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Wednesday, April 16, 2014

EURO 2020 set to polish Turkey’s tarnished image

By James M. Dorsey

Turkey, eager to polish its image tarnished by a politicized match-fixing scandal, a massive corruption scandal, hard-handed police tactics against anti-government demonstrators and a bruising domestic power struggle, has emerged as a favourite to host  the Euro 2020 semi-finals and final.

"We think we will be awarded the two semi-finals and finals and we deserve it after bidding for the last three tournaments. It's high time we were successful and UEFA president Michel Platini has given that hint to us," Turkish Football Federation (TFF) vice-president Servet Yardimci told Inside World Football.

Brutal police tactics last June against anti-government demonstrators on Istanbul’s iconic Taksim Square protesting against plans to replace the square’s historic Gezi Park with a shopping mall cost Turkey the hosting of the 2020 Olympic Games that were awarded to Tokyo instead. Militant soccer fans played a key role in the protests, the largest in Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s more than a decade in power.

Turkey’s soccer image had already been tarnished by the time the protests erupted by a massive match-fixing scandal that escalated into a struggle between Mr. Erdogan and Fethullalh Gulen, a self-exiled 73-year old imam, for the favour of fans in a soccer-crazy country and control of Istanbul’s Fenerbahce SK, the crown jewel in Turkish soccer with the country’s largest fan base.

Turkey’s image was further sullied by a massive corruption scandal in December to which Mr. Erdogan responded by moving thousands of suspected followers of Mr. Gulen in the police and the judiciary to other jobs in a bid to control the graft enquiry. Mr. Erdogan’s further moves to control the Internet where leaks of potentially damaging evidence of corruption appeared regularly and make the judiciary subservient to the government have partially been reversed by the courts.

To top it all off, an article by investigative journalist Seymour M. Hersh in the London Review of Books earlier this month asserted that last August’s chemical weapons attack on the outskirts of Damascus that brought the United States within inches of military intervention in Syria was the work of Syrian rebels aided by Turkey in a bid to force the US to take military action.

Long a proponent of US military action, Turkey had hoped that US intervention would salvage its failed Syria policy that together with the toppling of the elected Muslim Brotherhood government in Egypt has cost it loss of influence and prestige across the Middle East and North Africa. Mr. Hersh argued that Turkish–US relations have been strained as a result of the last minute US doubts about Syrian government responsibility, reinforced by Syria’s agreement to surrender its chemical weapons.

Winning the hosting of the EURO 2020 semi-finals and finals would project Turkey in a very different light and distract from the widely criticised authoritarian turn Mr. Erdogan has taken in recent years. It would also reinforce a resounding victory for Mr. Erdogan’s ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) in last month’s municipal elections that has left his opponents licking their wounds.

The hosting would further boost Turkey in its unspoken rivalry with Qatar for regional influence. Both nations employ sports alongside a global airline and the arts as tools of their projection in a friendly competition in which Turkey unlike Qatar brings to bear a sizeable country with one of the world’s 20 largest economies, a history of empire and historic ties to the Middle East, Africa, Europe and Asia.

While the electoral victory likely strengthens Turkey’s hand against its competitors for the EURO 2020, soccer fans who regularly stage protests in stadia and denounce Mr. Erdogan as a thief because of his alleged involvement in the corruption scandal could cast a shadow over the Turkish bid. So could the fact that last year’s Under-20 FIFA World Cup attracted disappointing spectator numbers.

Similarly, Mr. Erdogan’s retaliation against legendary former soccer player Hakan Sukur, a supporter of Mr. Gulen, is unlikely to help the Turkish bid. Municipal officials this month removed Mr. Sukur’s nameplate from Istanbul’s Sancaktepe Hakan Sukur Stadium and the prime minister demanded that he resign his seat as a member of parliament.

Mr. Sukur was recruited by Mr. Erdogan and elected on the AKP ticket in 2011 but resigned in December from the party in protest against the prime minister’s efforts to close down prep schools operated by Mr. Gulen’s Hizmet movement. Mr. Sukur, viewed as the best soccer player of his generation if not in Turkish football history, remains an independent member of parliament.

Similarly, alleged political interference in soccer could damage the Turkish bid. Critics of Mr. Erdogan charge that the AKP last September engineered the storming of the pitch by rival fans during a derby between Istanbul rivals Besiktas and Galatasary in an effort to further curtail Carsi, the militant and widely popular Besiktas support group that played a key role in last year’s anti-government protests. They point to the fact security was lax at the match and that a youth leader of the AKP boasted on Facebook how he had obtained a free ticket to the derby and was one of the first to invade the pitch.

Turkish journalist Mehmet Baransu moreover documented links between the AKP and 1453 Kartallari (1453 Eagles), a rival conservative Besiktas support group named in commemoration of the year that Ottoman Sultan Fatih the Conqueror drove the Byzantines out of Constantinople,. 1453 members reportedly shouted ‘God is Great’ and attacked Carsi supporters during the pitch invasion.

James M. Dorsey is a Senior Fellow at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies (RSIS), Nanyang Technological University. He is also co-director of the University of Würzburg’s Institute for Fan Culture, and the author of The Turbulent World of Middle East Soccer blog and a forthcoming book with the same title.

Saturday, April 12, 2014

Erdogan chooses soccer for first-post election strike against Islamist opponents

Hakan Sukur Stadium no more

By James M. Dorsey

Turkish Prime Minister Tayyip Recep Erdogan, fresh from a resounding victory in municipal elections has chosen the soccer pitch to make good on his promise to “enter the lair” of his Islamist rival, self-exiled preacher Fethullalh Gulen, and ensure that what he calls an “alliance of evil” is brought to account for alleged treason and creating a state within a state.

In a symbolic gesture, Mr. Erdogan called on Turkish soccer legend Hakan Sukur to resign from parliament after his nameplate was removed from an Istanbul’s Sancaktepe Hakan Sukur Stadium. Mr. Sukur represented Istanbul on behalf of Mr. Erdogan’s Justice and Development Party (AKP) until he resigned in protest again the government’s handling of a major corruption scandal.

Back in 2011, Mr. Erdogan, a former soccer player, recruited Mr. Sukur to boost his election campaign to become prime minister for a third term. The former player had support the prime minister’s effort a year earlier to change Turkey’s constitution that had been drafted in the 1980s during a period of military rule. 
“Turkey has experienced a tremendous development and I wanted to be a part of this progress and transformation, too. I love my country and I am part of a party that has gained large support,” Mr. Sukur said at the time.

Three years later, responding to the renaming of the stadium, Mr. Sukur quipped on Twitter: “"It is better to have your name in people's heart than having a picture on a wall.”

AKP won last month’s municipal elections despite a massive corruption scandal that was sparked in December when prosecutors believed to be close to Mr. Gulen launched an investigation into alleged graft by ministers and prominent businessmen. Police at the time detained sons of three ministers and the head of a state-owned bank.

Mr. Erdogan has accused Mr. Gulen, who heads one of the world’s largest Islamist movements, of leaking a string of audio tapes allegedly implicating senior government officials, including Mr Erdogan, in the scandal as well as of a high level security meeting on Syria. The prime minister charged that the graft inquiry was part of a parallel state seeking to topple the government. Mr. Gulen is believed to have had a strong following in the judiciary and the police force

In response to the leaking of the tapes, Mr. Erdogan sought to block Twitter and You Tube but was rebuffed by the courts who lifted the ban on Twitter unconditionally and ordered You Tube to be unblocked once it deleted the Syria-related video because it damaged national security.

The move against Mr. Sukur, viewed as the best soccer player of his generation if not in Turkish football history, seemed petty against the prime minister’s earlier moves again Mr. Gulen, which included shifting scores of judicial personnel and thousands of police officers into new jobs in a bid to control the corruption investigation.

In addition to the renaming of the stadium, police in the south-eastern city of Adana arrested eight police officers believed to be close to Mr. Gulen’s Hizmet or Service movement on charges of illegal wiretapping.

Mr. Gulen heads a global education, banking and media empire that allied itself with Mr. Erdogan’s AKP in a successful bid to submit Turkey’s powerful military to civilian control. The mounting power struggle first became apparent in 2011 in a political and legal battle between Messrs Erdogan and Gulen over how to handle the eruption of the worst match fixing scandal in Turkish history. The match fixing inquiry was initiated by the same prosecutor who launched the graft investigation.

Messrs Erdogan and Gulen fought a proxy battle over legal penalties for match fixing when the soccer scandal erupted. Mr. Erdogan won that battle by pushing through parliament a bill that significantly reduced the penalties and arm twisting the Turkish Football Federation (TFF) to get Fenerbahce SK, the political crown jewel in Turkish soccer, off the hook and prevent clubs guilty of match fixing from being relegated. At stake in the battle over Fenerbahce was control of the club with its millions of supporters.

The battle as well as the escalation of the power struggle culminating in the graft investigation has raised doubts about whether Mr. Gulen, a frail, ailing 73-year old, who lives in self-exile in Pennsylvania, is in full control of his movement.

Those doubts have risen given that Mr. Gulen’s movement turned the power struggle into open warfare with the graft investigation without an apparent clear endgame. The movement appeared unprepared for whatever the outcome would be, a fall of the Erdogan government, which it has not prompted, or government retaliation that would seek to seriously weaken it.

Mr. Gulen appeared to implicitly acknowledge that he may not be in control in two phone calls to Fenerbahce chairman Aziz Yildirim in 2011 prior to soccer boss’s conviction on match fixing charges. People familiar with the phone calls quote Mr. Gulen as telling Mr. Yildirim: “There is nothing bad in my heart against you. I am not involved in this. There might be people who did wrong against you but I am not aware of this if it was my people.”

In an inscription in a book Mr. Gulen sent to Mr. Yildirim in between the two phone calls, the preacher wrote: “To Aziz Bey whom I never had a chance to meet but admire for his activism, righteousness and perseverance. My prayers are with you that your difficult days may pass.”

The renaming of the Istanbul stadium to punish Mr. Sukur is likely to be but a mild first push in Mr. Erdogan’s retaliation. So are allegations by Gulen-owned Turkish media such as Cihan news agency and Zaman newspaper - both affiliated to Gulen that they suffered cyber-attacks during last month’s elections.
Fenerbahce is certain to figure in Mr. Erdogan’s campaign. The club emerged in the run-up to the municipal elections as a bastion of opposition against Mr. Erdogan’s increasingly authoritarian rule.

The club appeared to highlight its position in a tweet that said that Mr. Yildirim had written in his personal notebook an oath of allegiance to Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, the visionary who carved modern Turkey out of the ruins of the Ottoman empire: "I promise you, Fenerbahce will be the last light on earth fighting against the darkest powers that want us to forget your revolution".

James M. Dorsey is a Senior Fellow at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies (RSIS), Nanyang Technological University. He is also co-director of the University of Würzburg’s Institute for Fan Culture, and the author of The Turbulent World of Middle East Soccer blog and a forthcoming book with the same title.

Friday, April 11, 2014

Human rights violations raise spectre of Gulf soccer acquisitions as reputation laundering

Sheikh Mansour bin Zayed al-Nahyan

By James M. Dorsey

Reports about torture and abuse in the United Arab Emirates of British nationals, including a former bodyguard of the mother of the crown prince of Abu Dhabi whose half- brother was caught on video several years ago brutally torturing a business associate, raises the spectre of high profile Gulf acquisitions and sponsorships of European soccer clubs serving as a form of reputation laundering.

Noting that the Al Nahayan family, which rules the United Arab Emirates as well as Abu Dhabi, one of its seven emirates, owns Manchester City, the first of a number of high profile Gulf soccer acquisitions, Britain’s The Guardian newspaper reported that the British Foreign Office had documentary evidence of alleged torture of its nationals in Dubai Central Prison. The evidence was acquired during a visit by Foreign Office staff to British detainees held ion drugs charges.

The Brits include Hasnain Ali, a former bodyguard of Shaikha Fatima bint Mubarak Al Ketbi, and. Ahmad Zeidan, a student from Berkshire. Shaikha Fatima is the mother of Sheikh Mohammed bin Zayed bin Sultan Al Nahyan, the crown prince of Abu Dhabi and supreme commander of the UAE armed forces.

The Foreign Office documents assert that in the case of Mr. Ali police officers "hit his head from the left side and pointed a gun to his head". Mr. Ali was quoted as saying that he had been "repeatedly kicked by the officers". The British diplomats said they had "found bruises on his back that were a result of his kicking". They described how Mr. Ali took off his T-shirt to show his visitors "four even scars, two on the right side and two on the left, parallel to each other".

Mr. Zeidan was also allegedly beaten, hooded, stripped naked and threatened with rape by police officers.

Both men, who said they do not speak Arabic, told the diplomats that they had been forced to sign confessions in Arabic that had not been translated for them. Their plight, which has been raised by British Prime Minister David Cameron with UAE authorities, follows the arrest last year of three Britons on drug charges who were pardoned after they complained about torture in a UAE prison.

The UAE has consistently denied reports of abuse and torture.

Human Rights Watch (HRW) in statements last year to The Guardian warned that the UAE was using soccer to launder its image.  Former English Football Association chairman Lord Triesman called at the time for making a country’s human rights record one of the criteria for establishing whether a state entity or member of a ruling family passes the "fit and proper person test" for ownership of a Premier League club.

The calls and statements by Amnesty International, the Emirates Centre for Human Rights and prominent human rights lawyers and activists like Sir Geoffrey Robertson followed a mass trial of 94 people, 69 of whom were sentenced to lengthy prison terms on charges of plotting to overthrow the government, that the activists denounced as unfair and a violation of due process. The defendants were denied legal assistance while being held incommunicado pre-trial, allegedly tortured, and refused the right of appeal. In its response at the time, the UAE justice ministry implicitly did not rule out torture and argued that alleged victims should have reported abuse to the police.

HRW researcher Nicholas McGeehan, describing the UAE as "a black hole" for basic human rights, told 
The Guardian that "In this situation, a Premier League club (Manchester City) is being used as a branding vehicle to promote and effectively launder the reputation of a country perpetrating serial human rights abuses. That should be of concern to football supporters as well as human rights organizations." The paper quoted Human Rights Watch as further saying that Abu Dhabi’s purchase of Manchester City enabled it to "construct a public relations image of a progressive, dynamic Gulf state, which deflects attention from what is really going on in the country".

The portrayal of acquisitions and sponsorships of prominent soccer clubs as an effort to launder a country’s reputation casts a shadow over the use of soccer as part of the soft power strategy of the UAE as well as Qatar that is designed to embed themselves in the international community in a way that would ensure public support in times of need. Both countries recall the success of Kuwait, another small Gulf state incapable of defending itself, in rallying the international community in 1990 to force the withdrawal of invading Iraqi forces.

The issue of human rights violations in the UAE compared to criticism of the conditions for foreign workers in Qatar, which owns Paris Saint Germain and will host the 2022 World Cup, highlights different approaches in the Gulf when states are attacked for their human rights record.

Qatar despite persistent criticism by trade unions and human rights groups has engaged with its critics and taken initial steps to address their concerns and repair reputational damage suffered. Repairing reputational damage will depend on quick and efficient implementation of those steps.

“In my meetings with the people in charge of Qatar 2022, they made some big promises of change. After this investigation, it’s urgent that they deliver,” British Labour Member of Parliament and shadow international development secretary Jim Murphy told the Daily Mail during a fact finding mission organized by the International Trade Union Confederation (ITUC), one of Qatar’s harshest critics.

In its latest response to its critics, Qatar this week issued a handbook of standards for accommodation of foreign workers at construction sites. With foreign workers already the majority of its population, Qatar expects to import a million more to complete World Cup-related projects in coming years.
In contrast to Qatar, the UAE so far has limited its response to official denials of allegations of torture and abuse.

Manchester City was bought in 2008 by Deputy UAE Prime Minister Sheikh Mansour bin Zayed al-Nahyan, a brother of Abu Dhabi crown prince Sheikh Mohammed and a half-brother of UAE president Sheikh Khalifa bin Zayed al-Nahyan. Sheikh Mansour is the senior official responsible for the Abu Dhabi judiciary. UAE officials have insisted that the acquisition as well as last year’s agreement to invest in the creation of a 20th Major League Soccer team in the United States was a personal rather than a government investment.

The allegations of abuse of British nationals are not the first time that the UAE has faced allegations of human rights violations. A court acquitted Sheikh Issa bin Zayed al Nahyan, a brother of Sheikh Mansour, Sheikh Mohammed and Sheikh Khalifa in 2010 on charges of torture and rape of an Afghan merchant even though the allegations were documented on a widely distributed graphic video.

The court did not dispute the fact that Sheikh Issa was among those depicted in the tape alongside a man in a police uniform torturing the Afghan with cattle prods and at one point running him over repeatedly with a sport-utility vehicle. It argued that Sheikh Issa could not be held accountable because he had been drugged by two former business associates.

Sheikh Mansour became deputy prime minister after Sheikh Khalifa removed two of Sheikh Issa’s brothers from his cabinet in the wake of the incident.

James M. Dorsey is a Senior Fellow at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies (RSIS), Nanyang Technological University. He is also co-director of the University of Würzburg’s Institute for Fan Culture, and the author of The Turbulent World of Middle East Soccer blog and a forthcoming book with the same title.

Saturday, April 5, 2014

Controversial soccer club chief declares candidacy in Egypt’s presidential election

Presidential candidate and Zamalek chairman Mortada Mansour

By James M. Dorsey

Egyptian soccer is adding salt to the run-up to presidential elections that are certain to be won by the country’s strongman, newly retired general Abdel Fattah Al Sisi, with the announcement of the controversial chairman of one of Egypt’s foremost clubs that he too was a presidential candidate.

An outspoken lawyer known for his theatrics, Mortada Mansour, chairman of storied Cairo soccer club Al Zamalek SC, announced his candidacy for the Egyptian presidency barely a week after he was elected for a third term as head of a sport institution whose supporters played a key role in mass protests in the last three years that forced two presidents, Hosni Mubarak and Mohammed Morsi, out of office.

Mr. Mansour’s re-election alongside that of Taher Mahmoud as chairman of Zamalek arch rival Al Ahli SC has been called into question by FIFA, which suspects interference by a government that since the military coup last July against Mr. Morsi, Egypt’s only democratically elected president, has sought to brutally squash any opposition. 

Messrs Mansour and Mahmoud were elected in polling ordered by newly appointed Youth and Sports Minister Khaled Abdel-Aziz despite the fact that a new sports law is about to be issued. Both Al Ahli and Zamalek have charged that the elections violated FIFA statutes and should have been postponed. Mr. Abdel Aziz’s predecessor, Taher Abou Zeid twice, in the last nine months sought to replace the management of Zamalek and Al Ahli, Africa’s two top performing clubs.

The Egyptian Football Association (EFA) caught between the government and FIFA has unsuccessfully sought to evade taking a stand on the legality of the elections.

In a letter late last month to the EFA, FIFA expressed "deep concern about the fact that the Egyptian Football Association did not implement the statutes and did not react to the interference from the authorities and to different correspondences sent by FIFA in this regard.  The Committee deemed that the absence of answers and/or the very late replies should not be tolerated anymore and it is therefore anticipated that EFA will show due diligence in the future."

It was not immediately clear why Mr. Mansour decided to enter a presidential race in which only one other candidate, Nasserite Hamdeen Sabahi, has so far been willing to challenge Mr. Al Sisi who has cloaked himself in a mantle of nationalism and popularism and a military-backed vow to root out terrorism increasingly defined as any form of support for Mr. Morsi’s outlawed Muslim Brotherhood or opposition to military-backed rule. Mr. Mansour’s initial election promises appeared to differ little from those of Mr. Al Sisi and were certain to be opposed by his club’s militant fans.

"I do not need Egypt's top office. I only want to fulfil the needs of the Egyptians," Mr. Mansour told Turkey’s Anadolou Agency. He said his election program would be based on the "respect of law". In a statement that is likely to put him at odds with militants in Zamalek’s fan base, he vowed to ban protests for a year "in order to give a chance for the economy and tourism to recover.”

Zamalek fans, who in recent years have fought vicious street battles with security forces in which scores were killed and thousands injured, greeted Mr. Mansour’s candidacy on social media with ridicule. Mr. Mansour was twice fired by the sports ministry during his nine-year tenure because of his theatrics that included a fist fight with his erstwhile deputy and lifting his shoe in an insulting gesture during an Egypt Cup final against arch-rival Al Ahli.

The fans have long demanded Mr. Mansour’s departure, accusing him of corruption and mismanagement. The fans, who repeatedly attacked the club’s headquarters in a bid to force Mr. Mansour to resign, fear that he will dismiss the team’s recently appointed coach, former Egyptian international Ahmad Hossam ‘Mido,’ who like the supporters opposed Mr. Mansour’s candidacy.

“I have a message for Mido: please stay away from politics and do not discuss any matters that are not related to football,” Mr. Mansour said in an interview with Egyptian satellite channel CBC immediately after his re-election as Zamalek chairman.

Mido like most Egyptian players refused to join the mass protests in 2011 on Cairo’s Tahrir Square that toppled Mr. Mubarak, but denied that he opposed the popular revolt in which street battled-hardened fans of Zamalek and Al Alhli were crucial to fortifying protesters resolve.

“I appeared only once on TV and I asked the politicians to listen to the protesters and in an interview with (state-owned newspaper) Al-Ahram I literally demanded former president Mubarak to retire. I didn’t go to Tahrir Square because I didn’t want anyone to claim that I was a key factor in the revolution’s success because the champions are all who protested from the first day for the sake of Egypt,” Mido said at the time.

Mido was disciplined some two years later while playing for England’s Barnsley FC for participating in an anti-Israel protest during which he tweeted: “In London against Israel…. Oh Lord burn them.”

Mido’s anti-Israel stance endeared him to fans who define support for the Palestinians as part of their ethos at a time that relations between players and fans were strained because of the militants’ continued protests that forced length suspensions of league matches and prompted security forces to ban spectators from matches that were played.

James M. Dorsey is a Senior Fellow at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies (RSIS), Nanyang Technological University. He is also co-director of the University of Würzburg’s Institute for Fan Culture, and the author of The Turbulent World of Middle East Soccer blog and a forthcoming book with the same title.

Friday, March 28, 2014

Egypt's Sisi ditches uniform, quits as defence minister (JMD quoted on AFP)

Egypt's Sisi ditches uniform, quits as defence minister


Image grab from Egyptian state television Al-Masriya on March 26, 2014 shows General Abdul Fatah Al-Sissi announcing resignation from military position to stand in the upcoming presidential elections during a televised address in Cairo
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Cairo (AFP) - Field Marshal Abdel Fattah al-Sisi ditched his military fatigues on Thursday and resigned as Egypt's defence minister, a day after announcing he would stand for president.

Meanwhile, General Sedki Sobhi was sworn in as the new defence minister and army chief, and Lieutenant General Mahmoud Hegazy replaced Sobhi as army chief of staff, the presidency said. Hegazy is the father-in-law of Sisi's son.Sisi turned up in civilian clothes at the weekly cabinet meeting to submit his resignation after quitting as army chief the previous night, state news agency MENA reported.
Declaring his widely anticipated candidacy in a televised address on Wednesday, Sisi vowed to fight "terrorism" and work towards restoring the battered economy.
The wildly popular Sisi faces no serious competition in the election to be held before June, and is widely seen as the only leader able to restore order after more than three years of turmoil since the Arab Spring overthrow of veteran strongman Hosni Mubarak.
"With all modesty, I nominate myself for the presidency of Egypt," Sisi said in his address, wearing his uniform.
He vowed to fight militancy, which has killed more than 200 policemen and troops since the military ousted elected president Mohamed Morsi last July.
US deputy State Department spokeswoman Marie Harf said Washington was not backing any candidate in the election, saying "it's the Egyptian people themselves who must decide both the direction of their country and its leadership".
It was "critical that they are able to do so in an environment that allows the free expression of political views without intimidation or fear of retribution", Harf said in an email to AFP.
Washington has been critical of Egypt's military-installed government for the slow transition to democracy since Morsi's ouster.
But the cabinet reiterated on Thursday that it aims to "build a modern state based on democratic institutions".
Egyptian media hailed Sisi's speech, splashing it across their front pages.
The announcement was also welcomed on the street, with people saying Sisi becoming president was inevitable.
"Sisi is too powerful. If he had remained as defence minister, he would have become a headache for any president. Therefore there is no alternative to him" but to become president, said tour operator Ali Amin.
Sisi's candidacy is likely to further inflame Islamist protests and worry secular activists who fear a return to rule by the military and the strong-arm tactics of the Mubarak era.
Morsi's Muslim Brotherhood rejected Sisi's candidacy outright.
"He led a coup to become president. He is a man who has killed daily since the coup," Ibrahim Munir of the Brotherhood's political bureau told AFP by telephone from London.
- Real power behind Mansour -
Sisi is believed to be the real power behind interim president Adly Mansour, under whose watch police have killed hundreds of Islamist protesters and detained about 15,000 suspects since Morsi's ouster.
The crackdown has worried the international community, which was outraged after 529 Morsi supporters were sentenced to death this week over deadly riots.
Many Egyptians, deeply disillusioned by the Islamist Morsi's single year in power, have supported the crackdown in the hope of seeing stability restored.
For those Egyptians who want an end to the violence that has scared off investors and tourists, hitting the economy hard, Sisi's military background is an asset.
The army is seen as the country's most stable institution, and Sisi can count on further aid from friendly Gulf states who have pumped billions of dollars into Egypt since Morsi's ouster.
Analysts say Sisi will face stiff challenges in tackling the economy and security issues.
"To turn the economy around, deep and painful restructuring is needed, something the military-backed government has avoided so far," said James Dorsey, Middle East Expert at Singapore-based S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies.
"He will lead a deeply divided country in which a significant minority feels disenfranchised. He would need to build bridges to prevent further polarisation and violence."
State news agency MENA also reported that the government has decided to demolish a building near Cairo's iconic Tahrir Square which once was the headquarters of Mubarak's National Democratic Party.

Thursday, March 27, 2014

Qatar likely to reform controversial labour system

By James M. Dorsey

‎Qatar is preparing a radical overhaul of its controversial kafala or labour sponsorship system in response to mounting criticism that threatens reputation capital it hopes to gain from hosting the 2022 World Cup.

The expected reform is likely to include shifting sponsorship of foreign workers, who constitute a majority of the tiny Gulf state's population, from individual employers to the government. It would also allow workers to seek alternative employment without permission of their sponsor after a period of notification. Qatar would further work with the major supplying countries to establish regulated employment agencies to cut out corrupt middlemen.

It was not immediately clear whether the‎ changes once announced would satisfy international trade unions and human rights groups that have denounced the kafala system as modern day slavery and called for its abolition.

Pressure is mounting on Qatar with world soccer body FIFA president Sepp Blatter scheduling a second trip to Qatar following extensive debate of the issue as well as continued questions about the integrity of the Qatari World Cup bid at a meeting last week of the group's executive committee.

Qatar has suffered substantial reputational damage as a result of the criticism and questions. The Gulf state, which is engaged in a cold war with neighbouring Saudi Arabia because of its support for the Muslim Brotherhood, needs to take the sting out of criticism give that the World Cup is a centrepiece of its sports strategy that is designed to create the kind of soft power necessary to compensate for its lack of military hard power.

While it has actively engaged with its critics and two of its major institutions – the Supreme Committee for Delivery & Legacy and Qatar Foundation- have issued charters of workers’ rights and welfare standards to be included in contracts, Qatar is still perceived as moving too slowly.

The International Confederation of Trade Unions (ITUC), Qatar’s harshest critic, has questioned the Gulf state’s sincerity, charging that it is treating the issue as a public relations problem.

The charters and proposed changes to the kafala system which puts employees at the mercy of their employers focus on workers’ material and living conditions as well as corruption in the recruitment system that puts foreign workers into heavy debt even before they arrive in Qatar.

Qatar hopes that these changes will enable it to fend off demands like the right to form independent trade unions and collective bargaining that would fundamentally alter the Gulf state’s social structure in which the citizenry accounts for a mere 12 percent of the population as well as its enlightened autocracy.

Members of a visiting European parliament delegation said Qatari officials had discussed the expected changes to the kafala system with them. The parliament held in February a hearing about labour conditions in Qatar.

"The Qatari government has assured us they will make reforms to the sponsorship system and bring forward a law for the protection of domestic workers, where sexual abuse of women is at its greatest," said Richard Howitt, a British Labour Party member of the European parliament.

Mr. Howitt posed three questions at a news conference which reflected the changes Qatar was preparing. 
"Will the government itself become the sponsor rather than the employer? Will the government introduce a right for employees to seek a new job after a notice period without requiring permission from the previous employer? Will the government help set up regulated recruitment agencies in co-operation with sending countries, to end the problem of employees getting so indebted that they cannot escape?" Mr. Howitt asked.

The changes would keep the kafala system in place but would remove its most onerous bits. Sponsorship by the government promises that workers will no longer be exposed to the whims of their employers. Freedom to switch employers reduces a workers dependency.

Qatar Foundation, which drives social and educational development in the Gulf state, has been working on a reform of the recruitment system for more than a year in a bid to ensure that workers do not pay heavy fees to middlemen for their recruitment and kickbacks of some $600 per head to corrupt company human resource managers. Its charter adopted by the World Cup organizers establishes the principle that a worker should not pay for his or her recruitment. Qatar appears to have opted for working with mostly Asian countries supplying labour to establish regulated employment agencies rather than setting up its own recruitment system.

The trick for Qatar now is to match its words with deeds. "Our visit is not done, we must continue this work. But the openness and the huge commitment to improve the situation is something we take back home. This has been a very positive start, “said German Christian Democrat Angelika Niebler.

James M. Dorsey is a Senior Fellow at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies (RSIS), Nanyang Technological University. He is also co-director of the University of Würzburg’s Institute for Fan Culture, and the author of The Turbulent World of Middle East Soccer blog and a forthcoming book with the same title.

Wednesday, March 26, 2014

Military-backed house cleaning extends to Egyptian soccer

Outgoing Al Ahli chairman Hassan Hamdi suspected of corruption

By James M. Dorsey

Efforts by Egypt's military-backed government to clean the country not only of its political critics but also of businessmen with close ties to ousted President Hosni Mubarak extended into soccer this week with the arrest on corruption charges of Hassan Hamdi, the longstanding chairman of. Al Ahli’s SC, Africa's most crowned and popular club.

The arrest of Mr. Hamdi, who has long denied charges of wrongdoing, were first levied against him during the reign of President Mohammed Morsi, the Muslim Brother toppled by the military last year. It came amid an apparent power vacuum in advance of presidential elections in which various institutions, including the security forces and the judiciary, are jockeying for position. A date for the registration of presidential candidates is expected to be announced this weekend.

That vacuum is a reflection of a backroom tug of war between the military and former business associates of the Mubarak regime that was toppled in a popular revolt in 2011. The military is seeking to prevent the re-emergence of neo-liberals close to Mr. Mubarak’s jailed businessman-cum politician son Gamal who posed a threat to the armed forces’ vast commercial interests.

Mr. Mubarak, his sons and their neo-liberal business associates, including steel magnate Ahmed Ezz, were among the first to be put on trial by the military regime that replaced the ousted president three years ago. A court announced this week that a retrial of Mr. Ezz and six others on charges of profiteering and squandering public funds would begin on April 12.

The military since the fall of Mr. Morsi has been selective in choosing which of the major Mubarak-era businessmen it was willing to rehabilitate. "The NDP neglected society. Their corruption is the reason people are still suffering. They will never come back and the Mubarak era will never come back. A new era is coming, “a senior military officer told The Guardian.

The vacuum has allowed independent judges in a rare disciplining this month of members of the security forces to convict police officers in two separate cases for the deaths of an icon of the revolt against Mr. Mubarak, Khaled Said, whose killing in 2010 became a protest rallying point, and 37 prisoners detained after the toppling of Mr. Morsi.

The relatively light ten-year sentences for two officers accused of killing  Mr. Said and a police captain responsible for the death of the prisoners were magnified by the sentencing to death on Monday of 529 defendants for the slaying of a police officer, the largest group convicted to death by a court in recent memory.

The mass sentencing, by a judge who on Tuesday opened proceedings against 682 people including Mohammed Badie, the spiritual guide of the banned Muslim Brotherhood, appeared to have been sparked the judge’s anger and reflect agreement among many in the judiciary with the government’s stepped up repression in the last eight months.

More than a 1,000 people have been killed and 16,000 other incarcerated since the ousting of Mr. Morsi. The judiciary is believed to be keen to prevent a repeat of Mr. Morsi’s efforts supported by demands by the revolutionaries who ousted Mr. Mubarak that their ranks be cleansed of supporters of the ancien regime. 

Mr. Hamdi, a former soccer player and Al Ahli captain, has headed the club, whose supporters played a key role in toppling Mr. Mubarak and have clashed repeatedly in recent months with security forces, for 12 years. He was for much of that time also head of the advertising agency of Al Ahram, Egypt’s influential state-owned newspaper. Al Ahram chairman Mamdouh al-Wali was banned from travel in February pending an investigation into possible corruption.

A judge banned Mr. Hamdi and several senior Al Ahram executives and editors from travel earlier this month. It was the second time Mr. Hamdi’s movements were curtailed. The Illegal Gains Authority banned him from travel and froze his assets in 2012 after fans repeatedly stormed Al Ahli headquarters demanding his resignation. Mr. Hamdi was released from prison at the time on a bail of two million Egyptian pounds ($330,000). He was questioned before his release about the accumulation of his wealth estimated at 500 million pounds $ 82 million).

Military police were reported months after Mr. Mubarak’s fall in 2011 to have seized three boxes of documents that Mr. Hamdi and then Al Ahram editor-in-chief Osama Saraya had allegedly attempted to smuggle out of the editor’s office. They were confronted by publishing house employees who suspected that the boxes contained documents that would prove the two men’s involvement in corruption.

Mr, Hamdi was due to step down this month in advance of new club board elections after the government adopted a new law that limits the tenure of sports club board members. World soccer body FIFA, concerned about government interference in club elections in Egypt, said it was sending a mission to investigate.

The arrest of Mr. Hamdi coincided with efforts by Al Ahli and its Cairo arch rival Al Zamalek SC to persuade security forces to allow them to play this weekend two African championship matches in Cairo rather than in Gouna, a town 450 kilometres from the Egyptian capital. The interior ministry ordered the matches to be played in Gouna to prevent a repeat of clashes with militant soccer fans in and around stadia in recent months.

James M. Dorsey is a Senior Fellow at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies (RSIS), Nanyang Technological University. He is also co-director of the University of Würzburg’s Institute for Fan Culture, and the author of The Turbulent World of Middle East Soccer blog and a forthcoming book with the same title.