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Saturday, October 29, 2011

Palestine unveils sports plan in effort to further state- and nationhood

Palestinian sports czar Jibril Rajoub

By James M. Dorsey
Palestine is scoring points on and off the soccer pitch as it seeks to employ sports to further its bid for statehood, ensure international support in its struggle against the debilitating effects of Israeli occupation and initiate a social revolution at home.

The Palestinian effort kicked into high gear this month with the unveiling of an ambitious ten-year plan backed by the International Olympic Committee (IOC) and the Palestine Authority to develop sports and a women’s friendly soccer match against world champion Japan.

The plan drafted by Spanish consultants hired by the IOC, which calls for a 61 million investment in sports facilities, was presented this week to donors by Palestinian Prime Minister Salam Fayyad, foreign minister Riyad al-Malki and Jibril Rajoub, who doubles as head of the Palestine Olympic Committee and the territory's soccer association.

"This is a breakthrough. Sports is a Palestine Authority priority alongside transportation and water," gushed Jerome Champagne, a former political advisor to world soccer body FIFA president Sepp Blatter, who now advises the Palestine Authority on sports, after the presentation in Ramallah.

Mr. Champagne said he expected funding for the ten-year plan to be made available at the next meeting of Palestine's donors. That could take a little while with the United States delaying the convening of the meeting to stymie European Union efforts to play a more important role in the Middle East.

Effected by the global financial crisis donors could also ultimately prove to be less generous than Palestinians hope. Diplomatic representatives of the United Nations, Spain, France, Italy, Britain and Brazil welcomed the plan but stressed at the meeting in Ramallah what they were already doing to support Palestinian sports rather than what they would do. To be fair, the diplomats were not the ones that control their countries' purse strings.

The Palestine Authority's emphasis on sports and the presentation of its ten-year plan could however not have come at politically convenient time for Palestine Authority.

To be sure, the plan has been long in the making and Palestine has come a long way since becoming in 1998 the first nation without a state to become a member of FIFA. In the last year, Palestine has played its first World Cup and Olympic qualifiers on Palestinian soil. Its national women's soccer team is breaking taboos in a traditionally conservative society.

Nonetheless, President Mahmoud Abbas' Palestine Authority has been politically weakened by its inability to force Israel to make concessions the Palestinians need to agree to a revival of peace talks and Israel's boost of Hamas with this month's swap of Israeli Staff Sergeant Gilad Shalit for more than 1,000 Palestinians incarcerated by Israel.

In emphasising sports and identifying with it, the authority is following in the footsteps of other Middle Eastern leaders who saw soccer, the region's most popular sport, as a tool to polish their tarnished images and distract attention from discontent with government policies. But in contrast to those leaders, they are promoting sports on a far more popular and transparent level and in ways that benefit the public and push the social envelope.

"We want this (plan) to be seen as an integrated part of our national development plan, an indispensable component," Mr. Fayyad told the diplomats, describing the sports initiative as "a hopeful enterprise." He said recalling his recent attendance at a soccer match that sports provides "a sense of joy, happiness of the people with just being there."

"We are witnessing a different kind of revolution... We are allowing people to release fears. They have the right to fight to achieve self-determination in sports like in any other field," added Mr. Malki.

The development plan is designed to project Palestine internationally as a nation and a state, strengthen nation-building and social development at home and focus attention on the debilitating effects of Israeli travel restrictions on Palestinian athletes. "For me, sport is a tool to realise the Palestinian people's national aspirations by exposing our cause through sports. I think that the ethics of sports and football is a rational and humanitarian way to convince the international community that we deserve freedom and independence," said Mr. Rajoub who doubles as Palestine Olympic Committee and Football Association czar.

Mr. Rajoub, a former Palestinian security chief with a military bearing who spent 17 years in Israeli prison, met his Israeli Olympic Committee counterpart for a third time this year in advance of the launch of the plan to discuss cooperation in easing the restrictions on athletes as well as the movement of sports materials. The two committees established a hotline to facilitate the movement of athletes stuck at Israeli checkpoints on the West Bank. They also looked at ways of enabling travel between the West Bank and the Hamas-controlled Gaza Strip.

Despite goodwill, the effort has so far produced limited results. Palestinians are waiting to see whether the processing three months ago of their last shipment from FIFA through Tel Aviv's Ben Gurion Airport in less than a week constitutes a change in Israeli attitudes. Until then shipments were held up for up to six months, incurring storage and other costs for the Palestinians that amounted to a multi-fold of the value of the goods shipped.

There has however been only limited improvement in athletes' ability to move around the West Bank or between the Palestine Authority-controlled region and the Gaza Strip. "The problem is the Israeli committee is not the relevant authority for the movement of people and equipment. We are trying, but I don't want to embarrass anyone," Mr. Rajoub says.

Nonetheless, soccer officials and players concede that crossing checkpoints has become somewhat easier this year. They attribute it primarily to improved security with Israel less concerned about the threat of terrorist attacks being launched from the West Bank. In addition, the PFA has created sleeping quarters in the Faisal Hussein Stadium so that players can get together to train without worrying whether they will be able to return home.

The perceived easing has done little for 13 of the 25 members of the Palestinian national soccer team who hail from Gaza. Goalkeeper Assem Abu Assi thinks of his wife and son in Gaza whenever the Palestinian flag is raised at an international match. Mr. Abu Assi has not seen them in four years because of an Israel refusal to grant him a travel permit. Mid-fielders Maali Kawari and Ismail Al Amur too have not been allowed to return for visits to Gaza.

"My dream is to just play football with my family watching in the stadium. It has never happened. Happiness is never complete. I'm always only half happy," Mr. Abu Assi says.

He and his co-players see soccer however as more than just a game. It constitutes their contribution to achieving Palestinian statehood. "Raising the Palestinian flag on the roof of a house in Palestine is a big issue. It is an even bigger issues when we raise the flag as a state outside the country," Mr. Abu Assi says. "Soccer is a way to build a state. When we go to India or Thailand, we put Palestine on the map," adds Mr. Kawari. "The Israelis know that sport is good for Palestinians. That's why they try to limit our success," Mr. Al Amur chips in.

The problems implementing the Palestinian sports development plan are further illustrated by FIFA and Palestinian efforts to get Israeli approval for the import of Jordanian personnel and materials to build two FIFA-funded soccer playing grounds in the Palestinian West Bank towns of Qalqilya and El Bireh. "The Israelis do not allow us to start the project. Our deadline is at the end of the year. Otherwise we lose the project," says Nabhan Khraishi, a PFA media advisor.

Mr. Khraishi says the Israeli authorities are delaying the El Bireh project because it is too close to the Israeli settlement of Psagot. The Israelis fear that the gathering of excited fans so close to one of their outposts could spark anti-Israeli protests at a time that anti-government protests are sweeping the Middle East and North Africa.

The struggle for state and nationhood is not only one in which Palestinians confront the Israelis. It is also a struggle for the kind of society Palestinians want their country to be. That is nowhere more true than with the right of women to play soccer.

The national women's team faced two obstacles when it met world champion Japan earlier this month on the soccer pitch in Hebron, the West Bank's most conservative town that unlike Ramallah, Bethlehem or East Jerusalem does not count Christians among its residents. The match moreover underscored differences within the Islamist movement with the city's Hamas mayor supporting the women's team and the local Hizb ut Tahrir movement opposing it.

Hizb ut Tahrir websites denounced the team as "naked bitches" even though they wore leggings and at least one of the squad's players dons a hijab, an Islamic headdress that covers the hair, ears and neck. Hizb ut Tahrir imams denounced the match from the pulpit in their mosques; school principals in Hebron banned their students from attending the match warning them that they would burn in hell if they went to the stadium.  The PFA was forced to bus in supporters.

Crowds cheered the team as they left the stadium even though they lost to Japan with a whopping 19:0. The team, which unlike its opponent is made up of university students rather than professionals, recovered in a second match, losing only 4:0 from the world champion. "It was a social revolution. We broke the barrier and taboo when we went to Hebron and Nablus (a conservative city in the north of the West Bank). The whole barrier collapsed" Mr. Rajoub says.

It no doubt was the beginning of a social revolution, however one that has yet to play out. A majority of the players in Palestine's six women soccer clubs as well as its national team are Christians rather than Muslims. Yet, even players from Christian families often fight battles at home to be allowed to play. Claudia Salameh, a 21-year old business administration student, said her family wanted her to stop when she got engaged but that her fiancé had supported her. Other players report similar splits in their families.

"Things are changing. It depends on what area of the country. Lifestyles are changing. Three years ago it was unacceptable for girls to walk in the streets with shorts. It was unacceptable to play soccer, run or ride a bicycle in shorts. Now it is ok in Ramallah, Bethlehem and Jerusalem," Ms. Salameh said.         

James M. Dorsey is a Senior Fellow at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies (RSIS), Nanyang Technological University and the author of the blog, The Turbulent World of Middle East Soccer 

Thursday, October 27, 2011

Israel and Hamas: A new equation for Mid-East peace?

RSIS presents the following commentary Israel and Hamas: A new equation for 
Mid-East peace? by James M. Dorsey. It is also available online at this link
 (To print it, click on this link.). Kindly forward any comments or feedback to the
 Editor RSIS Commentaries, at

No. 156/2011 dated 27 October 2011

Israel and Hamas:
A new equation for Mid-East 


By James M. Dorsey

Israeli and Palestinian hardliners rather than moderates are serving each other's
purpose in the Middle East conflict. That is the underlying dynamic of the political
calculations of both Israel and Hamas in the recent lop-sided swap of an Israeli 
soldier for over a thousand Palestinian prisoners.


THE ISRAELI-PALESTINIAN peace process remains frozen with little, if any, 
prospect of it gaining momentum. President Mahmoud Abbas' effort to achieve 
United Nations recognition of Palestinian statehood in a bid to break the 
logjam is mired in diplomatic red tape and likely to be foiled by a United States 
veto  if  it  comes up for a vote in the Security Council.

True to form, hardliners on both sides of the Israeli-Palestinian divide are 
finding common ground where moderates are grasping for straws. In doing so, 
they are reaffirming a long-standing fact of life of the Israeli-Palestinian 
equation: hardliners can serve each other’s needs to mutual benefit without 
making the kind of wrenching concessions that thwart the ambitions of 
peacemakers and moderates on both sides. 

The prisoner swap in which Israel bought freedom for now Staff Sergeant 
Gilad Shalit after five years in Palestinian captivity in exchange for the release 
of 1,027 prisoners - many of whom were responsible for deadly attacks on 
Israelis - is the latest example of sworn enemies finding it easier to do business 
than those who advocate compromise and living in peace and harmony side by 

No peace works for all

Underlying, the swap is a belief on the part of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu 
and Hamas that there is no realistic chance for an agreement on peace terms 
that would be acceptable to both Palestinians and Israelis. Given the nature of 
his coalition government, Netanyahu has so far been unwilling or unable to give 
Abbas the bare minimum he would need to push forward with peace without at least 
the tacit backing of Hamas.

While Netanyahu officially refuses to negotiate with Hamas, for its part, Hamas 
refuses Israeli conditions for its inclusion in a peace process. These are 
that it recognises Israel's right to exist, abandons its armed struggle and accepts 
past Israeli-Palestinian agreements. If anything, the fact that it has achieved a
tangible victory with the release of prisoners belonging to both Hamas as 
well as Abbas'  Fatah movement has reinforced the Islamist movement’s 
conviction that its hard line is paying off.

Netanyahu has strengthened Hamas in its conviction not only by excluding 
Abbas from the prisoner swap. He has also done so by undermining the 
Palestinian president with his decision to build a new Jewish settlement 
on the southern edge of Jerusalem and granting legal status to settlements 
established without his government’s approval. Abbas has made an Israeli 
freeze on settlements his core pre-condition for revival of peace talks with 
the Israelis, to no avail.

Temporary arrangements suit all but Abbas

Unlike Abbas, Netanyahu has made his most hardline critics part of 
his coalition.  Netanyahu and Israel’s right-wing moreover agree on 
fundamentals: a rejection of an Israeli return to the borders prior to the 
1967 conquest of the West Bank, Gaza and East Jerusalem and a 
perception of a nuclear-armed Iran as the foremost threat to the existence 
of the Jewish state. Hamas rather than Abbas offers Netanyahu the 
space to build Israeli policy on those two principles. Hamas’ refusal to 
meet Israeli conditions for peace negotiations proves the Israeli 
prime minister’s assertion that Israel has no Palestinian partner with 
which it can do business.

At the same time, Hamas has proven that it can and will 
make temporary arrangements with Israel like the prisoner swap or a 
 ceasefire that safeguards Israeli towns from Palestinian rocket attacks. 
 Hamas has moreover, contributed its bit to weakening Abbas by effectively 
thwarting the Palestinian leader’s efforts at reconciliation so that 
Palestinians can confront Israel with a unified front.

The possibility of Hamas’ external wing moving its headquarters from 
Syria, Iran’s closest ally in the Arab world, to post-Mubarak Egypt, which 
facilitated the prisoner swap, further serves Netanyahu’s purpose of clearing 
the deck for possible pre-emptive military action against Iran. Lingering 
in the background is uncertainty of what Israel’s immediate neighbourhood 
may look like. Syrian president Bashar al-Assad is battling for his survival 
with no sign of the eight months of mass anti-government protests subsiding 
despite a brutal crackdown. Jordan’s King Abdullah has so far been able to 
contain demands for political reform and greater economic opportunity.

Israeli military: the joker in the pack

Ironically, Israel’s military and  former senior Israeli military commanders 
constitute the greatest threat to  Netanyahu’s policy designs and may offer 
Hamas its best chance yet of becoming a player in peace talks with Israel 
as well as the dominant force in Palestinian politics. While Israel’s military 
appears split on the prospect of a pre-emptive strike against Iran, at least 
half of the retired leaders of Israel’s military and intelligence services have 
publicly rejected  Netanyahu’s strategic thinking.

Perhaps, most vocal among them is Meir Dagan, a former head of Mossad, 
who has not only criticised Netanyahu’s hard line toward Iran but also called 
for Israeli acceptance of a nine-year old Saudi peace plan endorsed by all Arab 
states. That peace plan offers Israel full diplomatic relations in exchange for a 
complete withdrawal from Palestinian lands occupied in 1967.

No doubt Dagan, Hamas’ nemesis who is credited with the death of hundreds 
of its operatives, has political ambitions as well as the military credentials 
that Netanyahu lacks. His willingness to entertain the Saudi proposal would 
open the door to Hamas to take its seat at the table. That could well lead 
to a new chapter in Israeli-Palestinian relations.

James M. Dorsey is a Senior Fellow at the S. Rajaratnam School of 
International Studies (RSIS), Nanyang Technological University. He has 
been a journalist covering the Middle East for over 30 years.

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Wednesday, October 26, 2011

UAE’s Al Serkal lobbies Gulf to support his AFC candidacy

Yousef al Serkal (Source: Gulf News)
By James M. Dorsey
Asian Football Confederation (AFC) vice president Yousef Al Serkal, a former president of the United Arab Emirates soccer association, is lobbying Gulf countries to support him as the Arab consensus candidate to succeed suspended AFC president Mohammed Bin Hammam, a Qatari national, as head of the Asian body.
Mr. Al Serkal, hopes to capitalize on opposition to the ambition of Bahrain Football Association head Shaikh Salman Bin Ebrahim Al Khalifa to succeed Mr. Bin Hammam, who was fired in July as vice president of world soccer body FIFA on charges of bribery and suspended as AFC chief pending his appeal at the Court for Arbitration of Sport (CAS). Mr. Bin Hammam has denied any wrongdoing.
With Middle Eastern soccer managers confident that an Arab candidate has a good chance of succeeding Mr. Bin Hammam, Mr. Al Serkal, widely viewed as an associate of the disgraced Qatari national, is less controversial than Sheikh Salman, a member of the Gulf island’s royal family, who allegedly had a direct hand in the dismissal of some 150 sports executives and athletes, including three national soccer team players.
The executives and athletes are accused of participating in mass anti-government protests in Bahrain that were part of a series of popular revolts sweeping the Middle East and Africa. The revolts have already prompted the downfall of autocratic leaders in Egypt, Tunisia and Libya. Unlike in Syria, Yemen and Libya, Bahrain succeeded to squash the protests with brute force. Thousands were detained and some 30 people were killed.
The AFC decided in July to postpone replacing Mr. Bin Hammam, giving him until May next year at the latest to complete the appeal process. The issue is certain to be discussed at an AFC Executive Committee member in late November even if the council does not initiate the election process for a new leader at that meeting. Several non-Arab soccer managers, including acting AFC president Zhang Jilong of China, are also believed to be interested in the job.
"Basically, I am overlooking things on a day-to-day basis and internally we have managed to achieve a lot for our candidature. I am very clear about one thing, and that is the need for this part of Asia to have a consensus candidate rather than two contesting for the post of president. There has been an intention from Sheikh Salman and we need to ensure there is one candidate from the Gulf and Arab world for next year's elections," the Dubai-based Gulf News quoted Mr. Al Serkal as saying.
UAE Football Association president Mohammad Khalfan Al Rumaithi is so far the only Gulf soccer executive to have publicly endorsed Mr. Al Serkal’s candidacy.
The dismissed Bahraini national soccer team players and other athletes and sports officials are fighting in Bahrain courts charges brought against them for peacefully demonstrating. Sheikh Salman headed the committee that identified the 150 soccer players, athletes and sports executives.
National soccer team player Alaa Hubail who was charged together with his brother and co-team member Mohamed, recounted in September an interview with The Associated Press how he and his brother were arrested, abused and humiliated during the government’s brutal suppression of the protests.
Mohamed Hubail was tried by a Bahraini security court and convicted to two years in prison, but later released pending his appeal after FIFA questioned the BFA about the crackdown. Alaa’s case has yet to go to court.
Unlike other AFC and FIFA associates of Mr. Bin Hammam, Mr. Al Serkal has not been mired in allegations of violating codes of ethics.
Nonetheless, the AFC’s decision to postpone election of a successor to Mr. Bin Hammam was motivated by a desire to restructure the Asian soccer body to make it more democratic and transparent by rolling back changes that effectively concentrated power in the hands of its suspended president.
The restructuring is further intended to insulate Asian soccer from the corruption and match-fixing scandals that have engulfed world soccer body FIFA as well as the beautiful game in Asia, Europe, the Middle East and Africa and quell concern among fans and sponsors.
Reformers within the AFC caution that electing Sheikh Salman to succeed Mr. Bin Hammam would send the wrong signal, but have so far refrained from determining their attitude toward Mr. Al Serkal.
James M. Dorsey is a Senior Fellow at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies (RSIS), Nanyang Technological University and the author of the blog, The Turbulent World of Middle East Soccer

Prominent soccer executives and players seek compromise on the hijab

FIFA Vice President Prince Ali Bin Al Hussein

By James M. Dorsey

World soccer body FIFA and observant Muslim women soccer players may be close to a compromise in their dispute over the wearing of the hijab, a headdress that covers the neck, ears and hair.

The dispute led in June to the disqualification of the Iranian women’s national team after they appeared on the pitch in the Jordanian capital Amman for a 2012 London Olympics qualifier against Jordan because the players wore the hijab. Three Jordanian players who wear the hijab were also barred.

The Iranian team’s insistence on wearing the hijab contradicted an agreement reached last year in Singapore between FIFA and the Iranian Football Federation (IFF) under which the Iranians agreed to the wearing of a cap that covered hair but not the neck.

Prominent soccer executives, women players, coaches and referees agreed at a brainstorm in Amman this week convened by FIFA Vice President Prince Ali Bin Al Hussein, a half-brother of King Abdullah, that the hijab is a cultural rather than a religious symbol.

“The hijab issue has taken centre stage in football circles in recent years due to the increasing popularity of women’s football worldwide. It is a cultural issue that not only affects the game, but also impacts society and sports in general. It is not limited to Asia, but extends to other continents as well,” the executives and players said in a statement.

By defining the hijab as a cultural symbol, the group, meeting under the auspices of the Asian Football Development Project (AFDP), an NGO founded by Prince Ali to advance grassroots, youth and women’s soccer, hopes to lay the groundwork for a compromise that acknowledges the cultural requirements of observant Muslim women and meets FIFA’s health and safety standards.

In doing so, the group, which included FIFA Executive Committee member and head of the body’s medical committee Michel D’Hooghe, Asian Football Confederation (AFC) Vice President Moya Dodd, members of FIFA’s women committee as well as representatives of the soccer bodies of Jordan, Bahrain, Iran and the United Kingdom, hope to work around FIFA’s ban on the wearing of religious or political symbols on the pitch.

The group called on FIFA to articulate a clear policy that “avoid(s) any form of discrimination or exclusion of football players due to cultural customs” and establishes the pitch as “a forum for cultural exchange rather than conflict.”

Soccer executives said privately that the issue of the hijab had been complicated by the fact that the ban of the hijab on the pitch is based on a ruling by the International Football Association Board (IFAB) that determines the rules of the game. Interpretation of the IFAB ban on religious, political and personal symbols is left however to referees, which has led to differing interpretations on the pitch. It was the referee’s decision in June that led to Iran’s disqualification.

“The rules have to be adapted to the evolution of the game and the society or interpreted accordingly,” the group said, noting that “FIFA is committed to the basic principles of non-discrimination and allows on this basis the use of the head covering.”

The group said “safety must remain the most important consideration for the use of hijab.” It said that FIFA would coordinate accelerated research to ensure that the hijab or headdress worn by women on the pitch ensured safety in the game. It called on FIFA to consider “innovative designs ….  with full consideration of medical aspects, particularly safety, aesthetic arguments, type of material.”

The group said that FIFA should weigh lower safety risks against the greater health benefit of women playing soccer and asserted that allowing the hijab would persuade more women to become players and empower them across cultures.

Prince Ali and Mr. D’Hooghe will put the principles adopted by the group to FIFA at its next executive committee meeting scheduled for December. The prince together with Ms. Dodd would also table the principles at next month’s AFC executive committee meeting, the statement said. It said that the principles would have to be “in accordance with the safety aspects” so that they could be proposed to IFAB when it meets in February 2012.

Farideh Khanom Shojaei, a member of the Iranian soccer body’s women’s committee, and Houshang Moghaddas, the international relations advisor to IFF President Ali Kafashian, said in an interview that the group’s proposal marked a significant step forward.

Ms. Shojaei and Mr. Moghaddas suggested however that final agreement on a compromise could still prove difficult. “The neck is very important,” Ms. Shojaei said, suggesting that Iran would insist on a design that covered not only the hair but also neck.

Ms. Shojaei and Mr. Moghaddas acknowledged that the fact that the hijab is compulsory for Iranian women players and that Iran imposes the wearing of the hijab on foreign teams playing in the Islamic republic was likely to remain an issue even if FIFA and IFAB adopt the group’s principles. Iran is the only country that has made the hijab compulsory for its players as well as for visiting foreign teams.

James M. Dorsey is a Senior Fellow at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies (RSIS), Nanyang Technological University and the author of the blog, The Turbulent World of Middle East Soccer

Tuesday, October 25, 2011

Islamists fare well in an Arab world in revolt

Tunisian Islamists claim election victory (Source: AFP/Lionel Bonaventure)

By James M. Dorsey

The score is 1:0 in favor of the Islamists in this month’s Arab revolt match.

Islamists emerged from Tunisia’s first post-revolt election as the country’s foremost political force set to play a key role in drafting the country’s new constitution. With Libyan leader Moammar Qaddafi dead, jockeying for political position has begun in earnest and Islamists who played an important part in eight months of fighting that led to his demise are demanding their share of power.

Hamas, the Islamist grouping that controls the Gaza Strip, has significantly strengthened its position at the expense of its arch rival Al Fatah headed by Palestine Authority President Mahmoud Abbas with the freeing of Israeli Corporal Gilad Shalit from five years in captivity in exchange for the release of more than 1,000 Palestinian prisoners from Israeli prison.

Islamists also stand to gain in Syria as the country moves ever closer to armed conflict between the regime of President Bashar al-Assad and protesters who increasingly feel that turning the other cheek in the face of a brutal government crackdown is neither paying them dividends on the bloodied streets of Syrian towns and cities nor in terms of support from the international community.

The rise of the Islamists in the wake of popular revolts sweeping a conservative swath of land stretching from the Atlantic coast of Africa to the Gulf hardly comes as a surprise in a world in which the mosque was the only ideological opposition platform that alongside the soccer pitch provided a valve for the release of pent-up anger and frustration.

Gas and oil-rich Algeria, potentially the next Arab state to be shaken by the revolt to its core, could well prove a litmus test for the Islamists. Memories of the bitter civil war in the 1990s that pitted the military against Islamists who emerged victorious from the ballet box has so far dampened enthusiasm for renewed confrontation in a country that is simmering with discontent and that already witnessed initial mass anti-government protests early this year. The protests have since fizzled out on the streets of Algerians towns and cities but are alive and kicking in the country’s soccer stadiums where football fans regularly take on President Abdelaziz Bouteflika, the military and the Islamists.

For Algeria, however, the political geography of protest has changed. Algeria is now surrounded by three nations in transition: Libya, Tunisia and Morocco where the king has preempted protesters by pushing forward with constitutional reform. Disgust with the ruling military’s nepotism, corruption and inability to provide sufficient jobs fueled by the success of their brethren in the region ultimately runs deeper in Algeria than fears of renewed confrontation with the military or uncertainty over the Islamists real aims.

"Our songs focus on current events, on politics and the economy. We sing about politicians, about security, about terrorist attacks. We criticize the current government as well as the extremists of the (outlawed) Islamic Salvation Front. We also criticize the high cost of living in Algeria and the privileges enjoyed by the country’s elite, who send their children abroad to study while so many young Algerians are unemployed and live in poverty," said Amine T., a supporter of popular Algiers club Union Sportive de la Medina d'Alger (USMA).

In a region dominated by autocratic rulers bent on controlling the soccer pitch and benefitting from its popularity to polish their tarnish image, Algeria is among the most advanced in encouraging the emergence of soccer as a professional sport. As a result of the regime's reduced involvement in the sport, soccer fans have a tacit understanding with authorities under which they can say what they like as long as they keep their protests confined to the stadium.

"It’s not so much our slogans that worry the authorities, it’s how many of us there are. For example, when riots erupted in the Algiers neighborhood of Bab el-Oued earlier this year, the Algerian Football Federation temporarily suspended matches. They did this because they were worried that if the police couldn’t control a few dozen youths in the street, they certainly wouldn’t be able to control 60,000 football fans leaving a stadium. I think that the authorities don't actually have a problem with our chants: if we get our anger out inside the stadium, then that’s it, we don’t cause any trouble outside," Amine T. said.

"The chanting of the fans in stadia has continued to replicate the political situation," adds Loughborough University professor Mahfoud Amara, writing in the July edition of The Journal of North African Studies. "Football is becoming one of the few (allowed) spaces for people to express their frustrations overt the socio-economic and political conditions.”

The question is whether the Algerian government will continue to tolerate the stadium protests as its neighbors forge their way towards a more open society and how much longer the protesters will accept being confined to the stadium. Discontent with the government is already spilling out of the stadiums with small protests occurring on a daily scale over the lack of water, housing, electricity or calling for higher wages. A quarter of the population lives under the poverty line and unemployment is rampant.

"The country is on the edge of an explosion, the regime has only held on by spending billions, but for how long? This is just a postponement," said Sherif Arbi, a pro-democracy activist.

President Bouteflika has long justified his repressive regime with the fight against Al Qaeda’s affiliate in northwest Africa, Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb. That argument is rapidly wearing thin. For the Islamists, Algeria constitutes an opportunity not only to further spread their wings but also to further demonstrate that pluralism has become an integral part of their political reality.

James M. Dorsey is a Senior Fellow at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies (RSIS), Nanyang Technological University and the author of the blog, The Turbulent World of Middle East Soccer

Sunday, October 23, 2011

Somali jihadists focus on banning women's sports rather than famine

Locked into battle: Somali President Sheikh Sharif Ahmed (Source: Reuters)
By James M. Dorsey

While Al Qaeda is projecting a kinder, gentler image by distributing aid to famine victims, its local Somali affiliate, the Al Shabab, are  ensuring strict adherence to a five-year old ban on women's sports.
The emphasis on women constitutes an expanded enforcement of the Shabab's extreme interpretation of Quranic guidelines on sports that in recent years focused primarily on efforts to ban soccer for men as well as women.

The Shabab focus not only contrasts with Al Qaeda's effort to project a different image after having lost much of its appeal with its attacks on Arab residential compounds and luxury hotels in the first half of the last decade and being even more sidelined by this year's Arab revolt sweeping the Middle East and North Africa.
It also highlights differing attitudes with Al Qaeda and other militant Islamist groups such as Palestine's Hamas and Lebanon's Hezbollah with regard to the importance and the role of sports in Islamist ideology and strategy.

AL Qaeda and Al Shabab represent two sides of militant Islam’s love-hate relationship with ball games. Soccer doesn’t fit into Al Shabab or, for that matter, the Taliban’s vision of an Islamist society. Soccer distracts the faithful from worshipping Allah, competes with the militants for recruits and lends credence to national borders at the expense of pan-Islamist aspirations for the return of the Caliph who would rule the world’s 1.5 billion Muslims as one. It also celebrates peaceful competition and undermines the narrative of an inevitable clash of civilizations between Islam and the West.

Al Shabab mentor and Taliban ally Osama Bin Laden, like many jihadists, nonetheless worshiped the game only second to Allah. He saw it as a useful bonding and recruitment tool that brought recruits into the fold, encouraged camaraderie and reinforced militancy among those who have already joined. The track record of soccer-players-turned suicide bombers proves his point.
Nonetheless, in a break with its indiscriminate shedding of bloodhuman life, Al Qaeda recently sent a representative to a camp of Somali refugees fleeing the famine in their tortured country to distribute humanitarian aid.

Already wracked by an Islamist insurgency whose leaders differ little in with Afghanistan's Taliban, Somalia recently has also been hit by a famine that is worst in areas controlled by the Al Shabab, which five years ago aligned itself with Al Qaeda. The United Nations estimates that thousands have already died in the famine and that some 750,000 more could lose their lives in the coming months.
As a result, Al Qaeda's distribution of aid throws into sharp relief, Al Shabab's refusal to allow Western air groups to help alleviate suffering and its effort instead to ensure adherence to its strict precepts that not only ban women's sports, but soccer for men as well as women as well as bras and music.

The contradictions were most evident when Al Qaeda leader Ayman al Zawahiri's representative, Ali Abdulla Al Muhajir, recently presided over the distribution of mounds of grain, powdererd milk and dates in an Al Shabab-run camp on the outskirts of marked. The food was marked “Al Qaeda campaign on behalf of Martyr Bin Laden. Charity relief for those affected by the drought," Mr. Al Muhajir told his starving listeners: “Our beloved brothers and sisters in Somalia, we are following your situation on a daily basis.”
Speaking in American-accented English, Mr. Al Muhajir said the aid had been purchased by "brothers in Al Qaeda" who although separated from the refugees by thousands of kilometres had them "consistently in our thoughts and prayers.”

The Al Shahab's revived effort to impose a ban on women's sports harks back to a decision in 2006 by the Somali Islamic Courts Union (ICU), an Islamist group that briefly ruled Somalia, that condemned it as "a heritage of old Christian cultures" and "un-Islamic."
Initially an armed wing of the courts, the Shabab emerged as a force in their own right with the US-backed Ethiopian invasion that forced the courts out of power.

Much like they did with soccer officials, Al Shabab operatives have begun threatening women basketball players with death if they fail to give up the sport. The focus on basketball is no coincidence. Basketball is Somalia's second most popular sport after soccer and alongside soccer and handball only one of three sports played by women in Somalia.
Somali national women's basketball team captain Suweys Ali Jama is one of their favourite targets. "I will only die when my life runs out – no one can kill me but Allah … I will never stop my profession while I am still alive. Now, I am a player, but even if I retire I hope to be a coach - I will stop basketball only when I perish," Ms. Jama recently told InterPress Service (

Ms. Jama's deputy, Aisha Mohammed, whose mother once played for the national team, has two strikes against her. Not only is she a woman athlete, but she plays for the Somali military women's basketball team.
Ms. Mohammed, according to IPS, quotes the Shabab as telling her: "You are twice guilty. First, you are a woman and you are playing sports, which the Islamic rule has banned. Second, you are representing the military club who are puppets for the infidels. So we are targeting you wherever you are."

In a feisty retort, Ms. Mohammed asserts that "I am a human being and I fear, but I know that only Allah can kill me."
Together with the national soccer team, Ms. Jama and Ms. Mohammed's basketball team trains behind the bullet-ridden walls surrounding the Somali police academy. Dressed in loose fitting tracksuits, T-shirts and headscarves, women players sprint across the court in the presence of hundreds of policemen. They leave the academy covered to return home from training as a safety measure.

Somali Basketball Federation deputy secretary general Abdi Abdulle Ahmed told IPS that some women had left the national team as a result of the Al Shabab threats. Sport executives estimate that some 200 women stopped playing basketball when the initial 2006 ban was announced.
Somali Basketball Federation president Hussein Ibrahim Ali argues that his national women's team plays for much more than a trophy when it competes internationally.
"The world knows that Somalia has undergone hardships. When our women play internationally, it is  great publicity for the whole country and, in particular, for the basketball federation," Mr Ali said.

James M. Dorsey is a senior fellow at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies at Singapore's Nanyang Technological University and the author of the blog, The Turbulent World of Middle East Soccer.

Friday, October 21, 2011

Bei den Umstürzen in Nordafrika spielte Fußball eine wichtige Rolle. Forscher J. Dorsey spricht im Interview über Ultras auf dem Tahrir-Platz und Esel im Gadhafi-Trikot.

© AFP IOPP/Getty Images

Fans des ägyptischen Clubs Al-Ahly im Kairoer Derby gegen Zamalek

ZEIT ONLINE: Herr Dorsey, am Wochenende wird in Tunesien zum ersten Mal nach den Revolutionen in Nordafrika gewählt. Welche Rolle spielt der Fußball bei diesen Wahlen?

James M. Dorsey: Im Mittleren Osten und in Nordafrika ist Fußball immer sehr politisch gewesen. Der tunesische Diktator Ben Ali hat den Fußball benutzt, genau wie Mubarak in Ägypten oder Ahmadineschad in Iran. Für sie war es wichtig, ein Teil dieses positiven Gefühls zu werden, dass den Fußball umgibt. Auch nach der Revolution sehen viele politische Parteien Fußball als eine Möglichkeit, Wahlen zu beeinflussen und haben viele Fußballer als Kandidaten angeworben.

James M. Dorsey

© privat

James M. Dorsey ist Senior Research Fellow der S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies an der Nanyang Technological University in Singapur. Dorsey betreibt auch das Blog The Turbulent World of Middle East Soccer.

ZEIT ONLINE: Missbrauchen die neuen Parteien den Fußball genauso für ihre Zwecke wie die alten Despoten?

Dorsey: Im Grunde ja, aber es gibt einen Unterschied: Diesmal gibt es wirklich eine Wahl, einen Wettbewerb. Die Gesellschaft ist offener geworden.

ZEIT ONLINE: Warum ist Fußball so wichtig?

Dorsey: In diesen autoritären Staaten sind der Islam und Fußball die wichtigsten Dinge im Leben vieler Leute. Es gab nur zwei Orte, an denen man Frust und Wut ausdrücken konnte: Die Moschee und das Fußballstadion. Diese beiden Institutionen hätten die Diktatoren nie und nimmer schließen können. Das hätte an sich schon eine Revolution verursacht.

ZEIT ONLINE: Welche Rolle spielte der Fußball im arabischen Frühling?

Dorsey: Eine sehr wichtige. Auf dem Tahrir-Platz in Kairo haben sich drei Gruppen versammelt. Die normalen Leute, die keine Erfahrung mit Demonstrationen hatten und die ihre Hemmschwelle schon mit der Versammlung selbst überwunden hatten. Dann gab es die Jugendgruppen der Muslim-Brüder, die schon etwas Erfahrung um Straßenkampf hatten. Und es gab die Ultras, die radikalen, oft auch gewalttätigen Anhänger der beiden Kairoer Fußballclubs. Diese Fans waren die Stoßtruppen in der Konfrontation mit den Sicherheitskräften und den Anhängern von Mubarak. Sie haben den anderen Gruppen Mut gemacht.

ZEIT ONLINE: Die Ultras sind vorneweggegangen, weil sie Erfahrungen mit Gewalt hatten.

Dorsey: Genau. Die Ultras waren vorher durch ihre Radikalität praktisch jede Woche im Konflikt mit dem Staat. Die Regierung fürchtete sich vor dieser Gruppe sehr. Am Vorabend der Revolution riefen die Sicherheitskräfte die Ultras an und baten sie zu Hause zu bleiben und nicht zum Tahrir-Platz zu kommen. Weil sie wussten, was das bedeuten würde.

ZEIT ONLINE: Wie haben sich die Ultras nach der Revolution verhalten?

Dorsey: Sie spielen weiter eine wichtige Rolle. Sie waren es, die die Büros des Staatssicherheitsdienstes überfallen haben. Sie haben die ersten propalästinensischen Demonstrationen mitorgansiert. Und sie haben die israelische Botschaft gestürmt.

ZEIT ONLINE: Wie ist das Verhältnis der Fußballfans zur Militärregierung?

Dorsey: Das Verhältnis ist sehr schlecht. Die Ultras haben das Gefühl, dass das Militär nicht die Forderungen derjenigen umsetzt, die zu Beginn des Jahres demonstriert haben. Wie die meisten Ägypter wollten die Ultras dem Militär vertrauen, das ist aber Vergangenheit. Jetzt fordern sie, dass die Militärregierung abtritt. Sie realisieren, dass sie zwar den Präsidenten vertrieben, aber nicht das System umgestoßen haben

ZEIT ONLINE: Gibt es weitere Länder, in denen der Fußball bei Demokratiebemühungen oder eben -verhinderungen eine Rolle spielt?

Dorsey: Schauen Sie zum Beispiel nach Jemen. Der Präsident wird bei einem Angriff schwer verwundet und erholt sich drei Monate in Saudi-Arabien. Was tut er in den ersten 36 Stunden nach seiner Rückkehr in den Jemen? Obwohl das Land im Chaos liegt, trifft er sich mit dem Jugendnationalteam, um sein Image zu verbessern. Auf der anderen Seite wird in Algerien beispielsweise nicht mehr auf der Straße protestiert, dafür aber fast wöchentlich in den Fußballstadien.

ZEIT ONLINE: Wie sieht es in Libyen aus?

Dorsey: Libyen ist wahrscheinlich das extremste Beispiel dafür, wie der Fußball durch ein System manipuliert wurde. Al-Saadi al-Gadhafi, ein Sohn des Diktators, war Vorsitzender des libyschen Fußballverbandes, war Eigentümer des wichtigsten Clubs, Al-Ahly in Tripolis, und zugleich dessen Kapitän. Al-Ahly Tripoli war lange der Rivale von Al Ahly Benghazi, dem Club aus dem Osten des Landes. Tripolis gewann immer, weil Saadi die Schiedsrichter manipuliert hatte. Die Fans aus Bengasi waren darüber so wütend, dass sie bei einer Gelegenheit einen Esel, dem sie Saadis Trikot übergezogen hatten unter lauten Eselsrufen aufs Feld geschickt hatten. Daraufhin schickte Saadi seine Sicherheitstruppen nach Bengasi. Der Komplex des Clubs wurde völlig niedergebrannt, 80 Leute wurden verhaftet und drei zum Tode verurteilt. Später wurden die Todesurteile in lebenslängliche Gefängnisstrafen umgewandelt.

ZEIT ONLINE: Saadi war kein guter Fußballer.

Dorsey: Saadi ist dafür aber der erste Fußballer, der von Interpol gesucht wird. Es wird jetzt untersucht, inwieweit Saadi etwas mit dem Mord an einem bekannten, kritischen libyschen Fußballer im Jahr 2005 zu tun hatte.

ZEIT ONLINE: Ist auch bekannt, dass radikale Islamisten den Fußball für ihre Zwecke nutzten?

Dorsey: In Ägypten war bis vor zwei Monaten Hassan Shehata Nationaltrainer. Er war sehr respektiert und hat Ägypten zu drei Afrikameisterschaften geführt. Sein Leitspruch war der Islam. Wer nicht religiös war, durfte nicht mitspielen. Auch für einige radikale Islamisten hatte Fußball eine große Bedeutung. Osama bin Laden oder der Hisbollah-Chef Hassan Nasrallah waren oder sind sehr große Fußballfans. Sie haben verstanden, dass man mit Fußball viele Menschen anlocken und ein Zusammenhörigkeitsgefühl erzeugen kann. Während des Kampfes mit dem Mudschaheddin gegen die Sowjets in Afghanistan hat bin Laden eine Mini-WM unter seinen Soldaten ausgetragen, weil die aus aller Herren Länder kamen.

ZEIT ONLINE: Andererseits war Fußball aber auch in einigen Ländern verboten.

Dorsey: Das ist ja das ironische an der Sache. Die Taliban haben versucht, Fußball zu verbieten. In Somalia haben es die al-Shabaab verboten. Dort konnte man zum Tode verurteilt werden, wenn man sich nur ein WM-Spiel im Fernsehen angeschaut hatte. 2005 gab es eine Fatwa von einem radikalen saudi-arabischen Imam, die den Fußball als Spiel der Ungläubigen bezeichnet. Er wollte die Regeln umschreiben lassen. Wenn man so will, waren Leute wie Osama bin Laden unter den Dschihadisten Mainstream, weil sie Fußball unterstützten.

Egyptian soccer in uproar over penalties for fan violence

Al Ahly boycotts Egypt Cup

By James M. Dorsey

Egyptian soccer is in uproar over new penalties for fan violence and new marketing rules announced by the Egyptian Football Association (EFA) that have prompted crowned Cairo club Al Ahly SC, Africa’s most popular team, to boycott this season’s Egypt Cup.

The uproar comes as Confederation of African Football (CAF) secretary general Hicham El-Amrani upheld Egypt despite its multiple violations of world soccer body FIFA’s rules and regulations as an African example of the professionalization of sports.

The new penalties are designed to curb politically motivated militant soccer fan activism that since early September resulted in repeated clashes with security forces, the death of three protesters and the wounding of some 1,200 others, and the recent storming of the Israeli embassy in Cairo.

Fourteen soccer fans are standing trial in two different cases for the riots. The courts are scheduled to issue verdicts in late November.

Militant, violence-prone, highly politicised supporters of Cairo arch rivals Al Ahly SC and Al Zamalek SC played a key role in mass anti-government protests early this year that forced President Hosni Mubarak to resign after 30 years in office.

The militants have since protested to ensure that Turkey's transitional military rulers keep their promise to lead the country to democracy, for deeper measures to eradicate corruption in general and in soccer in particular, and in favour of Palestinian rights.

Egyptian Premier League clubs, who have been penalised for the repeated violence of their fans with hefty fines and bans on home matches, have denounced the new EFA penalties as unreasonable. The clubs object to the fact that the guidelines hold them responsible not only for the actions during a match of their own fans but also for those of the opposing club.

“They should have explained the rules before the beginning of the season. The   association doesn’t consider the big clubs in the competitions, like Ahly and Zamalek,” said Al Ahly football director Sayed Abdel-Hafiz.

"This is ridiculous. Opponents’ fans can attend our matches, sit in our stands and set off fireworks in order to get us punished through home-matches bans. This is unfair. If this is the case, citizens should specify their favourite club on their national ID cards,” Mr. Abdel-Hafiz says.

Al Ahly and Zamalek have the two largest militant fan organisations with thousands of members and are the two most penalised clubs.

In a complaint to the EFA, Zamalek asserted that security in the stadium stands was the responsibility of the interior ministry and the security forces rather than the clubs.

“The club doesn’t have any authority to stop crowds and search them for fireworks, so the penalties aren’t reasonable,” Zamalek said in a statement on its website.

The controversy over the new penalties is compounded by a mounting dispute between the clubs and the EFA over new marketing rules designed to promote the soccer governing body rather than the clubs and their sponsors. The controversy has escalated with Al Ahly's decision to boycott the upcoming Egypt Cup.

Clubs are obliged under the new rules to put an EFA logo on their team irrespective of what sponsorship they may have.

“The association ignores the clubs marketing rights and this costs us a lot of money. The Ahly board refuses to give up the club’s marketing rights for the Egyptian Premier League season," the club said in a statement on its website issued after this week's board meeting.

To emphasise its position, Al Ahly, Egypt and Africa's most popular club with some 50 million fans, refused to participate in this week's launch of the Premier League for the media because it did want its officials to appear on pictures with the EFA logo in the background. The EFA has said it would fine Al Ahly for failing to take part in the launch.

The disputes and violations of FIFA rules in terms of club and stadium ownership and lack of self-sufficiency notwithstanding, CAF secretary general El-Amrani pointed to Egypt during a roundtable on Africa's progression from amateur to professional soccer as a model of professionalization.

Mr. El Amrani said that Egypt alongside Morocco and to a lesser degree Algeria were taking the organizational and structural steps alongside their focus on player specialization needed to professionalize. Algeria has gone the furthest in privatising soccer clubs.

“Some countries have realised the switch into professionalism, such as South Africa, Egypt, Morocco and at a lower standard Algeria. Senegal is also on the right path. I hear voices say that you must have big resources to achieve that goal, but that is not true, because you accomplish your project considering your options. Not all the clubs must have Manchester United’s merchandising style,” Mr. El Amrani said.

“Egypt is an exceptional case and a role model in the professionalism of African football. 
The Egyptian national team are seven-time African champions with a squad that is mostly composed of locally based players,” he said, glossing over the fact that the Egyptian military owns several professional clubs, the ban by Egyptian security forces on clubs owning their own stadiums and Egypt’s lack of legal basis for merchandising and sale of broadcast rights in violation of FIFA rules.

To be sure, Egyptian clubs have benefitted from sponsorship deals, but those were more often than not politically motivated. Al Ahly recently signed a record-breaking $225 million deal with the UAE telecommunications company Etisalat based on its huge fan base.
Nonetheless, the divorce of soccer from politics has yet to really begin in Egypt and has fuelled in recent months repeated protests by militant soccer fans.

James M. Dorsey is a senior fellow at Nanyang Technological University's S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies in Singapore and the author of the blog, The Turbulent World of Middle East Soccer.