ahli SC at the end of a match between the two in the Suez Canal city. The verdict has reinforced widespread discontent on both sides of the soccer divide and across Egypt.
In Port Said it reinforced a sense that the city was being scapegoated for an incident that constituted an attempt that got out of hand to reign in militant soccer fans. Al Ahli militants share Port Said's perception that the incident in their city was not spontaneous or coincidental..
The court’s delay until March 9 of the sentencing of the remaining 52 defendants, including the security officials, as well as the fact that it has yet to address the question of who was really responsible for the incident spoke directly to one of the issues fueling the anti-Morsi campaign: the fact that virtually no one has been held accountable until now for the deaths of more than 800 protesters since the revolt against Mr. Mubarak erupted.
The government and the EFA have failed on several occasions in the past six months to lift the suspension of soccer. The interior ministry and the ultras both opposed it for different reasons. The ministry long wanted to avoid renewed street battles with the ultras in a bid to shore up the tarnished image of its police and security forces who are despised as the repressive arm of the Mubarak regime and are now seen by the ultras and others as the enforcers of the new Mubarak, Mr. Morsi.
Mr. Morsi ordered on Wednesday the shortening of curfews in three Suez Canal cities – Port Said, Suez and Ismailia – amid so far unsuccessful attempts to engage the opposition in dialogue. The military’s authorization of the resumption of soccer authorization of the resumption of soccer, consistent with the misreading of the public mood by the armed forces, threatens to complicate the president’s efforts and fails to address the issues underlying the protests in Egypt – a cry for justice, greater transparency and inclusivity, reform of Mubarak era state institutions first and foremost among which the police and security forces, and recovery of an economy in decline.
To ensure security and minimize the risk of confrontation, the defense ministry said in a statement quoted by Al Ahram Online that the first half of the resumed league would be played in military stadiums. The ministry said further that matches scheduled to be played in Suez Canal and Red Sea cities would be hosted elsewhere. Al Masri moreover bowed to pressure to abstain itself from the initial league season to avoid increased tension. The military aware of the evocative power of soccer owns several soccer clubs and military-owned construction companies have built a number of Egypt’s stadiums.
James M. Dorsey is a senior fellow at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies, co-director of the University of Wuerzburg’s Institute for Fan Culture, and the author of The Turbulent World of Middle East Soccer blog.
There will be more deaths to come, as Morsi seems determined to crush and not heed the opposition. The great tragedy is that clearly, as long as there is no justice there won’t be peace, stresses Dave Zirin.
If you want to understand why Egyptian President Mohamed Morsi has declared a "state of emergency" or if you want to understand why the country’s defense minister warned Tuesday of "the collapse of the state,” you first need to understand the soccer fan clubs in Egypt -- otherwise known as the "ultras" -- and the role they played in the revolution that toppled Hosni Mubarak in 2011.
Under Mubarak’s three decade kleptocratic rule, the hyper-intense ultras -- made up almost entirely of young Egyptian men -- were given near-free reign to march in the streets, battle the police and, of course, fight each other. This has been a common practice in autocracies across the world: don’t allow political dissent but for the young, male masses allow violent soccer clubs to exist as a safety valve to release the steam.
Mubarak, surely to his eternal regret, underestimated what could happen when steam gets channeled into powering a full-scale revolt. After revolution in Tunisia spurred the Egyptian uprising, the ultras transformed themselves in the moment and played a critical role in securing Tahrir Square, setting up checkpoints, and fighting off the police. This is not to say it was seamless. As one Egyptian revolutionary said to me, “In those first days, the Ultras were indispensable. But the hardest thing, it felt like at times, was to keep them all focused on the goal [of removing Mubarak] and keep them from killing each other.”
Distinguished by their uniform of skinny jeans and hoodies, they quickly became objects of admiration in Tahrir Square. "They stayed there in the square almost through 100 hours of fighting," said protester Mosa'ab Elshamy. "It’s easy to notice them because of their use of Molotov cocktails, their extreme courage and recklessness, their chants. They became a common sight."
Their strength as a coherent and durable political force was seen after Mubarak was removed and a military junta assumed power. The ultras didn’t dissipate but remained on the front lines pushing for changes that would go beyond the cosmetic.
Then came Port Said. One year ago, 74 people died in clashes that followed a soccer game between visiting Al-Ahly and Port Said’s Al-Masri. People were stabbed and beaten when Al-Masri fans rushed the field after their team's 3-1 victory. The majority of deaths, however, took place because of asphyxiation as Al-Ahly fans were crushed against locked stadium doors.
There is ample video evidence that shows the military and security forces complicit in these deaths, either through inaction or worse. As James Dorsey of the Middle Eastern Soccer Blog wrote, “The incident is widely seen as an attempt that got out of hand by the then military rulers of the country and the police and security forces to cut militant, highly politicized, street battle-hardened soccer fans or ultras down to size.”
This tragedy, however, immediately took on a political, anti-regime dimension. Instead of one ultra group pledging death to the other, they blamed the junta and their hated police. Diaa Salah of the Egyptian Football Federation said, “The government is getting back at the ultras. They are saying, ‘You protest against us, you want democracy and freedom. Here is a taste of your democracy and freedom.'”
The current crisis stems from that moment. Last week, the verdicts came down in the Port Said “soccer riot” and twenty-one people were sentenced to hang. Not one of the twenty-one was from the state and security forces. The message was clear. Even though Morsi and the Muslim Brotherhood were now in charge, this government would be no different: protecting and defending their state at the expense of justice. It is true that the Al-Ahly fan club initially praised the verdict for providing closure for the families who lost loved ones, but this quickly soured into frustration. There was nothing to celebrate as the people in Port Said rose violently first in opposition to the verdict, then in opposition to the brutal state repression ordered by Morsi, and now in opposition to the regime itself.
As Dorsey wrote, “Neither the ruling nor government policy to date addresses an equally fundamental demand that both Al-Masri and Al-Ahly fans share: the need for a thorough reform of the police and security forces. The riots in the wake of the court verdict constitute the peak of an iceberg of growing discontent in Egypt with the government’s failure to hold accountable police and security forces believed to be responsible for the death of more than 800 protesters since mass demonstrations erupted two years ago against the Mubarak regime and to address the country’s economic decline as well as Mr. Morsi’s rushing through of a controversial new constitution.”
The days of Morsi’s reign are now being challenged in Cairo where on Monday demonstrators battled police in street fights that lasted for hours. In Suez, thousands left their homes and marched at 9pm in violation of curfew laws. And at Ground Zero, in Port Said, demonstrators declared their own state while thousands chanted, “LEAVE! LEAVE!” to Morsi, the same rallying cry used in the last days of Mubarak. The future for Morsi is unclear but what is clear is that the ultra clubs aren’t leaving the stage of Egypt’s history until there is justice and those in the state and military apparatus are held accountable not only for what took place in Port Said, but for all the hundreds who’ve been killed protesting over the last two years. Since this latest eruption, 60 more are now confirmed dead including Tamer al-Fahla, former goalkeeper of the al-Masri team, and Mohammad al-Dadhwi who played for Port Said’s al-Mareekh team. There will be more deaths to come, as Morsi seems determined to crush and not heed the opposition. The great tragedy is that clearly, as long as there is no justice there won’t be peace.
Dave Zirin is the author of Bad Sports: How Owners Are Ruining the Games We Love (Scribner)
Copyright © 2013 The Nation -- distributed by Agence Global.
Wednesday, January 30, 2013
RSIS presents the following commentary Qatar’s Challenge to Saudi Arabia: An
alternative view of Wahhabism 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 RSISPublication@ntu.edu.sg
No. 017/2013 dated 30 January 2013
Qatar’s Challenge to Saudi Arabia:
An alternative view of Wahhabism
By James M. Dorsey
Qatar, whose native population adheres to the Wahhabi creed, poses a major
challenge to the puritanical interpretation of Islam of Saudi Arabia, which seeks
to make itself impervious to the push for greater freedom, transparency and
accountability sweeping the Middle East and North Africa.
THE GULF STATE of Qatar, despite its conservatism is hardly a mirror image of
Saudi Arabia, with its stark way of life, absolute gender segregation, total ban on
alcohol and refusal to accommodate alternative lifestyles or religious practices.
Qatar’s encouragement of women’s advancement in society, less strict separation
of genders, allowing non-Muslims to consume alcohol and pork, sponsorship of
Western arts like the Tribeca Film Festival, and hosting of the 2022 World Cup with
its expected influx of Western fans with their un-Islamic ways, offers young Saudis a
vision of a conservative Wahhabi society that is less constrained and permits
individuals irrespective of gender greater control over their lives.
Qatar and Saudi Arabia’s diverging world views have manifested themselves in
differing policies towards the popular revolts and protests sweeping the region. While
Saudi Arabia has adjusted to regional change incrementally Qatar has sought to
embrace it as long as it is not at home. Like Saudi Arabia, it seeks to maintain the
status quo in its immediate neighborhood, witness the life sentence handed a Qatari
poet for criticising the royal family.
At the core of the regional rivalry between Saudi Arabia and Qatar are fundamentally
different strategies of self-preservation. While the royal families of both have sought
to buffer themselves by lavish social spending, Saudi Arabia has opted for maintenance
of the status quo where possible and limited engagement with the Muslim Brotherhood
in Egypt and Syria, toward which it harbours deep-seated distrust.
In contrast Qatar seeks to be on the cutting edge of history and has exercised a
sophisticated soft diplomacy with its winning bid to host the World Cup, positioning
itself as global hub by developing a comprehensive sports sector, creation of world
class museums and sponsorship of the arts. In effect, Qatari support for the Muslim
Brotherhood and popular revolts in the region constitutes an integral part of its foreign
and defence policy, designed to embed itself in the international community so as to
enhance the chances that other nations will come to its aid in time of need.
That policy is based on Qatar’s realisation that no matter what quantity of
sophisticated weaponry it purchases or foreigners it recruits into its military force,
it will not be able to truly defend itself. It also stems from uncertainty over how reliable
the United States is as the guarantor of last resort of its security. That concern has
been reinforced by the United States’ economic problems, its reluctance to engage
militarily post-Iraq and Afghanistan and its likely emergence by the end of this decade
as the world’s largest oil exporter.
At loggerheads with Saudis
Qatar’s strategy effectively puts it at loggerheads with Saudi Arabia. Whether the
Saudi-Qatari rivalry will precipitate change in the kingdom or reinforce monarchical
autocracy in the region is likely to be decided in Qatar itself rather than elsewhere in
the region. Qatar has already a foretaste of potential battles to come with Saudi-backed
conservatives who also enjoy support of some Qatari royals. They have twice boycotted
major state-owned companies, and voiced opposition to the sale of alcohol and pork in
the country and questioning the emir’s authority to rule by decree.
Qatar’s strategy of embracing the Muslim Brotherhood and putting itself at the cutting
edge of change elsewhere in the region as well as it soft diplomacy contain risks that
Saudi Arabia is likely to exploit. Fault lines in Egypt have deepened and hardened as it
teeters on the brink under President Mohammed Morsi, making Muslim Brothers in Arab
nations in the throes of change reluctant to assume sole government responsibility.
Jordan’s Brotherhood-related Islamic Action Front (IAF) boycotted parliamentary elections
in January 2013 official because of alleged gerrymandering. Privately, the IAF, with an eye
on Egypt is believed to have shied away from getting too big a share of the pie for their taste.
Opening a Pandora’s Box
Similarly, Qatar’s winning of the right to host the 2022 World Cup may have opened a
Pandora’s Box of change that could reverberate throughout the Gulf starting with the
status of foreign workers who constitute a majority in some of the smaller Gulf states
serving as the monkey wrench. Under increasing pressure from international trade unions
who have the clout to come through on a threat to boycott the Gulf state, Qatar has
suggested it would allow the formation of independent unions created to engage in
If Qatar proves true to its word, it raises the spectre of foreigners gaining greater rights and
having a greater stake in countries that have sought to protect their national identity and the
rights of local nationals by ensuring that foreigners do not sink roots. That effort even goes as
far as soccer clubs opting for near empty stadiums because there are not enough locals to fill
them rather than offering the population at large something that could even remotely give them
a sense of belonging.
At first glance Qatar’s foreign, sports and culture policy seems forward looking despite
conservative opposition at home and appears to put the tiny Gulf state in a category of its own.
Yet, the challenge it poses to Saudi Arabia ultimately could prove a challenge to itself. It buys
Qatar time but in the final analysis fails to address fundamental issues underlying the wave of
protests as well as demographic issues looming in the Gulf.
James M. Dorsey is a senior fellow at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies,
co-director of the Institute of Fan Culture of the University of Wuerzburg and the author of
The Turbulent blog.
Click here for past commentaries.
Find us on Facebook.
Due to the high number of publications by our RSIS Centre for Non-Traditional Security
Studies (NTS), RSIS maintains a separate subscription facility for the Centre. Please click here
to subscribe to the Centre's publications.
Beitar Jerusalem protest hiring of Muslim players (Source: Reuters)
By James M. Dorsey
Racism raised its ugly head twice in the Middle East in recent weeks: Anti-Muslim, anti-Arab supporters of right wing Israeli soccer club Beitar Jerusalem rejected the hiring of two Chechen Muslim players while Egyptian president Mohammed Morsi struggled to play down anti-Semitic remarks he made two years ago.
The two incidents reflect the region’s battle to come to grips with the fact that it is populated by a myriad of ethnic, national, religious and sectarian groups. Widespread racism coupled with assertions of at times exclusionary rights and an unwillingness to recognize and honor others’ national and minority rights has become all the more glaring amid a regional push for greater freedom in a swath of land stretching from the Atlantic coast of Africa to the Gulf.
While Christians view with suspicion and fear the rise of Islamist forces in post-revolt Arab nations and nervous anticipation change in nations that have yet to be hit by the wave of protests, efforts in Mali to achieve greater rights for the Tuaregs have been overtaken by jihadist forces that prompted a French military effort to regain control of the northern part of the country.
Christians in war-torn Syria first backed embattled President Bashar al-Assad and now frequently stand on the side lines, fearful that the potential emergence of jihadists and Islamists as his successor may mean that their days in the country are numbered.
In Israel, the rejection by supporters of Beitar Jerusalem, the storied bad boy of Israeli soccer that is the only club that systematically refuses to hire Palestinian players although they rank among Israel’s top performers, responded furiously to Beitar owner and billionaire of Russian origin Arcadi Gaydamak’s hiring of two Muslim players from Chechen team Terek Grozny. Mr. Gaydamak auspiciously made his announcement on International Holocaust Remembrance Day and only days after he lost an appeal against his conviction in France on charges of corruption.
Their response constitutes a reflection of prejudice towards Muslims in Israel despite the fact the fans’ response sparked sharp criticism and that the Israeli Football Association (IFA) is the only soccer body in the region that has launched an anti-racism campaign.
“If we accept that racism is still alive and well outside the arena, then sports would have to exist in a hermetically sealed, airtight environment in order to remain uninfected. Impossible. If we accept that, yes, race and racism are still live issues in sports, then we need to realize how these issues are debated and discussed therein has a profound effect on how they are discussed and understood in our broader culture,” says US sports journalist in a newly published book, ‘Game Over, How Politics has Turned the World Upside Down.’
In an interview with Ynet, Mr Gaydamak said that “as far as I'm concerned, there is no difference between a Jewish player and a Muslim player. We must look at things professionally, we must treat them nicely and fairly. There have always been good relations between the Muslims in Russia and the Caucasus and the Jews."
Mr. Gaydamak was further quoted in the Israeli press as saying that his club’s poor performance and financial troubles had made it possible to stand up against the racism of its fans. “This is something that we’ve wanted to do at Beitar for many years, and it’s been made possible now because of the team’s financial state and the need to strengthen the squad. The aim is to put an end to the racism that has been doing harm to Beitar over the years, and not to give in to a handful of extremists,” he said.
Yet, even defenders of Mr. Gaydamak’s move couched their arguments in questionable terms. "I don't understand the fans who don't want to see a Muslim player in Beitar. There are a billion Muslims in the world and we must learn how to live with them. There is a difference between a European Muslim and an Arab Muslim, and the fans here have a problem with Arabs living in the Middle East,” said Beitar coach Eli Cohen.
Similarly, Beitar spokesman Assaf Shaked drew a distinction between Muslims and Arabs. “We are against racism and against violence and we pay a price for our fans. But we aren’t going to bring an Arab player just to annoy the fans,” Mr. Shaked said.
In a strongly worded letter to IFA chairman Avi Luzon, Israeli president Shimon Peres said: "I appeal, through you, to all football fans to refrain from all expressions and manifestations of racism in football stadiums and outside of them. Racism has struck the Jewish people harder than any other nation in the world. The authorities must prevent it before it starts. Today, sport is a universal declaration against racism. It is unacceptable for the opposite to take place in Israel.”
Beitar fans cursed Mr. Gaydamak during their club’s match last Saturday against Bnei Yehuda Tel Aviv and vowed to prevent the Muslim players from playing. “This will happen over my dead body. We won't accept it. Every second they're on the field we'll drive them mad until they ask to leave," one fan said. “Beitar will remain pure forever,” read a Beitar banner during the match. Nigerian defender Ibrahim Nadala left Beitar several year ago after being verbally harassed by fans.
Beitar has the worst disciplinary record in Israel’s Premier League. Since 2005 it has faced more than 20 hearings and has received various punishments, including point deductions, fines and matches behind closed doors because of its fans’ racist behavior.
Beitar fans last year stormed a Jerusalem mall and beat up Palestinian shoppers and workers. They subsequently attacked a Jewish woman musician on a Jerusalem street because she denounced their politics.
Beitar’s matches often resemble a Middle Eastern battlefield. It’s mostly Sephardic fans of Middle Eastern and North African origin, revel in their status as the bad boys of Israeli soccer. Their dislike of Ashkenazi Jews of East European extraction rivals their disdain for Palestinians.
Supported by Israeli right wing leaders such as Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, Beitar traces its roots to a revanchist Zionist youth movement. Its founding players actively resisted the pre-state British mandate authorities.
Beitar fans shocked Israelis when they refused to observe a moment of silence for assassinated Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin, who initiated the first peace negotiations with the Palestinians.
The row over Mr. Gaydamak’s acquisition of Muslim players echoes post-election Israeli political discussions. Yair Lapid, whose Yesh Atid (There is a Future) center left party did surprisingly well in this month’s election, was quick to assure Israelis that he had no intention of cooperating with Palestinian members of the Israeli parliament.
“I heard talk about a blocking majority- I want to take this off the table. We will not do that with Haneen Zoabiz – it is not going to happen,” Mr. Lapid, using a play on deputy Zoabi’s last name to use it as a plural for Arabs.
Anti-Muslim and anti-Arab expressions come cheap in Israel. So do anti-Semitic utterances in Egypt. Speaking earlier this month to visiting US senators, President Morsi said anger over his description of Jews three years ago "bloodsuckers" and "the descendants of apes and pigs" had been overblown because of Jewish control of the American media.
Mr. Morsi’s remarks, Beitar’s defense of the hiring of Muslims who are not Arabs, Christian concerns about their future in the Middle East and North Africa and the failed Tuareg bid in Mali for greater rights serve as stark reminders that the push for greater freedom in the region is still in its initial phase and will only succeed if those clamoring for dignity and rights recognize that this has to apply to all.
James M. Dorsey is a senior fellow at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies, co-director of the University of Wuerzburg’s Institute for Fan Culture, and the author of The Turbulent World of Middle East Soccer blog.
Tuesday, January 29, 2013
By James M. Dorsey
President Mohammed Morsi’s imposition of a curfew in three Egyptian Suez Canal and Red Sea cities may temporarily reduce violent street opposition to his policies but like this weekend’s initial verdict in the case against those responsible for last year’s death of 74 soccer fans in Port Said will do little to return political stability to the country.
While the move caters to a craving among many protest-weary Egyptians for a return to normalcy that would help put the country on a path of economic growth, it reinforces perceptions of Mr. Morsi as an autocratic leader with an Islamist agenda rather than a man willing and capable of reforming state institutions molded under his toppled predecessor, Hosni Mubarak, in a country that has just emerged from three decades of repressive emergency rule.
At the root of growing discontent in the country is the government’s failure to hold accountable those responsible for the death of more than 800 people since the eruption of mass protests that forced Mr. Mubarak to resign after 30 years in office, Mr. Morsis’s apparent inability to convincingly reach out to his critics, his rushed adoption of a controversial constitution, and the government’s failure to tackle an economy in decline.
This weekend’s initial sentencing to death of 21 supporters of Port Said’s Al Masri SC soccer club and postponement until March 9 of a verdict in the case of 52 other defendants accused of responsibility for the worst incident a year ago in Egyptian soccer history has served only to reinforce deep-seated mistrust of Mr. Morsi. This is all the more the case given that the court has yet to publish its justification of the sentencing and did not include any of the nine mid-level security officials in its initial verdict.
Supporters of Al Masri as well as crowned Cairo club Al Ahli SC and a broad swath of Egyptian public opinion believe that the violence that erupted last year at the end of a match between the two in Port Said’s stadium in which mostly Al Ahli fans were killed was much more than a simple soccer brawl.
The incident is widely seen as an attempt that got out of hand by the then military rulers of the country and the police and security forces to cut militant, highly politicized, street battle-hardened soccer fans or ultras down to size.
The multitude of ultras organizations, one of the largest civic groups in Egypt after Mr. Morsi’s Muslim Brotherhood, with supporters of Al Ahli and its Cairo arch rival Al Zamalek in the lead played a key role in the toppling two years ago of president Hosni Mubarak, subsequent opposition to military rule and protests against Mr. Morsi’s authoritarian style of government and failure to address a worsening economic crisis.
In imposing curfews and calling on the military to restore law and order in Port Said, where 32 protesters were killed this weekend in the hours after the announcement of the verdict, as well as in Suez and Ismailia, without linking it to reforms of the police and security forces as well as the judiciary constitutes at best a band aid that allows the wound to fester.
At the core of the violence is a deep-seated hatred between the ultras and other youth groups and law enforcement, the most despised institutions in Egypt that are widely viewed as the repressive arm of the Mubarak regime who until today are a law unto themselves.
In fact, much of the post-Mubarak violence stems from clashes between the ultras and security forces. The ultras’ battle is a battle for karama or dignity. Their dignity is vested in their ability to stand up to the dakhliya or interior ministry which they are happy to confront at every opportunity.
That dignity is unlikely to be fully restored until the police and security forces have been reformed – a task Mr. Morsi’s government has so far largely shied away from. The foot-dragging in holding security officers accountable in the case of Port Said and the deaths of hundreds of protesters in the last two years has reinforced perceptions of the police and security forces as institutions that in the words of scholars Eduardo P. Archetti and Romero Amilcar are “exclusively destined to harm, wound, injure, or, in some cases, kill other persons.”
A human rights report published last week by the Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights (EIPR) concluded that “the Egyptian police continue to systematically deploy violence and torture, and at times even kill. Although the January revolution was sparked in large part by police practices and vocally demanded an end to these practices, accountability for all offenders and the establishment of permanent instruments to prevent their recurrence, two years after the revolution the situation remains unchanged.”
EIPR charged that the “police, acting like a street gang, enforce vigilante justice on those who wrong them, in utter disregard for the law or professionalism.” The ultras lead the pack of those the police and security forces believe have wronged them.
The group proposed a series of measures that the Morsi government could implement and in which it should have embedded its imposition of curfews. The measures include legislation that would guarantee the independence of public prosecutors and separate them from investigative authorities, establish an independent commission that would investigate cases of death and serious injury caused by police personnel, create an independent commission to monitor detention facilities and grant civil rights groups access to detention facilities, and amend laws that regulate the use of force and firearms by police and security forces.
In failing to couple law enforcement with reforms, Mr. Morsi is likely to only harden fault lines in post-Mubarak Egypt. The 30-day curfew in the three cities ends barely two weeks before the Cairo court rules in the case of the remaining 52 defendants in the Port Said trial on March 9. That ruling is likely to constitute another flashpoint unless the president convincingly acts in the meantime to demonstrate that he is serious about reform and not just another autocrat.
To be sure, Mr. Morsi is caught between a rock and a hard place. While he may well be sincere in his call for dialogue with his critics and expressed desire for change, he seems more a man shaped by an organization that lived clandestinely for much of its 80 year-old history, operated briefly under Mr. Mubarak in a legal nether land and until today has not been formally recognized rather than a leader capable of reaching out and building bridges in a deeply divided country in the midst of a messy political transition.
Mr. Morsi’s fate and with it that of his Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt as well as in other parts of a region that is at the beginning of a decade of political change from which Muslim Brothers potentially stand to benefit depends on his ability to throw off the chains of his past and embrace the kind of outreach and compromise necessary to bring Egypt back from the brink.