Islamists vow to one-up ultras with clean-up of Egyptian sports

A Muslim Brotherhood perspective on soccer (Source:

By James M. Dorsey

Flush with victory in Egypt's first-post revolt election, Islamists are vowing to initiate change that militant soccer fans and youth groups have failed to achieve in a year of bloody street battles with security forces.

In doing so, the Muslim Brotherhood is seeking to distinguish itself from more militant Islamists, including more radical Salafis who propagating emulating life in the 7th century at the time of the Prophet and fundamentalist Egyptian and Saudi clerics as well as the Al Qaeda-affiliated Al Shabab militia in Somalia or factions of the Taliban in Afghanistan who denounce soccer as a game of the infidels and as a distraction from the obligation to worship Allah.

The dichotomy of the Islamists striving to achieve the militant soccer fans' sports-related goals while the two sides face off on the streets of Cairo is vividly on display this week as Egypt celebrates the first anniversary of the protests that last year ousted President Hosni Mubarak from 30 years in office.

Egypt's military that last year temporarily took power from Mubarak with a pledge to lead the country to democracy is seeking to undercut with anniversary celebrations this week that include concerts and soccer matches the youth and soccer fan groups that were at the core of last year's revolt and are now demanding the armed forces' immediate return to the barracks. The military effort is backed by the Brotherhood.

The militants have been campaigning in recent days in an unsuccessful bid to convince a public tired of political turmoil and frustrated that their revolt has produced few material benefits of the evil of the soldiers who responded increasingly brutally to their protests against the military and Mubarak era sports officials over the past year.

Youth activists and soccer fans in the Cairo suburb of Heliopolis erected projector screens to show residents looking down from their balconies with little sense of engagement videos of what they see as the military's abuse of power "Why are you silent? Have you won your rights already?" the revolutionaries shouted at them in frustration.

Adding insult to injury, the Brotherhood is vowing to succeed where the militants have failed. Repeatedly the soccer fans demanded unsuccessfully with few exceptions the resignations of the Mubarak appointed boards of the Egyptian Football Association (EFA) and major soccer clubs. Some supporters of sports reform take heart in the recent replacement of the Mubarak-era heads of the national sports and national youth councils.

The Brotherhood, which last year briefly toyed with the idea of launching soccer teams of its own, has vowed to clean out the sports sector of Mubarak associated by removing the heads of associations starting with EFA president Sami Zaher as well as club board members linked to the ancien regime. Under pressure from fans and clubs, Mr. Zaher pledged last year to end his term early but has since given no indication that he intends to live up to his promise,

In their effort to distance themselves from the rejection of sports, and particularly soccer, by some Salafis and jihadists, Brotherhood members emphasize sport's health benefits. Some also stress the need for sports to stay in line with Islam.

"We support sports in general and encourage them. Sports flourished in the age of Islam, so why shouldn’t they under the Islamists? We are looking to encourage more sporting activities nationwide. ... Islam doesn’t have any problem with soccer and other sports," Al Akhbar el-Youm newspaper quoted Brotherhood spokesman Mahmoud Ghozlan as saying.

Mr. Ghozlan's statement is a far cry from a condemnation of soccer by Egyptian Salafi Sheikh Abu Ishaaq Al Huweni, an attempt by Saudi Salafi clerics to rewrite the rules of the game to allegedly Islamify it, and the outright banning of soccer by Al Shabab jihadists in Somalia.

“All fun is bootless except the playing of a man with his wife, his son and his horse… Thus, if someone sits in front of the television to watch football or something like that, he will be committing bootless fun… We have to be a serious nation, not a playing nation. Stop playing,” Sheikh Al Huweni said in a religious ruling published in 2009 on YouTube. Egypt's Salafist Al Noor party, which emerged as the country's second largest after the Brotherhood, has yet to distance itself from Sheikh Al Huweini.     

Al Noor has also yet to take issues with views such as those expressed in 2005 in a controversial ruling by militant clerics in Saudi Arabia, the world’s most puritanical Muslim nation where soccer was banned until 1951. The ruling denounced the game as an infidel invention and redrafted its internationally recognized International Football Association Board (IFAB) rules to differentiate it from that of the heretics. It banned words like foul, goal, and penalty and like shorts and T-shirts and ordered players to spit on anyone who scored a goal. 

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


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