The butterfly effect of our “Top 100 Global Thinkers of 2011 list” continues.
Today we propose an interview with James M. Dorsey (GT 2011
number 79), Senior Fellow at the S. Rajaratnam School of International
Studies, syndicated columnist and author of the acclaimed blog,
The Turbulent World of Middle East Soccer“. Dorsey is one of the most
capable analysts about the Arab world, and one of the few who have
underlined the key role of sports in the Arab spring (Egyptian role in
Tahrir Square clashes) and as a geopolitical factor in general (2022 World

You were one of the first that underlined the role of the  Egyptian
football supporters in Tahrir square.  How would you describe this 
role? Why this connection? What did they bring that other
people on the square was lacking?

Egyptian soccer fans modelled themselves on the ultras in Italy and
Serbia. They share their militancy, degree of organization and willingness
to employ violence with their European counterparts. What sets them
apart is that they are highly politicized and developed in an autocratic
society where the mosque and the soccer pitches were the only
venues where one could release pent-up anger and frustration. As
a result, they were the one group that was fearless and had
garnered street battle experience in years of clashes in the
stadiums with security forces and supporters of rival clubs. That
enabled them to play a leading role in the destruction of the
barrier fear that had prevented people for standing up for their rights
and to become in effect the protesters’ shock troops, the ones
that defended protesters on Tahrir Square against the security
forces and groups loyal to former President Hosni Mubarak. Since
the fall of the Mubarak, the ultras were in the front of protests demanding
an end to corruption, a more pro-Palestinian Egyptian foreign policy
and that the transition military government keep its promise to lead the
country to free elections. They were the ones who stormed the offices
of the State Security Service immediately after Mubarak’s downfall as
well as the Israeli embassy in Cairo in September and battled security
forces on Tahrir Square last month.

We all know that Al Jazeera had an important role on the Arab
Spring, but maybe not everyone is familiar with the role of it had
already in the Arab world through football, what can you tell us
about it?

Al Jazeera is one of the major sports broadcasters in the Arab world,
if not the predominant ones. Its acquisition of the broadcast rights of major
leagues and tournaments including the 2014, 2018 and 2022 World Cups
and league matches in for example Egypt and France is part of Qatar’s
strategy to use sports as a political and commercial tool. Al Jazeera Sports
however played less of a role in the Arab revolt than the main Al
Jazeera news channel.

Is it possible to compare the Tunisian supporters during the revolution
with the Egyptian ones? Which are the similarities and

The root causes for the revolts in Egypt and Tunisia are the same: a
quest for dignity, political freedom and economic opportunity. The difference
in the way they unfolded and the way the transition to a more open
society is occurring lies in the structure and role of the military. In Tunisia, the
military had no stake in the old regime, which had marginalized it, radically
cut its budget and and decimated its officer corps. As a result, it also had no
vested interests to defend in whatever would emerge from the ashes of the
regime of ousted President Zine el Abedine Ben Ali. In Egypt, the military
as the transition government had its own interests: a significant say in
national security, lack of civilian oversight, a commercial conglomerate of its
own and a direct relationship with the US. Preserving those interests
makes the military an interested party, not an independent arbitrator in the
transition process. As a result, the transition in Egypt is far messier than in

Could you please describe the importance of football players in the
revolution in their countries? We are thinking about two different 
kinds of examples: The case of Abdelbasset Saroot in Syria (positive)
and the divisions in the Egyptian national team (negative).

By and large football players and managers have stayed on the sidelines
of the revolts in the Middle East and North Africa. This is largely cause
managers are regime appointed and players enjoy many perks. The two
exceptions are Libya where four months into the revolt a split emerged
in the national team with the captain supporting Qaddafi  and some
players joining the rebels. In Syria, the national team goalkeeper
has been imprisoned while the goalkeeper of the national youth team is
a leader of the protests in the city of Homs.

The Qatari royal family have been selected by us as global thinkers
n°1, how would you describe the links between the different members
of it?

The Qatari royal family is an interesting study in contradictions. It is without
doubt the most visionary and creative of the Arab rulers,witness the creation
of Al Jazeera which revolutionized the Arab media landscape, its
employment of sports as a policy and economic tool and its independent
foreign policy. While it has recently announced elections, it remains how all
of this and the lessons of the Arab revolt will be translated at home.

From East to West, from North to South there is a trending  topic lately
Turkey as model for Tunisia and Egypt, which is your opinion?

There is for the first time a power vacuum in the Middle East and North Africa
that is not being filled by a global power. The competition is between Turkey,
Iran and Saudi Arabia. Saudi Arabia brings financial clout and the moral
power of being the guardian of Islam’s two holiest cities but lacks the military
clout to make a sustainable claim. In addition, Saudi Arabia is not a system
many want to emulate and is vulnerable to domestic challenge by protesters
seeking real change. Iran similarly does not have a system others want to
emulate and is likely to at some point witness a revival of its own. With other
words it is Turkey’s to loose. Turkey is a model of an open political system
that is economically successful and proved that Islamists can perform in a
pluralist, secular system.

World cup 2020. You have often explained the economic impact that
it will have in a country as Qatar. Is it possible that the FIFA
investigation confirms the corruption accuses? Which will be the
economic consequences of this?

Theoretically anything is possible. If it comes however to an investigation,
I suspect that it will emerge that Qatar technically will not have violated
rules or crossed red line. What I expect will also emerge is that Qatar
skillfully employed its financial muscle to exploit gray areas that need to be
resolved in a revision of FIFA’s bidding rules and process.

Egyptian elections have just finished. Do you think that, this chapter
being closed, we can expect an important change in Syria and
a bigger involvement of the international community? Is it possible
that they were waiting for the elections to happen and refrained
themselves to act before that in order not to create too uncertainty to

I don’t think that there is a link in terms of timing between the Egyptian
elections and potential intervention in Syria. I think one will initially see
stepped up covert support for the dissident Free Syrian Army that has a
base on the Turkish side of the Syrian border and eventually a possible
Turkish buffer zone inside Syria. I suspect that if it comes to a full-fledged
military intervention and that would still be a ways off, it would be
a Turkish-spearheaded effort.

(Interviewed by Andrea Matiz)


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