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Tuesday, March 3, 2015

Soccer fields: A waystation en route to the Islamic State


By James M. Dorsey

One thing the biographies of Jihadi John, the Islamic State’s executioner of foreign hostages, and several of his European associates have in common is their passion for soccer and their dashed hopes of becoming professional players.

They all belonged to amateur teams or bonded in part by playing soccer together. Like other disaffected youth for whom playing soccer became a stepping stone to joining a militant group or become a suicide bomber, Jihadi John and his mates, traversed football fields on their journey. Their biographies highlight soccer’s potential as a recruitment and bonding tool.

Identified as Mohammed Emwazi, Jihadi John a Kuwaiti-born Brit reviled for videos featuring him as the hooded killer of the Islamic State’s foreign, non-Arab hostages, dreamt as a child of kicking balls rather than chopping off heads. “What I want to be when I grow up is a footballer,” he wrote in his primary school yearbook. He believed that by the age of 30 he would be “in a football team scoring a goal.”

In secondary school, Mr. Emwazi played soccer matches with five players in two teams whose members went on to become jihadists, The Guardian quoted one of the group’s members as saying in evidence presented to an English high court in 2011.

The court case, which related to a control order imposed on one of three of the former players whose movements were legally restricted, Ibrahim Magag, identifies ten to 12 men, most of East African or South Asian descent, as members of the same group as Mr. Emwazi. Four of the men attended the same secondary school.  Several travelled to Somalia for training before returning to the UK as recruiters.

The control orders barred the three men from living in London. The orders were later replaced by less stringent terrorism prevention and investigation measures (TPIMs) sparking debate on whether the loosening, including a lifting of the ban on residency in London, complicated the efforts of security services to monitor the suspects. The measures did not prevent Mr. Magag and a second member of the group from absconding in 2013.

Among the group’s members was Bilal Berjawi, a British-Lebanese national, who was stripped of his British citizenship, and like Mohamed Sakr was killed in separate US drone strikes in 2012. The group also included two Ethiopians who have since been barred from returning to Britain on security grounds, a man who trained in an Al Qaeda camp, and an associate of a group that planned but failed to successfully execute attacks in London in July 2005 barely two weeks after four men killed 52 people in bombings of the London transport system.

“They were sporty, not particularly studious young men,” The Guardian quoted a person who moved in the same circles as describing Mr. Emwazi’s group.

Like Mr. Emwazi’s group, five East Londoners of Portuguese descent, who are believed to have helped produce Jihadi John’s gruesome videos, envisioned themselves as becoming soccer players rather than jihadists viewed as accessories to murder in their home countries.

One of them, 28 year-old, Nero Seraiva, tweeted last year on July 11, days before the execution of American journalist James Foley, the first of the Islamic State’s Western hostages to be decapitated: “"Message to America, the Islamic State is making a new movie. Thank u for the actors." Mr. Foley’s decapitation was announced in a video entitled A Message to America.

Fabio Pocas, at 22 the youngest of the Portuguese group, arrived in London in 2012, hoping to become a professional soccer player. In Lisbon, Mr. Pocas, a convert to Islam, attended the youth academy of Sporting Lisbon, the alma mater of superstars such as Cristiano Ronaldo and Luis Figo.

In London, he helped amateur league UK Football Finder FC (UKFFFC) win several divisional competitions. The Sunday Times quoted UKFFFC football director Ewemade Orobator as saying that Mr. Pocas “came here to play football seriously. In about May 2013 an agent came down and said, 'Work hard over the summer and I will get you a trial (with a professional club).'" Mr. Pocas failed to take up the offer and instead travelled to Syria where he adopted the name Abdurahman Al Andalus.

Mr. Pocas, according to The Sunday Times, has settled in the Syrian town of Manbij near Aleppo where he has taken a Dutch teenager as his bride. "Holy war is the only solution for humanity," he said in a posting on Facebook.

Illustrated by the cases of Mr. Emwazi and his mates and the Portuguese, soccer weaves its way through the history of militant political Islam and jihadism since the 1979 Soviet invasion of Afghanistan. Foreigners who fought in Afghanistan alongside the Afghan mujahedeen organized soccer matches after the Soviet withdrawal to maintain contact.

Militant Islamist leaders like Osama Bin Laden, Palestinian Hamas’ Ismail Haniyeh and Hezbollah chief Hassan Nasrallah understood soccer’s bonding and recruitment qualities. Mr. Bin Laden was reported to have organized his fighters in a mini-World Cup in down times during the war in Afghanistan and to have formed two soccer teams among his followers during his years in Sudan in the 1980s.

University of Michigan professor Scott Atran notes that “a reliable predictor of whether or not someone joins the Jihad is being a member of an action-oriented group of friends. It’s surprising how 
many soccer buddies join together.”

Mr. Atran’s yardstick is evident in analysis of past violent incidents. The perpetrators of the 2004 Madrid subway bombings played soccer together and a number of Hamas suicide bombers traced their roots to the same football club in the conservative West Bank town of Hebron.

Mohamed Abdel Rahman, a former Egyptian fighter in Afghanistan and the son of Sheikh Omar Abdel Rahman, who is serving a life sentence in the United States for the first bombing of the World Trade Center in 1993, recalled in an interview with CNN that he played soccer in Pakistan with former Egyptian special forces officer Saif al-Adel, a senior Al Qaeda official who has since been killed.

“We played football with a group of fellow jihadists, then had lunch before I left,” Mr. Abdel Rahman said. “He was a really good football player, sharp and fast.”


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, a syndicated columnist, and the author of The Turbulent World of Middle East Soccer blog and a forthcoming book with the same title.

Friday, February 27, 2015

Egyptian spectator ban: flashpoint for conflict and statement of weakness


By James M. Dorsey

An Egyptian Cabinet decision to end the suspension of professional soccer in late March but reinstitute the ban on spectators attending matches could spark renewed clashes between militant fans and security forces. The decision against the backdrop of mounting evidence that Egyptian general-turned-President Abdel Fattah Al Sisi has no apparent intention of easing repression implicitly acknowledges the role of fans in continued widespread opposition to his rule.

Professional soccer was suspended in early February after some 20 members of Ultras White Knights (UWK), the militant support group of Al Zamalek SC, were killed in a stampede at a Cairo stadium. The incident was likely the result of supporters seeking to gain access to a match in the absence of available tickets rather than a deliberate and planned assault by security forces. UWK is nevertheless convinced that it was targeted by security forces much like militant supports of Zamalek arch rival Al Ahli were three years ago.

Soccer has been suspended for much of the last four years since mass anti-government protests erupted in 2011 that forced President Hosni Mubarak from office. Spectators have been banned from matches that were played since 74 supporters of Al Ahli were killed in 2012 in a politically loaded brawl in Port Said. The stampede in Cairo was after Port Said, the worst sporting incident in recent Egyptian sporting history.

Militant, highly politicized, street battle-hardened supporters of both clubs played a key role in the demonstrations that removed Mr. Mubarak from power and in protests against all subsequent governments, including that of Mr. Al Sisi. The fans have long called for an end to bans on spectators and have repeatedly clashed with security forces in protest against it. 

The renewed ban is as a matter of principle unlikely to go down well with the fans. UWK said earlier that it has no faith in a government investigation of the Cairo stampede or the Egyptian justice system and would prevent matches from being played until justice had been served for its martyrs.

The fans’ no-confidence vote came in response to a pledge by Mr. Al Sisi in a televised speech that those responsible for the UWK deaths would be held accountable. Overall, the president appeared to suggest in his address that there would be some easing of brutal repression that has cost the lives of at least 1,400 protesters in the last 20 months and put thousands more behind bars. Speaking a day before the verdict in a trial against prominent bloggers and activists, Mr. Al Sisi said that “I am sure there are many innocent people inside prisons. Soon many of them will be released according to the available permissions.”

Mr. Al Sisi’s remarks regarding the stampede came in the wake of reports in state-run media that unlike Zamalek, with its confrontational approach to its militant fan base, Al Ahli has succeeded in reducing tensions by engaging with Ultras Ahlawy, the club’s hard line support group.  The reports appeared to suggest that Mr. Al Sisi might be backing away from earlier tacit support for a war against UWK by Zamalek president Mortada Mansour, a larger than life character and long-standing ally of Messrs. Mubarak and Al Sisi.

Mr. Mortada has prided himself on asking the security forces to intervene to prevent fans from entering the Cairo stadium without tickets, charging that UWK had been paid to confront the security forces. In response to a journalist’s question about how fans of his club had died, Mr. Mortada, who asserts that UWK tried to assassinate him, said, “ask the Muslim Brotherhood,” the group of Mohammed Morsi, the president toppled by Mr. Al Sisi in a military coup in June 2013 that has since been outlawed as a terrorist organization and that has suffered the brunt of security force brutality in the last 20 months.

Mr. Mansour has charged that UWK tried to assassinate him. His petition that the group be banned as a terrorist organizations has however been rejected by two Egyptian courts who argued that they were not the competent authority.

“There is a major difference between the approach of Ahli and Zamalek. Taher was smart; he knew that it’s unnecessary to create any rifts with that section of the supporters as long as the channel of communication operates perfectly,” Ahram Online quoted sports journalist Sherif Hassan as saying. Mr.  Hassan was referring to Al Ahli president Mahmoud Taher, who in December persuaded Ahlawy ultras to voluntarily leave an empty stadium they had stormed hours before an African Confederation Cup final.

Any hope the fans and other Egyptians may have had that change was at hand was dashed a day later when a court sentenced prominent activist and blogger Alaa Abd El Fattah to five years in prison and 24 others to three years for violating Egypt’s draconic anti-protests law. At about the same time, UWK’s convictions that it was targeted were reinforced by an audio recording obtained by Al Jazeera that appeared to reveal Egyptian interior minister Mohamed Ismail discussing how the government can crack down on protesters.

In a meeting with senior officers of Egypt’s notorious Central Security Force (CSF), Mr. Ibrahim is heard discussing a strategy for dealing with demonstrations, including ways to shoot protesters without turning them into martyrs. He suggested that the CSF using anything ““permitted by law without hesitation from water to machine guns.”  The meeting was held in advance of a major anti-government protest on November 28 in which at least four protesters were killed.

Potentially deepening animosity between the security forces and fans, Mr. Ibrahim went on to say that no attempt at political change in Egypt would succeed without the support of the military and the police, in his words, “the strongest institutions in the state.”

Mr. Ibrahim, who served in the Morsi government, played an important behind-the-scenes role in exploiting widespread criticism of Mr. Morsi and instigating mass protests against his government in late June 2013 that persuaded the military to remove Egypt’s first and only democratically elected president from office.

Militant fans were divided in their evaluation of the Morsi government but united in their frustration that the hopes for greater freedoms and social and economic justice after the overthrow of Mr. Mubarak had not been achieved. In the absence of security sector reform, Mr. Ibrahim’s remarks are likely to reinforce hostility between his ministry and fans who have proven to be a constant thorn in the government’s side.


James M. Dorsey is a senior fellow at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies, Nanyang Technological University in Singapore, co-director of the Institute of Fan Culture of the University of Wurzburg and the author of the blog, The Turbulent World of Middle East Soccer and a forthcoming book with the same title.

Saturday, February 21, 2015

Soccer racism highlights Europe’s struggle with transition and entrenched racism

(Source: Pitchgods)

By James M. Dorsey

Recent soccer-related racism highlights European nations’ tortured transition from ethnically relatively homogeneous to multicultural immigration societies amid a resurgence of entrenched racial, including anti-Semitic, attitudes that flourish in times of economic crisis and are not limited to Muslim communities.

Fans across Europe have lined up on both sides of the racism divide in a debate that involves despite recent attacks on freedom of speech and Jewish symbols in Copenhagen and Paris, Jews, blacks and Europeans of immigrant extraction in general as much as it does Muslims. The debate is being waged against the backdrop of the rise of the extreme right in a Europe that struggles with high unemployment, low economic growth and thousands of refugees washing up against its shores who are seeking refuge from conflict in the Middle East and Africa.

The targeting by racist fans of Muslims and non-Muslims alike is evident in a survey of numerous racist expressions on and off the pitch. It has sparked opposition from soccer enthusiasts to whom racism is abhorrent.

Right-wing fans often have links to racist political organizations whose legitimacy is being enhanced by European leaders like British Prime Minister David Cameron who recently refused to rule out a future coalition with the UK Independence Party (UKIP) that has no issue with associating itself with Holocaust deniers and denounces not only Muslims but also economic immigrants from Eastern Europe.

Europe’s transition to multiculturalism was first dealt a body blow by Al Qaeda’s 9/11 attacks on New York and Washington, subsequent bombings of public transport in Madrid and London, the murder in Amsterdam of a Dutch filmmaker, the flow of Europeans fighters joining the ranks of the Islamic State, the jihadist group that controls a swath of Syria and Iraq, and finally the recent attacks in Copenhagen and Paris.

European leaders have been at pains to insist that the continent’s confrontation with political violence constitutes a conflict with radicalism rather than with Islam. Yet, racism on and off the pitch is rooted in entrenched racial attitudes that became publicly taboo post-World War Two but were never eradicated. They are reinforced by a failure to acknowledge that immigration starting with decolonization and a wave of Mediterranean guest workers in the 1960s has fundamentally changed the nature of European society and by discrimination in education, employment and off-the-pitch soccer.

The latest incident of soccer racism in Paris with supporters of Chelsea FC, which fields some of England’s most talented black players, chanting “we're racist, we're racist, and that's the way we like it" demonstrates the point. The fans repeatedly shoved a native Parisian off a metro train because of his skin colour rather than his faith. Italian police days later arrested 22 fans of Feyenoord Rotterdam for rioting in Rome and damaging the Baroque fountain on the Spanish Steps.

Right-wing, self-styled hooligans in Germany supported by the neo-Nazi National Democratic Party of Germany (NPD) who in November set aside rivalries to riot in Cologne against the spread of what they termed radical Islam pride themselves on also targeting anarchists, Marxist-Leninists and other left-wing extremists. Some 50 police officers and 20 fans were injured in clashes.

By contrast, the English Defence League that trace its roots to a right-wing soccer sub-culture emerged as exclusively anti-Muslim as have similar groups in Norway and Denmark. “What we’re seeing…is that the groups of ultra sports fans are themselves infiltrated by neo-Nazis,” said Esteban Ibarra, president of Spanish advocacy group Movement Against Intolerance.

Increased expression of racism on the pitch is not going unchallenged. European clubs who thrive on fielding multicultural teams are opportunistically recognizing when convenient the continent’s new reality in which immigrants account for up to 20 percent of the population. Real Madrid CF has removed the traditional Christian cross from their official club crest in a gesture that was as much designed to signal multiculturalism as it was to cement a lucrative three-year sponsorship deal with the National Bank of Abu Dhabi. 

Yet, the gesture follows repeated expressions of anti-Semitism in Spanish sports, including some 18,000 people last May endorsing a profane and anti-Semitic hashtag after Real Madrid was defeated by Maccabi Tel Aviv in the final of Europe’s main basketball tournament.

Newcastle United football fans are meanwhile rallying against German anti-Islam movement Patriotic Europeans against the Islamisation of the West (Pegida) that plans to hold its first British march on February 28, the day Newcastle United plays Aston Villa at St James' Park. Pegida said the march was to “show the Islamists we show no fear.” In Madrid, a fan was killed in December in a clash between left and right wing soccer club supporters.

Holland’s Vitesse Arnhem was criticized last year for playing a friendly in Abu Dhabi despite the fact that its Israeli defender Dan Mori was refused a visa. Similarly, when Brazilian striker Dani Alves was taunted last year with a banana by fans, politicians and supporters across Europe ate bananas to denounce the insult to the Barcelona player on the grounds of his skin colour.

The failure to acknowledge societal change is reflected in the fact that senior soccer management in Europe does not reflect the cultural and racial diversity of society and the sport itself. Soccer management remains dominated by white Christian males, some of whom have in recent years been embroiled in controversy over racist and discriminatory remarks.

Piara Powar, executive director of Football Against Racism in Europe (FARE), warned in an interview with England’s Press Association that the wave of racism in soccer was part of a broader picture. “People don't respect ethnic minorities, except as players,” Mr. Powar said.


James M. Dorsey is a senior fellow at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies, Nanyang Technological University in Singapore, co-director of the Institute of Fan Culture of the University of Wurzburg and the author of the blog, The Turbulent World of Middle East Soccer and a forthcoming book with the same title.

Sunday, February 15, 2015

Soccer deaths renews spotlight on Egypt’s notorious security forces


By James M. Dorsey

A stampede at a Cairo stadium earlier this month, much like a politically-loaded soccer brawl in the Suez Canal city of Port Said three years ago, is shining a spotlight on Egypt’s unreformed, unabashedly violent, and politically powerful police and security forces amid confusion over what precisely happened and how many fans died.

Amid security forces holding fans and fans holding police responsible and conflicting assertions of the number of people who died in the incident one thing stands out: the deep-seated distrust and animosity between significant segments of the Egyptian public and an unreformed security force that was long the hated symbol of the regime of toppled President Hosni Mubarak; played a key role in persuading the military in 2013 to overthrow Egypt’s first and only democratic elected president; and has since left a bloody of brutal violence as evidenced by the deaths of some 1,400 anti-government protesters in the last 19 months.

In a report, Amnesty International underlined this week the persistent lack of accountability of Egypt’s security forces. “The Egyptian government has, as of yet, failed to hold any security officers accountable for these killings. A fact-finding committee established by former interim president Adly Mansour to investigate the killings also failed to hold any security officer accountable for these killings.“ It noted that the stadium deaths came barely two weeks after the killing of Shaimaa Al-Sabbagh by security forces sparked widespread outrage.

A 31-year-old protester, Ms. Al-Sabbagh, was shot, according to eye witnesses, by masked policemen after they attacked a small procession aiming to lay flowers on Tahrir Square in memory of Egypt’s derailed 2011 revolution. An editorial in Al Ahram, Egypt’s foremost state-owned newspaper, in an unusual break with its towing of the government line, condemned Ms. Al Sabbagh’s killing as cold-blooded murder for which it held the police responsible.

“The invulnerable facts conveyed by the eyewitness accounts from Shaimaa’s partners in the demonstration, and by the footage of her killing, clearly indicate the killer, the misuse of power and a failure to implement the law,” Al Ahram editor Ahmed Sayed Naggar said in the editorial. Mr. Naggar called on general-turned-president Abdel Fattah Al Sisi to ensure that justice was served in Ms. Al Sabbagh’s case. The responsibility for doing so, he wrote, is “on all our shoulders, first and foremost on the elected president entrusted to protect the souls of this nation’s sons from the abuse of power.”

Mr. Naggar’s editorial was believed to signal differences within the government and a realization among some senior officials that excessive security force violence was fuelling anti-government sentiment and damaging Egypt’s image. That realization is likely to be reinforced by the stadium incident and could spark some degree of reform of the police and security forces

The stakes for Mr. Al Sisi are high given that police brutality was one driver for the mass protests in 2011 that forced Mr. Mubarak to resign after 30 years in office. Stadia were a key arena where security force violence contributed to the build-up of resistance to the Mubarak regime in the four years prior to the president’s ouster.

As a result, professional soccer matches have either been suspended or largely played behind closed doors since Mr. Mubarak’s downfall. The closures did little to stymie soccer-related violence that peaked a week ago when a decision to allow a limited number of fans into the Cairo stadium erupted in demands for broader access and a total lifting of the ban.

The Amnesty report described various incidents of excessive force by security forces in clashes with soccer fans since the fall of Mr. Mubarak. Amnesty said security forces had employed force “on a scale not seen” since the uprising against Mr. Mubarak in early 2011 during six days of vicious battles on Cairo’s Mohammed Mahmoud Street in November 2011 in which 51 people were killed. It said security forces used live ammunition, shotgun pellets, tear gas and beatings.

“In all the cases documented by Amnesty International, live ammunition and shotgun pellets were used in circumstances where those killed or injured posed no imminent risk to the life of the security forces or others. Many people told Amnesty International that shotgun pellets were fired towards protesters from a distance of just a few metres. This caused many injuries to the eyes, leading to loss of sight in many cases,” the report said. It said only one security officer, Mahmoud Sobhi Shannawi, who was nicknamed the eye-hunter for targeting protesters’ eyes, was the only officer to have been charged for the killing and injuring of protesters on Mohamed Mahmoud Street and that his trial was still ongoing

Some two months later, security forces killed another 16 fans and injured hundreds of others in four days of protests in the wake of the Port Said incident. Fans accused the interior ministry of at the very least failing to protect the Al Ahli fans in Port Said if not having orchestrated the incident. Nine security officials were among 75 people charged with responsibility for the incident. Only two of the security officials were sentenced to prison sentences while 21 Al Masri fans were given a death sentence. The case is winding its way through the appeal process.

In a series of recommendations, Amnesty suggested that the government:

  •      Announce its firm commitment to reform the police and security apparatus and bring legislation governing it and its forces’ activities in line with international human rights standards

  •      Publish a clear structure of the various security branches with a clear chain of command

  •       Establish a vetting system to ensure that, pending investigation, members of the police and others about whom there is evidence of serious human rights violations do not remain or are not placed in positions where they could repeat such violations

  •       Review all standard operational procedures to be make them as clear and as unambiguous as possible and provide adequate training on them and other standards to the police force and make them public when possible

  •       Ensure that police receive adequate training in soft-skills, such as negotiation, persuasion, mediation and trust building, to enable them to de-escalate situations and have a constructive relationship with the population

  •       Establish an independent accountability and oversight body with authority over all aspects of police operations. Such a body should have an independent, effective and impartial complaints mechanism that can deal with complaints about police or security forces’ misconduct and human rights violations
  •   
  •       Issue clear instructions to all offices of the Public Prosecution that all allegations of abuses by the police are to be fully investigated and without undue delay
  •   
  •   Ensure that all members of the police force suspected of unlawful killing and injuries in policing demonstrations or in prisons and other detention centres; or for torture or other ill-treatment; including those who committed the violations and anyone who ordered others to commit them, are tried in proceedings that meet international standards of fair trial.


The most benign explanation for the bloody track record of the police and the security forces is that they lack training and experience in crowd control. That explanation fails to wash however given that the record dates back many years in which calls for better training of a force that routinely employed non-commissioned thugs to do its dirty work were deliberately rejected or ignored and in which the security forces did everything to maintain their position as a pillar of repression that for all practical matters was above the law.

In February 2012, police and security forces stood aside as 74 fans of storied Cairo club Al Ahli SC died in a stampede in a stadium in Port Said sparked by an attack by supporters of rival Al Masri SC and allegedly unknown armed elements. The incident is widely viewed as an effort backed by security forces and the military to cut down to size militant Al Ahli supporters who like their arch rivals from Al Zamalek SC played a key role in the toppling of Mr. Mubarak and protests against all subsequent Egyptian governments.

Like in Port Said, the interior ministry which oversees the security forces rejects any responsibility for the deaths a week ago in Cairo as a result of police firing tear gas into a narrow corridor of metal barricades and barbed wire as thousands of fans waited to enter the Air Defence stadium. Yet, like in Port Said, a video shows that at the start of the stampede fans begged the police to open the stadium gates to prevent casualties. The interior ministry has dismissed the video as a fabrication.

The incident has highlighted Egypt’s unabated polarization that erupted in June 2013 with military and security-force backed mass protests against the government of elected President Mohammed Morsi. That polarization has spilt into soccer with supporters of Al Ahli and Al Zamalek playing a key role in expanding anti-Sisi protests from the stadia to university campuses across Egypt in which scores have been killed.

The government despite announcing that it was investigating the stadium incident has left little doubt that it holds the Ultras White Knights (UWK), the militant, street battle-hardened support group of Zamalek, responsible for the deaths which it puts at 20 as opposed to a list of 43 names published by UWK that has gone viral on the Internet. Police have meanwhile arrested UWK members even before the investigation has been concluded.

A pro-government television host, Ahmed Moussa, demanded that the dead not be identified as martyrs in contrast to the victims of Port Said because they had died breaking the law by trying to enter the stadium without tickets. In denouncing the dead, Mr. Moussa was feeding into attempts by Zamalek president Mortada Mansour reportedly backed by the government to persuade the courts to outlaw UWK as a terrorist organization. So did the firing by Zamalek of centre-right Omar Gaber after he became the only Zamalek player to refuse to play the match while fans were being attacked 
by security forces outside the stadium.

In an interview on television, Mr. Mortada charged that Mr. Gaber was an ultra, a militant soccer fan. In response to a question about how fans of his club died, Mr. Mortada, who asserts that UWK tried to assassinate him, said, “ask the Muslim Brotherhood,” the group of deposed president Morsi that has since been outlawed as a terrorist organization and that has suffered the brunt of security force brutality in the last 19 months. Mr. Mansour went as far as issuing a statement saying that he had asked police to intervene at the stadium to counter the fans “thuggery.” At a news conference, Mr. Mortada went on to suggest that the fans had been paid to clash with security forces.

Mr. Gaber’s firing, the refusal of the majority of Zamalek players to show solidarity with the victims of the incident outside the stadium, and Mr. Mortada’s siding with the government in blaming the fans rather than the security forces for the deaths bodes ill for already strained relations between Zamalek’s management, players and fans. The attitude of the club and the players will serve to reconfirm the ultras’ analysis of the power structure of soccer in which management is a pawn of the regime, players are mercenaries who play for the highest bidder, and fans are the only true supporters of a team.

The stark dividing lines between management, players and fans coupled with the fans deep-seated distrust of the interior ministry and the security forces reinforced by the absence of any attempt by the government to project a unambigious willingness to independently investigate and curb excessive police force is preparing the ground for further confrontation.

Not prone to reading tea leaves such as the Al Ahram editorial, UWK has already sworn revenge. ”We have no confidence in the justice system or the government’s willingness to ensure that justice is served. We now have 43 martyrs. We have no choice: Soccer will not be played in Egypt until justice has been served and the rights of our martyrs have been secured,” said one UWK member.


James M. Dorsey is a senior fellow at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies as Nanyang Technological University in Singapore, co-director of the Institute of Fan Culture of the University of Würzburg and the author of the blog, The Turbulent World of Middle East Soccer, and a forthcoming book with the same title.

Saturday, February 14, 2015

Why do so many Egyptian soccer fans die in confrontations with police? (JMD quoted on Global Post)

Why do so many Egyptian soccer fans die in confrontations with police?

Nearly one hundred soccer fans have died in clashes with police over the past three years. But the country's interior ministry denies responsibility.

PortsaidfootballENLARGE
Portraits of the victims of the Port Said Stadium are seen as Supporters of Egypt's Al-Ahly football club gather in Mokhtar El-Tetsh Stadium in Cairo, on February 1, 2014, to mark the second anniversary of the deadly riot. (AFP/AFP/Getty Images)
CAIRO, Egypt — There was a terrible sense of deja vu for Egypt when at least 22 people were killed during clashes with security forces outside a soccer stadium on Sunday.
Witnesses said that most died from suffocation or were crushed in the stampede that followed when security forces fired tear gas to disperse spectators who were trying to force their way into the match between local teams Zamalek and Enppi.
Videos of the incident show fans wedged between large coils of barbed wire reinforced with metal to form a kind of cage and police firing tear gas at them.
Egypt has been here before. Sunday’s violence brought the death toll for soccer fans killed at games to nearly a hundred in three years. The worst instance came on Feb. 1, 2012, when 74 fans were killed at a match in the canal city of Port Said.
The league was suspended for a year after those deaths. When it resumed, games were played in empty stadiums. Again this week, the Egyptian domestic soccer league was suspended until further notice following the deaths on Sunday.
Egypt’s Ultras have a long history of confrontations with the police. Like their counterparts in Europe, where the rowdy soccer fan culture originates, they often use fireworks, are loud and at times get unruly.
Since they emerged in Egypt in 2007 they have often clashed with police. They say their experience confronting security forces and Egypt’s notorious police brutality led to their prominent role in the 2011 revolution.
In response to Sunday’s violence, the Ministry of the Interior spokesman Hani Abdel Latif said he “refused to hold the Interior Ministry responsible” for the killings. The Ministry said in its official statement that “large numbers of ticketless fans tried to storm the stadium, which caused security forces to prevent them from damaging the stadium facilities.”
Not all of those killed during the clashes were Ultras. The youngest victim was a 14-year-old girl, according to the Forensic Medical Authority.
The White Knights, a prominent group of Zamalek Ultras, called it a “premeditated massacre.”
Political clashes
But clashes between the police and the Ultras are not simply a matter of containing rowdy soccer fans.
“Most of the incidents that have involved the Ultras, and there have been numerous, have really been the equivalent of clashes between demonstrators and security forces,” says James Dorsey, co-director of the Institute of Fan Culture at the University of Wuerzburg and editor of the blog “The Turbulent World of Middle East Soccer.”
“In a country, whether under the Mubarak regime or the Sisi regime, that tolerates no uncontrolled public space,” he says, the claiming of public space is “inherently political.”
He adds that the relationship between the Ultras and the police has long been tense.
“Animosity between the security forces and the Ultras is mutual and whether it’s Ultras or others, intervention by security forces produces victims in ways that it shouldn’t and that has to do with the failure to restructure or reform the security forces,” says Dorsey.
Egypt's 2011 revolution and the associated violence left hundreds dead in clashes with Egypt’s security forces. 
“[I]n the last four years police violence and crimes by the security apparatus, committed with full impunity, have reached levels unknown in Egypt’s modern history,” Egypt’s leading rights groups said in a joint statement on Tuesday.
Poor training
Some say that poor training for police, many of them conscripts, is partly to blame — but that’s not the whole story.
"Training has always been really bad, it’s not necessarily getting any worse, but it’s not improving and there is a normalization of higher levels of violence and loss of life," says Karim Ennarah, security sector researcher with the Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights.
When fired at close range, in large quantities or in a confined space, tear gas can be lethal.
"The key thing is you shouldn't fire it directly into a crowd or into a closed space,” says Ennarah. “It's supposedly a dispersal weapon and if it's fired and there's nowhere to get out there's a high probability of asphyxiation, and it's not like the police has no experience with that."
Thirty-seven prisoners were killed in August of 2013 when officers fired tear gas into a police van outside of Abu Zaabal prison. The case resulted in one of few convictions of police for their role in the deaths of protesters over the last four years, but the sentences were overturned and a retrial is now ongoing.
http://www.globalpost.com/dispatch/news/regions/middle-east/egypt/150211/why-do-so-many-egyptian-soccer-fans-die-at-the-hands-

Friday, February 13, 2015

Death of Zamalek fans in riot stirs political conspiracies in Egypt (JMD quoted in The Guardian)


·        Clash echoes previous incident in Port Said in 2012



 Mourners and relatives of a man killed during the clashes in Cairo at Zamalek’s match with ENPPI. Photograph: Hassan Salby/Almasry Alyoum/EPA
Friday 13 February 201510.37 GMT
Sitting outside Cairo’s main mortuary on Sunday night, as the bodies of dead football fans were carried in and out for their autopsies, Saad Abdelhamid thinks he knows why they have died. “The massacre that took place today was revenge on those who took part in the revolution,” says the 27-year-old salesman.
“Witness this,” shouts another mourner, raising his bloodied hands. “Witness what our government is doing to our kids.”
To outsiders, the death of at least 22 fans of Zamalek SC in a stampede outside a stadium on Sunday evening might appear to be simply a footballing tragedy. To the police, what happened was the fault of fans trying to break into the ground.
But the circumstances that prompted the stampede – police fired teargas and shotgun pellets into the midst of thousands of fans confined in a narrow passage lined with barbed wire – has led traumatised survivors like Abdelhamid to claim their friends were targeted on purpose. And for political reasons.
 Amateur footage of Sunday’s stampede in Cairo.
To understand how such a perception might be formed, Abdelhamid says you have to rewind to 2011. Fans from Cairo’s two main clubs, Zamalek and their arch rivals, Ahly, had long clashed with police and each other for footballing reasons. But from 2011 onwards, their members – often middle-class students – began to play a more political role, even if to this day the groups themselves publicly maintain that they are apolitical.
As protesters battled Egypt’s notorious police force in January 2011, in demonstrations that led to the overthrow of then dictator, Hosni Mubarak, Egypt’s hardcore football fans were a key mobilising force.
“They made a difference in the street in Port Said, Alexandria and Cairo,” argues Abdelhamid, who, as a revolutionary himself, fought alongside them. (A Zamalekfan, he has also attended games with the ultras since 2007. But he is not a Ultras White Knights (UWK) member himself, and so is not subject to their longstanding media boycott.)

A member of the Ultras White Knights cries during Zamalek’s match with and ENPPI in Cairo.Photograph: Ahmed Abd el-Gwad/AP
After Mubarak made way for an army junta, ultras from Ahly and Zamalek continued to make their presence felt, chanting against the regime’s new leaders inside the stadium, and taking part in protests outside it.
They were and are by no means a unified block, says James Dorsey, author of The Turbulent World of Middle East Soccer. But their numbers mean “they constitute one of the largest social groups in Egypt”. And their ability to mobilise, even inside a stadium, poses an inherent threat to the authoritarian state.
The Egyptian regime, says Dorsey, “do not tolerate any uncontrolled public space – which means that both the mosque and the soccer pitch are potential problems. They are two of the institutions that evoke the deepest-seated passions of a significant section of the Egyptian public, and you can’t permanently shut them down.”
But depending on who you believe, this didn’t stop the regime from trying to do so. In February 2012, days after Ahly’s ultras chanted that Egypt’s military junta were “dogs like the police”, over 70 of them were killed in clashes that followed a game in Port Said.
Ostensibly, this was a case of fan-on-fan violence: Ahly’s supporters were attacked and killed by locals from Port Said. But for the ultras, there were too many smoking guns to rule out the state’s involvement – and parts of what happened seemed to have been planned. Someone switched off the stadium lights as soon as the attack began. Someone else locked the doors that represented the ultras’ only escape route. And as the fighting raged, the police simply stood and watched.
For Abdelhamid, it was obvious who was behind what happened in Port Said. “With that massacre, the regime made it very clear that it was against the ultras,” he says. “It was punishing them for their participation in the revolution against Mubarak regime.”
Almost exactly three years on, Abdelhamid claims that Sunday’s stampede was Zamalek’s Port Said moment. Having been trapped himself in what he calls the “passage of death”, it is hard for him to attribute the manner in which fans were hemmed into such a tiny space, and then sprayed with teargas, to simple negligence.
 Amateur footage of Sunday’s stampede in Cairo.
Others can’t be sure. “There’s always a chance that it’s politicised in some way,” says Islam Issa, an Egyptian football analyst, academic, and players’ agent. “But it’s pretty impossible to pinpoint things at this stage. I don’t think there’s an established account yet of the Port Said massacre three years ago, so we can’t even be close to understanding what happened this week.”
Certainly, the ultras, as a collective, pose a slightly smaller threat to the police than they did three years ago. One result of Port Said was that subsequent games were played behind closed doors – Sunday’s match was one of the first to be reopened to the public – and so the group’s ability to gather and mobilise has been diminished.
A return to Mubarak-era authoritarianism has also constricted their activities. And their potency as a united political force was undermined by the fallout from the overthrow of the ex-president Mohamed Morsi in 2013, a move that left Egyptians highly polarised. Zamalek’s White Knights were no exception, and so in an attempt to maintain their unity, in recent months UWK mobilised around internal club issues, and stayed away from national ones.
But the particulars of those internal struggles also hint at why the ultras might once again be in the crosshairs of the state.

A Zamalek supporter wearing a Guy Fawkes mask near a burning police car outside the stadium in Cairo. Photograph: STR/EPA
For much of the past year, the ultras have been at loggerheads with Zamalek’s chairman, an oddball, loudmouth lawyer named Mortada Mansour. A self-proclaimed counter-revolutionary, Mansour has made no secret of his hatred for ultras and protesters in general. For their part, some of the ultras tried to douse him in urine. In return, the pro-regime Mansour tried to get them listed as terrorists.
“They are not fans, they are criminals,” Mansour claimed in an interview with the Guardian late last year. “They are using bombs, live ammunition and shotgun pellets … but I continue because this is part of the nation’s battle against terrorism.”
Given this context, the idea that Zamalek’s White Knights were intentionally targeted is, for James Dorsey, “not an unreasonable conclusion, but I don’t think it’s an established fact.”
But for the likes of Abdelhamid, there are just too many coincidences, and UWK represent too much of a potential threat to the regime, for Sunday’s stampede to have happened because of incompetence alone. “I think the regime was shaking with fear,” says Abdelhamid. “To the degree that it imagined that the entrance of fans at this time of clear political upheaval might cause embarrassment to the regime in Egypt, that the chants of the fans would convey the facts about the political regime in Egypt.”
Additional reporting: Manu Abdo


Egypt's Ultras: 'We don't believe in state justice' (JMD quoted on Al Jazeera)

For Mohamed*, a 23-year-old member of Ultras White Knights (UWK) - a hardcore group of football fans that support Cairo-based Zamalek Sporting Club - Sunday started with a sense of excitement.
For the first time in over three years - since the February 2012 Port Said disaster in which 74 al-Ahly fans died - spectators were allowed to attend an Egyptian Premier League match.
Yet, Sunday turned into another day of tragedy as at least 19 Zamalek fans died following clashes with the security forces outside the stadium. The deaths are likely to trigger further unrest.
"We will take our revenge as we know the government won't take any action, except to announce the opening of an investigation that will lead to nothing," said
Mohamed.

OPINION: Egypt's Ultras: Fast and furious

A large number of fans had turned up at the Air Force Stadium in Cairo hoping to gain entry into the match between Zamalek SC and ENPPI. The authorities had allocated 10,000 tickets for the match in the 30,000 capacity stadium, although only 5,000 were available to the public.
Many were trampled and crushed in a stampede as supporters fled tear gas and birdshot used by the police to disperse fans massing at the stadium's gates - including many who were in a narrow metal tunnel that had been constructed to regulate the numbers entering the stadium.
The UWK said that 28 of their members were killed, while the Ministry of Health reported that 19 bodies had been taken to public hospitals.
A "large numbers of ticketless fans tried to storm the stadium, which caused security forces to prevent them from damaging the stadium facilities",
 the Ministry of Interior said in a
statement
.
"This incident was well arranged," countered
Yusef*, another member of the UWK who had attempted to enter the stadium.
"[It] is connected to the January 25 revolution."
Like the Ultras Ahlawy - who support Zamalek's rival al-Ahly - the Ultras White Knights were formed in 2007. Their members are overwhelmingly men in their teens and early 20s.
The ultras of various clubs were one of the few groups to regularly confront the police during ousted President Hosni
Mubarak's
time in power. Their street-fighting effectiveness came to the fore when they united to battle the security forces during the protests that toppled Mubarak.
They also played a significant role during demonstrations against subsequent governments and in the ongoing protests on
university campuses
.
Although they admit to regularly clashing with the authorities,
leading members of the UWK
claimed that they only react to police violence.
UWK leaders also claim that, as a group, they have no political affiliation and that they are united by a passionate loyalty to the club and the game. Many share an intense animosity towards the security forces and a distrust of the government and authorities within the sport.

RELATED: 'Ultras' fuel Egypt's campus protests

Timothy E Kaldas, a professor of politics at Nile University, said that Sunday's incident was unlikely to be premeditated and that the deaths were more a result of police incompetence and impunity.
"The police are not particularly skilled at dealing with crowds or even using their own equipment, and there is no pressure on them to change because there is no accountability," said Kaldas.
The deaths are the latest in a number of mass killings involving the security forces since the 2011 uprising.
Mubarak Maher, a senior editor at Ahram Online and freelance editor at African Football Media, said that the authorities had recently been trying to reduce tensions with fans, allowing Ultras Ahlawy to attend the Confederation Cup final in December. "After which president Sisi and local media made a very unusual move of praising the ultras because 'they behaved well'."
The authorities announced that spectators would be allowed to attend league matches again in the second half of the season, starting on Sunday. Yet, Maher said that Sunday's incident "marks the failure of the government to ease tensions with the ultras groups".
This begs the question as to why agreements, safety measures, and initiatives to work with the ultras were not implemented.
Some analysts argue that attempts to control football fans should be seen in the context
of a widespread crackdown on dissent and nonconformity that has intensified since the general-turned-president Abdel Fattah el-Sisi ousted the Muslim Brotherhood-affiliated President Mohamed Morsi in July 2013.
The crackdown has encompassed Islamists, leftists, liberals, students, NGOs, LGBT people, migrants, and journalists - as well as football fans.
Dozens of UWK members were arrested last year in a series of protests and incidents relating to an escalating feud with Zamalek's President Mortada Mansour, who was a prominent figure during the Mubarak era and is an ally of President Sisi.
Mansour has consistently equated the ultras with the outlawed Muslim Brotherhood, and last year brought a series of private lawsuits against the UWK to have the group banned and designated as terrorists. A court is set to rule on the lawsuits.

RELATED: Football and politics in Egypt: An explosive mix

The incident on Sunday renews the rancour of the feud with Mansour, who was quick to blame the ultras for the violence. UWK member Mohamed reacted by saying that Mansour had announced there would be a surprise for the fans at the stadium. "Was the surprise to kill us
in a trap?" asked Mohamed angrily.
James M Dorsey, author of a blog and forthcoming book about football in the Middle East, says that football presents the authorities with a dilemma in a country that is infused with fanaticism for the sport. "This is a government that, like its military predecessor [SCAF] as well as the Mubarak government, does not tolerate any uncontrolled public space. You can close off Tahrir Square but you can't permanently shut down soccer stadiums."
Dorsey argues that the stadiums provided a release valve for the anger and frustration of young men, but also that the authorities fear they inculcate dissent.
The death of the fans, says Dorsey, is likely to politically galvanise the ultras, who were one of Egypt's strongest social movements: "It indicates that there is no willingness on the part of the Egyptian government to ease the crackdown on the ultras, or on political dissent."
"The consequences will be bad and there might be more casualties soon," said Maher. "The Ultras White Knights group will definitely retaliate, although it's not yet clear what they are going to do exactly."
Kaldas agrees that the deaths are likely to trigger more clashes between the police and ultras in the near future, but thinks the political fallout is likely to be limited.
Kaldas also questioned the political power of the ultras movement. "While they can mobilise their supporters, they can't really mobilise much more beyond that. And while their supporters might be impressive in terms of street presence, they are not necessarily numerically substantial in a country of 86 million people."
Although Sunday's match went ahead, the government later announced the indefinite postponement of the league.
Sisi expressed "great sorrow" over the deaths and promised an investigation.
"We don't believe in the state's justice," said UWK member Yusef. He said that the ultras will take action, but did not provide details. "There will be no football till we get the rights of the martyrs."
Whether the deaths fundamentally shift public opinion is debatable. "
The incident can only make more people sympathise with the ultras, but all of that will vanish following the first violent reaction [of the ultras], like what happened in Port Said and its aftermath," says Maher.
*Names have been changed to protect the speaker.