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Tuesday, February 28, 2012

Lebanon employs soccer in bid to reduce threat of spill over of Syrian violence

Lebanon's national team trains for crucial game against the UAE (Source: The Daily Star)

By James M. Dorsey

Soccer is rallying divided Lebanon scarred by years of bitter civil war at a time that Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s sectarian-tainted brutal crackdown threatens to spill into the streets of Lebanese cities.

In a bid to build on Lebanese rallying around their flag in December after the Lebanese national soccer team defeated South Korea 2:1 in a 2014 World Cup qualifier, Education Minister Hassan Diab called this week on private and public schools to allow students to go home early on Wednesday so that they can cheer their squad as it plays the UAE in Abu Dhabi. A win against favourite UAE could guarantee Lebanon a spot in the fourth and final round of qualifiers for the Brazil World Cup.

In a country where almost every facet of life is defined by sectarian fault lines, Lebanon’s defeat of South Korea in December brought tens of thousands of fans into the streets of the Lebanese capital Beirut waving the country's red and white flag with a green cedar in the middle. Traffic came to a halt and for a moment sectarian differences that have deeply divided the country for decades were superseded by a sense of national pride.

"Sports can do what religion and politics can't, gather the Lebanese people around a common thing. The national team changed the point of view to many football fans, and it united them for one goal, to participate in World Cup 2014. This was a very good step to help people to leave their political and religious views behind and watch their team without reverting to riots or gang wars,” The Associated Press (AP) quoted Lebanese supporter Serge Mghames as saying at the time.

Just how fragile that sense of unity is was highlighted when earlier this month fighting erupted between supporters of Mr. Assad, and those who oppose his regime in the northern Lebanese city of Tripoli where a single street divides Jabal Muhsin, populated by members of the Syrian leader’s Alawite sect, from Sunni Muslims in Bab al-Tabbana who have close ties to their Sunni brethren across the border in Syria.

Three people were killed and many more were injured in 24 hours of fighting. Walls riddled with bullets and damaged buildings betray the intensity of the fighting.

The government hopes that a surprise defeat of the UAE could revive the soccer-inspired sense of national unity and prove stronger than sectarian animosity that is never far from the surface.

That however is a tall order in a country of four million that is divided among 18 Muslim and Christian sects and scarred by 15 years of civil war that ended with a fragile peace in 1991.

If the experience of Iraq whose national team became Asian champion in 2007 at a time that the country was wracked by sectarian bloodshed or Abbas Suan, a devout Palestinian Israeli Muslim who refused to sing the Hatikva, Israel’s national anthem, when it was played before a game but in 2006 united Israeli Jews and Arabs by securing with a last minute equalizer against Ireland Israel’s first chance in 35 years to qualify for a world cup is anything to go by soccer’s unifying effect is lost as soon as the team no longer performs.

The government’s effort is further complicated by the fact that sectarianism is so deeply rooted in the country’s game that the government banned fans from attending domestic league matches in the wake of the 2005 assassination of Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik Harriri and violent clashes between fans following the 2006 war between the Shiite Muslim militia Hezbollah and Israel.

The government lifted the ban on fans in October of last year, but by then the damage had been done. The ban devastated the game: its domestic league whose clubs are closely tied to sectarian and political interests all but collapsed and the national team was drained of potential talent. Clubs became financially even more dependent on their sectarian and political sponsors, allowing them to manipulate the game to their own ends. 

The grip of sectarian and political sponsors is strengthened by the fact that corporate sponsors like Coca Cola are forced to simultaneously support Christian, Sunni and Shiite teams to avoid being accused of favouring one community above the other. As a result, Lebanon fell in world soccer body FIFA’s rankings from 125 to 178 but has rebounded to 111 with its defeat of South Korea.

"Politics came into football and destroyed it," said Rahif Alameh, secretary-general of the Lebanese Football Association, who dates the "death of football" to 2001, the year when the government intervened in a murky match-fixing scandal rather than the 2005 ban on fans. That was when Lebanon's political-religious leaders began treating the association as a pie to be carved up in line with Lebanon’s sectarian system of power sharing.

The Hariri family’s Future or March 14 Movement, for example, sponsors several clubs. Rafik Hariri’s purchase in 2003 of Nejmeh, Lebanon’s most popular team made it the last to succumb to sectarianism. The first non-Christian club to be founded in Lebanon, Nejmeh lost its Shiite Muslim fan base with the acquisition by Mr. Hariri. The former billionaire prime minister initially ventured into sports as a moneymaking venture, but later turned his teams into vehicles for consolidating his Sunni Muslim support.

"Football had just (become an extension) of politics. Everything in Lebanon is politicized, the air we breathe is politicized.,” Mr. Alameh said.

Source: Danyel Reiche, War Minus the Shooting? The politics of sport in Lebanon as a unique case in comparative politics, Third World Quarterly, March 2011)

Unconfirmed reports suggest that the various teams within a political block – the Hariri’s pro-Western and pro-Saudi March 14 Movement or Iran-backed Shiite militia Hezbollah’s pro-Syrian March 8 Movement – support each other by not fielding their best players when one of their associated clubs needs a win to progress in a championship or avoid being relegated.

American University of Beirut political scientist Danyel Reiche describes professional sports and particularly soccer in Lebanon in an essay in Third World Quarterly as the sector with the most “direct confrontation among the different sectarian and political groups“ because “whereas the political system prevents sects from competing with each other there are no separate sectarian (sports) leagues.” Quoting George Orwell, Mr. Reiche says Lebanese soccer amount to “war minus the shooting.”

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.

Thursday, February 23, 2012

Egyptian striker Zidan highlights post-revolt transition problems by calling Mubarak father

By James M. Dorsey
President Mubarak fetes a player (Source: Al Ahram)

Egyptian soccer star Mohamed Zidan in controversial remarks in a television interview put his finger on the problem Egypt and other post-revolt Arab countries face in transition from an autocratic to a more open society and the battles to be fought on the soccer pitch.

In an interview with satellite channel CBC Egypt, Mr. Zidan, a striker in the Egyptian national team and for Germany’s FSV Mainz 05, focused attention on the neo-patriarchal role of Arab autocrats as their nation’s father figure, the refusal of a majority of soccer players and managers to join the region’s anti-autocratic revolts and the deep-seated rivalry between crowned Cairo clubs Al Ahly SC and Al Zamalek SC despite the fact that militant soccer fans of both clubs stood shoulder-to-shoulder in the mass protests last year that forced president Hosni Mubarak out of office.

“I kissed Mubarak’s hand when he honoured Egypt after the 2010 African Cup of Nations as I saw him as a father of all Egyptians,” said Mr. Zidan said reflecting the attitude of most soccer players and managers in Egypt and elsewhere in the Arab world.

Egyptian soccer players stood aside during the mass protests while some prominent managers, including then starred national coach Hassan Shehata and twin brother Ibrahim and Hossam Hassan, who were at the time a Zamalek board member and the team’s coach openly supported Mr. Mubarak, only to be later blacklisted by the protesters.

Mr. Zidan’s description of Mr. Mubarak as a father echoed repeated statements last year by the Hassan brothers and others who said they supported the objectives of the anti-government protesters, but were concerned about the impact on soccer and believed that Mubarak had served his country and should be treated with respect.

Elsewhere, Libyan soccer players only joined the rebels four months into the NATO-backed armed revolt against Moammar Qaddafi when family and friends of theirs were killed in the fighting. In Bahrain where majority Shiite Muslim national soccer team players and other sportsmen organized their own protest against the minority Sunni Muslim government, the royal family failure to ensure equal rights for the religious minority meant that the king was not perceived as the country’s father figure. Abdelbasset Saroot, a 20-year old player for Syria's national Under-23 team who is one of the leaders of the protest in the embattled city of Homs, is perhaps the foremost exception to the rule.

At the heart of the failure of soccer players and managers to join the popular revolts sweeping the Middle East and North Africa is what Palestinian-American historian Hisham Sharabi call neo-patriarchy in a controversial book published in 1992 that is still banned in many Arab countries. Mr. Sharabi argued that Arab society was built around the "dominance of the Father (patriarch), the centre around which the national as well as the natural family are organized.  Between ruler and ruled, between father and child, there exist only vertical relations: in both settings the paternal will is absolute will, mediated in both the society and the family by a forced consensus based on ritual and coercion." 

In other words, Arab regimes franchised repression so that in a cultural patrimonial society, the oppressed participated in their repression and denial of rights. The regime is in effect the father of all fathers at the top of the pyramid. In the words of Egyptian journalist Khaled Diab quoted by journalist Brian Whitacker in a book exploring the nature of Arab soicety, Egypt's problem was not simply an aging president with little to show for himself after almost thirty years in power, but the fact that "Egypt has a million (president Hosni) Mubaraks.”

As a result, the patriarchal values that dominate soccer in addition to its popularity made it the perfect game for neo-patriarchs. Their values were soccer's values: assertion of male superiority in most aspects of life, control or harnessing of female lust and a belief in a masculine God. The identification of the presidents of Egypt, Iran and Yemen - Mubarak, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and Abdullah Ali Saleh - as well as Libyan leader Colonel Moammar Qaddafi’s son, Al Saadi al Qaddafi, with their country’s national teams turned their successes and failures into barometers of how their regimes were faring.

It also meant that managers were either appointed or approved by the Middle East’s and North Africa’s autocratic regimes while players were feted by autocrats and showered with gifts including expensive real estate and cars as well as significant amounts of cash for their successes on the soccer pitch.

With the region’s militant soccer fans or ultras – highly politicized, well organized street battle-hardened groups modelled on similar groups in Serbia and Italy – likely to refocus their attention on the beautiful game after having played a key role in revolts that toppled various Arab autocrats and a year of vicious street battles with security forces in downtown Cairo, Mr. Zidan’s remark highlights the strained relations between fans who view themselves as their club’s only truly supporters, players and managers in the region’s post-revolt soccer.

To the ultras, players are hired guns willing to switch allegiances for money while management consists largely of corrupt appointees of autocratic regimes. Al Ahly ultras unfolded a year ago a huge banner addressed to players during their team’s friendly against Harras El-Hodoud that read: "We followed you everywhere but in the hard times we didn't find you." Many reject Egypt’s national team as ‘Mubarak’s team’ rather than that of the nation. Players have since the overthrow of Mubarak pressured the ultras unsuccessfully to moderate their support tactics that include the use of fireworks, flares, smoke guns and abusive chanting because the clubs were being penalized.

In the interview, Mr. Zidan attempted to explain his failure to acknowledge the 74 soccer fans who died in a lethal clash in Port Said earlier this month immediately after a match between Al Ahly and the Sue Canal city’s Al Masry SC. His failure to do so highlighted the intense rivalry between Ahly, established in the early 20as an Egyptians-only meeting place for opponents of Britain's colonial rule as well as the monarchy that was toppled in 1952 and Zamalek, the pro-monarchy club of the British imperial administrators and military brass as well as the Cairo upper class. Their rivalry was so deep-seated that matches between them became the world’s most violent derby.

Ironically it was Mr. Mubarak that brought the arch rivals together. For the first time in the two clubs’ history, Mr. Mubarak emerged as the figure that fans of both clubs hated more than they hated each other. As a result, ultras of the two clubs joined forces last year on Cairo’s Tahrir Square to throw the country’s father figure off his pedestal.

“I really didn’t mean to provoke the emotions of the Egyptians,” Mr. Zidan said apologizing for his lack of empathy with the killed Ahli fans.  “I was really close to a move to Ahly in the past and I respect the club and its fans,” Mr. Zidan insisted.

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.

Wednesday, February 22, 2012

Likely cancellation of Egyptian league sparks violence debate and fears for club solvency

Al Ahli fans seek to escape the Port Said stadium (Source: Reuters)

By James M. Dorsey

The Egyptian Football Association (EFA) is likely to cancel this season’s suspended Premier League in a move designed to prevent further violence in the wake of this month’s riot in Port Said that left 74 militant soccer fans dead but threatens to put the country’s clubs in financial jeopardy.

Concern that the league will be annuled has been fuelled by the cancellation of the Egyptian national team’s scheduled friendly matches against Uganda, Guinea and Niger and the postponement until June 30 of an African Cup of Nations qualifier against the Central African Republic on instructions of the interior ministry. Once new dates have been agreed, the qualifier may be played in Qatar to ensure security.

The decision on the national team’s matches suggests that the interior ministry and the EFA have backed away from an earlier plan to allow resumption of league matches behind closed door on March 15 when the 40-day period of mourning for the dead soccer fans ends.

Club officials are pressing the EFA to follow the example of the Tunisian soccer association that earlier this month ordered its league to play behind closed doors. The federation reversed its decision days later under pressure from its members and has since authorized resumption with fans attending matches. Some argue that cancellation of the Egyptian league would hand a victory to the instigators of the Port Said incident.

"The Interior Ministry's letter, which demanded that Egypt's friendly games be cancelled, came as a killer punch to our plans to resume the competition. We have no option but to follow the instructions of the authorities. We will wait to see whether security will improve. 
I hope the authorities will reverse that decision soon, because cancelling the league will have dire consequences on Egyptian football on all fronts,” said acting EFA president Anwar Saleh in an interview with state-owned newspaper Al Ahram.

The fate of the Premier League season has been hanging in the balance since early this month when 74 people, mostly militant fans of crowned Cairo club Al Ahly SC, were killed in a riot immediately after a match against Port Said’s Al Masry SC.

The fans or ultras – well-organized, highly politicized, street battle hardened militant groups modelled on similar organizations in Serbia and Italy – believe that security forces failed to intervene in the brawl as punishment for their key role in last year’s overthrow of President Hosni Mubarak and their hard line opposition since then to military rule. Ultras battled security forces on a weekly basis during the soccer season in the last four years of Mr. Mubarak’s rule in a bid to deprive his regime from controlling the beautiful game.

An Egyptian parliamentary inquiry into the deaths in Port Said blamed fans and lax security for the worst incident in the country’s sports history. The inquiry’s preliminary report also suggested that unidentified thugs had been involved in the violence.
Egyptian judicial sources said they expected that security officials would be among 50 suspects who will be referred for criminal proceedings in connection with the incident.

Several key Al Ahly players, including Mohamed Abou Treika, Mohamed Barakat, Ahmed Fathi and Emad Mete'b, have said they will not play until the results of the official investigation are announced.

Some players favour cancellation of this season’s league despite the financial risk to clubs on the grounds that the risk of renewed violence is too high and that they won’t have sufficient time to recover from the trauma of the Port Said incident and to prepare for matches.

"It's impossible to resume the Premier League this season, because there won’t be time to clear the backlog of matches. I’m not against the resumption of sports activities after the end of the mourning period, but resuming the Premier League will only cause more chaos,” said Al Ahly goalkeeper Ahmed Naggi.

Egyptian clubs as well as the fans fear that the clubs which last year suffered financially because of a three-month suspension of the league in the walk-up to and aftermath of Mr. Mubarak’s downfall could be bankrupted by a cancellation of the leagues. The clubs which have yet to be professionally restructured so that they can become truly financially independent are currently dependent for their revenues on advertising and sponsorship.

The Mubarak regime, which saw soccer as a tool to shore up its tarnished image, distract attention from unpopular policies and a means to manipulate national emotions, had little interest in allowing clubs to be independent, self-sufficient entities.

In an alliance of strange bedfellows critics of the interior ministry’s apparent intention to cancel the league include both clubs owned by the police and the military as well as Al Ahly which sees the cancellation as handing victory to the security forces whom it holds responsible for the deaths of its supporters .

"Life must go on, despite this catastrophe. But I don’t mean that resuming the Premier League means forgetting the victims of Port Said. Rescinding the League will cause Egyptian clubs many technical and financial problems. Resuming the League is something urgent for all the workers in local sports associations,” Helmi Toulan, coach of Ittihad al-Shorta, the Premier League team owned by the police, whom many Egyptians despise as the enforcers of Mr. Mubarak’s regime and hold responsible for the Port Said incident, told Melody Sports TV.

Farouq Gaafar, coach of El-Jaish, one of several clubs owned by the military, suggested in an echo of Mr. Mubarak’s approach that "the resumption of the Premier League will help people overcome their grief, provided that there is adequate security.”

Underlying the debate about the fate of the league and the political implications of the Port Said incident is the growing gap between Egyptian public opinion and the youth and soccer fan groups that were at the core of last year’s protests that toppled Mr. Mubarak. A majority of Egyptians eager to see their almost bankrupt country return to normalcy and economic growth have come to see the youth and soccer fan protests  in support of an end to military rule and the dismantling of the Mubarak order that often escalate into vicious street battles with security forces as an obstacle.

“Our young people would not have reached this feeling of desperation, if they had not been abandoned by others, who, a year ago joined them in celebrating the toppling of the Mubarak regime.  Although they shared the same aspiration that this moment would be the start of building a free, democratic and progressive country, the majority of the Egyptians seem not to have the strong will and persistence to continue the momentum until their dream comes true.

It is only those youthful enthusiasts that launched this revolution, who were eager to continue their efforts to fulfil its goals Instead of appreciating their exertions and the great sacrifice they have continued to pay for the welfare of the whole nation, we have allowed some malicious campaigns to distort their image and depict them as thugs some of the time and rioters most of the time. What is even worse is to accept the accusations being directed to them as agents of some foreign powers seeking the downfall of Egypt and its divisions into small states, without thinking of the price young Egyptians might pay in confronting the military or civil police. They are subjecting themselves to the risk of death or serious injuries that might disable them for the rest of their life,” said Manal Abdul Aziz writing in The Egyptian Gazette.

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.

Saturday, February 18, 2012

Revealing picture of Tunisian-German midfielder fuels debate about political Islam

Revealing pictures sparks journalist arrests and fuels debate on political Islam

By James M. Dorsey

This week’s arrest of three Tunisian journalists for publishing a revealing picture of a Tunisian soccer player with his girlfriend has deepened secular distrust of Tunisia’s Islamist-led post-revolt government and fueled debate in the Middle East and North Africa and beyond about the true intentions of Sunni Muslim Islamist parties that are emerging as victors from the Arab revolt.

The three journalists, the first to be detained since mass demonstrations toppled President Zine el Abedine Ben Ali a year ago, were arrested on orders of the public prosecutor for publishing a picture of Tunisian-German Real Madrid midfielder Sami Khedira dressed in a tuxedo with his hands covering the breasts of his otherwise naked German model girlfriend, Lena Gercke.

The three journalists – Attounisia newspaper publisher Nasreddine Ben Said, editor-in-chief Habib Guizani, and foreign editor Hedi Hidhri – are being held on charges of offending public morality.   

Their arrest has focused the immediate debate on Islamist intentions on the threat of a media crackdown to ensure that publishing adheres to religious morals as defined by the country's new Islamist rulers. It follows the pressing of charges against a local television channel for showing Persepolis, a film whose animated depiction of God outraged conservative Salafi Islamists who propagate a .return to the 7th century way of life in the time of the Prophet Mohammed.

Last month, hundreds of journalists demonstrated outside the office of the prime minister to demand an end to restrictions on media freedoms after the appointment of government officials and editors to state television positions.

Fears of a crackdown come a year after Tunisia’s popular revolt was liberated from Mr. Ben Ali’s tight censorship.

“The Islamists don’t like the media and are trying to control it,” says Ahmed Nejib Chebbi, the leader of the opposition Democratic Progressive Party. Mr. Chebbi, a proponent of replacing the Islamist Ennahada party led government with a national unity government. 

“There is still place for other political forces, they just need to consolidate themselves.”
Mustafa Tlili, the founder of the New York-based Center for Dialogues and an advisor to United Nations General Assembly chairman Nassir Abdelaziz Al–Nasser of Qatar, charges that Islamists are hijacking the revolts staged by protesters whose “slogans were secular for freedom, liberty and dignity… Those that staged the revolution see it being stolen and hijacked…Tunisia’s environment is the Mediterranean and Europe. The Islamists discourse is to withdraw Tunisia from its natural environment and make it adopt Islamist values that are not those of the majority of Tunisians. They reject these values because they are not part of their daily life or vision of Islam,” Mr. Tlili says.

Messrs Tlili and Chebbi, speaking in Sochi, Russia at a Valdei Discussion Club meeting on the revolts sweeping the Middle East and North Africa, made their remarks days after five secular Tunisian political parties announced that they would merge into a single coalition in an effort to counter the moderate Islamist Ennahada party that last October won Tunisia’s post-Ben Ali election.

In a statement, Tunisia's journalists' union called for the "immediate release of all journalists and the rejection of intimidation against reporters." Thousands of Tunisians endorsed a campaign on Facebook in support of the journalists and to defend freedom of expression.

The government has repeatedly denied accusations it is seeking to stifle the media.
Ennahada officials acknowledge that they are fighting a battle to channel expectations of their rank and file and demonstrate their commitment to a pluralist, democratic society. In perhaps his last article before his sudden death of an asthma attack, revered New York Times correspondent Anthony Shadid quoted Ennahada official Said Ferjani said history would judge his generation not on their ability to take power but rather on what it did with power.

“I can tell you one thing, we now have a golden opportunity. And in this golden opportunity, I’m not interested in control. I’m interested in delivering the best charismatic system, a charismatic, democratic system. This is my dream,” Mr. Ferjani said.

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.

Friday, February 17, 2012

Human Rights Watch condemns Saudi restriction of women's sports

Players of private King's United women's team train

By James M. Dorsey

International human rights group Human Rights Watch has accused Saudi Arabia of kowtowing to assertions by the country's powerful conservative Muslim clerics that female sports constitute "steps of the devil" that will encourage immorality and reduce women's chances of meeting the requirements for marriage.

The Human Rights Watch charges contained in a new report entitled “’Steps of the Devil’ comes on the heels of the kingdom backtracking on a plan to build its first stadium especially designed to allow women who are currently barred from attending soccer matches because of the kingdom’s strict public gender segregation to watch games. The planned stadium was supposed to open in 2014.

The report urged the International Olympic Committee to require Saudi Arabia to legalize women's sports as a condition for its participation in Olympic games.

"The glaring absence of a Saudi female athlete at the Olympics cannot go on much longer," Human Rights Watch researcher Christoph Wilcke, the report's principle author, said in a presentation of the report. ''We have listened to Saudi promises for decades. This is not good enough."

IOC spokesman Mark Adams in an emailed response to the call said that persuasion had proven to be "more effective. We've already seen them send a woman athlete to the Youth Olympic games so we are confident that we will make progress.”

The Human Rights call follows a warning last year by Anita DeFrantz, the chair of the International Olympic Committee's Women and Sports Commission, that Saudi Arabia alongside Qatar and Brunei could be barred if they did not send for the first time at least one female athlete to the London Olympic games.

Qatar, the only other country whose indigenous population are largely Wahhabis, adherents of the puritan interpretation of Islam predominant in Saudi Arabia, has agreed to field a women's team in London has increased the pressure on the kingdom to follow suit.

Saudi women despite official discouragement have in recent years increasingly been pushing the .envelope at times with the support of more liberal members of the ruling Al Saud family, The kingdom's toothless Shura or Advisory Council has issued regulations for women's sports clubs, but conservative religious forces often have the final say in whether they are implemented or not.

In a sign that efforts to allow and encourage women's sports are at best haphazard and supported only by more liberal elements in the government, the kingdom last year hired a consultant to develop its first national sports plan - for men only. There is no legal ban in on women’s sports in Saudi Arabia where the barriers for women are rooted in tradition and the kingdom’s puritan interpretation of Islamic law.

"Nobody is saying completely 'no' to us," Associated Press quoted Reem Abdullah, the 33-year old founder, coach and striker of private women’s soccer team Jeddah King's United who is a leader in the campaign to allow women to participate in sports and compete internationally as saying. “As long as there are no men around and our clothes are properly Islamic, there should be no problem," she said.

The pushing of the envelope comes as women are increasingly challenging other aspects of the kingdom's gender apartheid against the backdrop of simmering discontent in Saudi society over a host of issues.

Manal al-Sharif was detained in May of last year for nine days after she videotaped herself flouting the ban on women driving by getting behind a steering wheel and driving. She was released only after signing a statement promising that she would stop agitating for women's rights.

A group of women launched earlier this year a legal challenge to the ban asserting that it had no base in Islamic law.

For his part, Saudi King Abdullah has made moves to enhance women’s rights. Last September, women were granted the right to vote, stand for election in local elections and join the advisory Shura council.

Women responded to the closing of private gyms for women in 2009 with a protest campaign under the slogan 'Let her get fat.' The government has since allowed the re-opening of health clubs for women but these are often too expensive for many women and don't offer a full range of sports activities.

Opposition to women's sports is reinforced by the fact that physical education classes are banned in state-run Saudi girl’s schools. Public sports facilities are exclusively for men and sports associations offer competitions and support for athletes in international competitions only to men.

The issue of women's sport has at time sparked sharp debate with conservative clerics condemning it as corrupting and satanic and charging that it spreads decadence. Conservative clerics have warned that running and jumping can damage a woman's hymen and ruin her chances of getting married.

One group of religious scholars argued that swimming, soccer and basketball were too likely to reveal “private parts,” which includes large areas of the body. Another religious scholar said it could lead to “mingling with men.”

To be fair, less conservative clerics have come out in favor of women's sports as well as less restrictions on women. In addition, the newly appointed head of the kingdom's religious vigilantes is reported to favor relaxation of the ban on the mixing of the sexes.

In defiance of the obstacles to their right to engage in sports, women have in recent years quietly been establishing soccer and other sports teams using extensions of hospitals and health clubs as their base.

The clerics "say it’s too masculine or too aggressive or not really feminine,” Lina Almaeena, a Saudi woman who plays on a private basketball team called Jeddah United told the Los Angeles Times.

"We will watch the London Olympics and we will cheer for our men competing there, hoping that someday we can root for our women as well," Ms. Abdullah said. “When Saudi women get a chance to compete for their country, they will raise the flag so high. Women can achieve a lot, because we are very talented and we are crazy about sports."

Ms. Abdullah established King’s United as the kingdom’s first female soccer team in 2006. Her example has since been followed in other cities, including Riyadh and Dammam. Two years later seven female teams played in the first ever national tournament as part a clandestine and segregated women's league.

Mr. Wilcke said that despite the apparent lack of real political will to encourage women's sports it “is very achievable. Government clerics are saying, ‘We should do this.’ Even if they take small steps, that still has the potential to alter lives of women who get out of the house, meet other women -- every bit helps.”

Mr. Wilcke said attitudes were likely to change because of the kingdom's young population which is likely to favour more liberal approaches.

Expectations that 18-year old equestrienne Dalma Rushdi Malhas who won a bronze medal in the 2010 Singapore Youth Olympics, the sports event IOC spokesman Adams was referring to, would be the first Saudi athlete to compete at an Olympic games were dashed recently when the all-men Saudi team recently qualified for this year's London Olympics jumping competition.

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.

Wednesday, February 15, 2012

Crooning goalkeeper leads Homs protests

By James M. Dorsey

Abdelbasset Saroot's promising future as a goalkeeper dims as Syrian forces encroach ever more on opposition strongholds in the battered city of Homs.

A 20-year old player for Syria's national Under-23 team, soccer is for now the last thing on Mr. Saroot's mind. A singer of revolutionary folk songs and a leader of the 11-month old popular revolt in Homs Mr. Saroot leads the life of a marked man on the run.

He often leads protests crooning but after having survived the bombing of his house, three attempts on his life and suffering the loss of his brother and some of his closest friends whose bodies were dumped on the streets of Homs and crushed by tanks, according to Al Jazeera, Mr. Saroot leads the life of a fugitive. Twelve people, including his brother were killed in the attack on his home. At the time, he held up for television cameras empty shells, which he described as the "Iranian heavy weapons" with which the protesters had been attacked.

He shies day light, travelling only at night. Constantly on the run, he never stops moving and stays at any one place at most a few days.

"It's worth it. I'm free. I've travelled all over the world to play football. But freedom is not just about me or about traveling. What about everyone else? Freedom is a big word. It's about freedom of speech and freedom of opinion. If you see something wrong being done, freedom is being able to talk about it," Mr. Saroot, dressed in a black Salsa music t-shirt, told Al Jazeera.

Alerted to Mr. Saroot's courage and circumstances, originally reported on The Turbulent World of Middle East Soccer blog on August 4 and November 13, senior Asian soccer officials said they would look at ways to support him. "It’s in our purview to defend players," one official said. It was not immediately clear what soccer bodies can do beyond condemning the violence and threats Mr. Saroot and much of the population are enduring.

"There is something I want to tell everyone. I lost one of my brothers but this is something I shouldn't be saying because we've lost 13,000 people and a lot of people have been detained or have disappeared. ... They are all like my brothers ... It's a big honour for everbody to say: 'We have a martyr in this family,'" Mr. Saroot said, describing the regime of embattled President Bashar al Assad as "monstrous."

A hero in the eyes of Mr. Assad's opponents and an Islamist traitor according to the president's regime, Mr. Saroot described his role as "a big responsibility to lift people's morale. We always try to stay optimistic about the future. The more optimistic we are the more the revolution keeps going," Mr. Saroot said.

In an earlier interview, Mr. Saroot decried the lack of international support for the uprising against Mr. Assad. "We have become too used to hearing about the issuing of resolutions which are never implemented," Mr. Saroot said.

Mr. Saroot asserted in a You Tube video last summer that the Assad regime was accusing him of being a Salafi fundamentalist who seeks to emulate life as it was in the time of the Prophet Mohammed, and that is seeking to turn Syria into a Salafi state.

“This accusation was made when we took to the streets, demanding freedom for the Syrian people. I am now wanted by the security agencies, which are trying to arrest me. I declare, in sound mind and of my own volition, that we, the free Syrian people, will not back down until our one and only demand is met: the toppling of the regime. We are not Salafis, and there is no truth to the regime's claims about armed groups or a Salafi emirate,” Mr. Saroot said.

In August, Mr. Saroot reported on YouTube that Syrian security forces had arrested national soccer goalkeeper Mosab Balhous on charges of sheltering armed gangs and possessing suspicious amounts of money. He said Mr. Balhos too had been accused of participating in anti-government protests and wanting to establish an Islamic emirate in the city of Homs.

Mosab Balhous

In a column last year in the London-based Arabic daily Al Quds al Arabi, writer Elias Khoury describes a documentary entitled Al Waar (Rocky Terrain) by an anonymous Syrian filmmaker that portrays Mr. Saroot as a leader of the protests and a composer of some of its slogans and songs.

“His features are Bedouin, he is a thirsty person who is not satisfied with only freedom … 
It is he who composes for the nocturnal gatherings for a popular festival in the suburbs of Homs where the air bears bullets. The slogans are an appeal by a decapitated nation and the will of a people determined not to bow to anyone,” Mr. Khoury writes.

"Go is the cry of the brave, A cry of the city with Bedouins, A cry of all religions, The cry of Syria and the land it covers: Let them leave him and his dogs and the destruction they have wrought," the film quotes the chants of the protesters crafted by Mr. Saroot.

Mr. Khoury describes Mr. Saroot as the protagonist of the film whose voice challenges the Assad forces’ weaponry. "Our weapon is our voice," Mr. Saroot says in the film.
The film describes how the regime has put a reward of one million Syrian pounds ($20,000) on the heads of alleged Salafis like Mr. Saroot. The goalkeeper smiles at the word Salafi and chants: “Shed tears, shed for the young victims and Syria.”

Throughout the film a picture of Bashar al-Assad superimposed on that of his father, Hafez al-Assad, constitutes the background with the words, ‘Assad or nothing,’ a play on the slogan that accompanied the portrait of Hafez during his rule: ‘Our leader in eternity and beyond.’

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.

Tuesday, February 14, 2012

AFC presidential election bears risk of renewed embarrassment

Sheikh Salman bin Ebrahim Al Khalifa (Source: ESPN)

By James M. Dorsey

With campaigning started for the election of a new president of the Asian Football Confederation to succeed disgraced Qatari national Mohammed Bin Hammam, soccer officials are concerned that the candidacy of Bahrain Football Association president Sheikh Salman bin Ebrahim Al Khalifa could prove to be another embarrassment.

Sheikh Salman alongside former UAE soccer federation head Yousuf al Serkal have let it be known that they would be vying for the top Asian soccer job.

Zhang Jilong of China who took over as acting head of the AFC after Mr. Bin Hammam was barred last July for life from involvement in professional soccer by world soccer body FIFA on charges of corruption is also believed to be vying for the job.

"I am interested in becoming president permanently on the condition that I am recognised by all my friends and brothers on the executive committee, as well as the other 46 members' association," the South China Morning Post quoted Mr. Jilong as saying.

"We need to be one family, as brothers, for we are on one boat sailing towards the future. If I become president permanently, I wish to work for the solidarity and development of Asian football," he added.

The AFC has until late May to elect a new president to succeed Mr. Bin Hammam who is legally suspended as president pending his appeal in the Court for Arbitration of Sport (CAS) against the FIFA ban.

Mr. Bin Hammam has denied allegations that he had last year bribed officials of the Caribbean Football Union (CFU) to support his failed bid to defeat long standing FIFA head Sepp Blatter in a presidential election.

Sheikh Salman is a controversial candidate because of his backing last year of the arrest, torture and/or firing of 150 athletes and sports officials, including several national soccer team players on charges of involvement in anti-government protests.

"I have great confidence in getting great support from many parties, I received during launching the (past) electoral battle with Mohamed Bin Hammam," Sheikh Salman told sports television channel El Dawry and El Kass.

"We have received promises of support by many Asian federations to give me her voice in the election, and I have to speak with Mohamed Bin Hammam, where he stressed his support for me and his blessing," Sheikh Salman added.

Senior Asian soccer officials said rather than backing the government crackdown, Sheikh Salman, a member of Bahrain's minority Sunni Muslim royal family, should have conducted an independent investigation into the allegations. "Sheikh Salman carries too much baggage," one official said.

In response to a FIFA query last year, Sheikh Salman flatly denied that any soccer player had been detained or otherwise affected for participation in the protests. Surprisingly, there is no public record of FIFA challenging Sheikh Salman's assertion. On the contrary, FIFA last October Sheikh Salman to its 2014 World Cup committee.

Bahrain backed by the Saudi-led Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) has asserted that the demonstrations were instigated by Shiite Iran in a bid to sow sectarian discord and destabilize the predominantly Shiite Gulf island.

The crackdown a year ago involved the imposition of martial law for nearly three months, the sacking of some 2,000 people from government jobs and detention of 3,000 others as well as the of ordering military trials for several hundred.

Among the athletes put on trial were brothers Alaa and Mohammed Hubail, who are national soccer team stars. Alaa has said that he and his brother had been abused and humiliated during their detention. ,

Another national soccer team player, defender Sayed Mohamed Adnan, fled to Australia where he joined Brisbane Roar after having spent three month in prison during which he asserts that he was beaten and tortured.

Bahrain halted in December legal proceedings against the athletes and sports officials in a bid to improve the government’s tarnished image after state-run Bahrain News Agency reported that King Hamad bin Isa Al Khalifa had forgiven them. A military court a week earlier sentenced Bahrain national soccer team goalkeeper Ali Said, bodybuilder and several times Asian championship gold medallist Tareq al-Fursani, and national basketball team player Hassan al-Dirazi to a year in prison for participating in the protests.

Despite being widely viewed as a former associate of Mr. Bin Hammam, Mr. Al Serkal has the reputation of being clean and untainted by shady dealings. Hoping to capitalize about concerns about Sheikh Salman, Mr. Al Serkal has been positioning himself as the Arab consensus candidate.

“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 in October as saying.

Japan’s Kohzo Tashima, was last year reported to want to run for the job despite the fact that he enjoys little support in the region.

Beyond coming at a time that soccer's governing bodies have been involved in some of the worst scandals in their history, the presidential election comes as the AFC has been a leader in tackling thorny issues such as the ban on Muslim women players wearing a headdress in line with their religious beliefs during matches and efforts to further grassroots soccer.

The International Football Association Board (IFAB), which governs the rules of association soccer, is scheduled to meet on March 3 to discuss an AFC proposal to allow a headdress for observant Muslim women that meets safety standards as well as the female players’ religious requirement.

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.

Monday, February 13, 2012

Which way will China jump on Syria?

Eleanor Hall reported this story on Monday, February 13, 2012 12:38:00
ELEANOR HALL: As Syrian forces continue their bombardment of the city of Homs Arab countries are now calling for UN peacekeepers to be sent into the country.

At today's meeting of the Arab League, senior delegates said they'll now put the option to the United Nations.

Significantly, they've also called for negotiations and co-ordination with Russia and China to avoid any future opposition from the veto-wielding powers.

James Dorsey is a senior fellow at the Rajaratnam School of International Studies at Nanyang Technological University in Singapore and has been following the Syrian situation closely.

He says there has been disquiet within China since last week's veto and that the Chinese government may not necessarily exercise its veto this time around.

James Dorsey spoke to me earlier from Singapore.

JAMES DORSEY: China in many ways has a very different stake in all of this than Russia does. While Russia has interests that are direct in terms of Syria and its relationship with Syria and the position Syria gives it within the Middle East for China it really is a question of its overall foreign policy and that has been a policy that has been challenged ever since the Arab revolt started more than a year ago.

ELEANOR HALL: Well, the Arab League is now talking about a joint peacekeeping mission with the UN in Syria. What is the likelihood that China will also veto this?

JAMES DORSEY: I don't think that anybody knows how China will vote on this. It is going to be very tough for China to vote against such a UN peacekeeping force. On top of that in the recent days there has already been a degree of change or at least an indication of change in Chinese foreign policy in terms of the fact that the Chinese have soft contact with Syrian opposition forces, very much along the lines of what they did in Libya last year when they tried to maintain a balance by having a good relationship both with the government of Moamar Gaddafi as well as with the opposition.

ELEANOR HALL: So do you think that the Chinese government may be seeing that it miscalculated its vote on Syria?

JAMES DORSEY: I think that the Chinese are increasingly realising that they have a policy dilemma. They are becoming a global power. They have global interests in terms of their economy as well in terms of their security and that means that they no longer can simply stay aside and aloof from conflicts in countries that are crucial to them.

In Libya they ran the risk of being excluded with regard to oil contracts. As the revolt spreads, that is going to become increasingly difficult.

ELEANOR HALL: Yes, given the situation in Libya, are you surprised that the Chinese used their UN veto on Syria given that with post-Gaddafi Libya they'd merely abstain from supporting the UN no-fly zone and there was an economic backlash there?

JAMES DORSEY: Well, I was surprised on the one hand in the Arab world, it has put it at odds basically with the Arab League but it has also thrown a moral question on China in terms of its allowing this sort of slaughter to take place.

ELEANOR HALL: Is China's foreign policy here though really at odds with its economic interest. I mean the Arab League may be backing this Syrian resolution but many of the oil supplying countries are hardly paragons of democracy themselves. They'd applaud China's argument that the UN shouldn't meddle in the internal affairs of other countries, wouldn't they?

JAMES DORSEY: Well, it does put them at odds, certainly the Gulf countries and they are obviously not proponents of democracy but none the less, the gulf countries are crucial to China's energy supply and therefore China by opposing the Arab League is opposing some of its most important suppliers.

ELEANOR HALL: So why do you think the Chinese Communist Party made this decision, not just to abstain but to veto? I mean is it simply backing its ally, Russia?

JAMES DORSEY: I think it has less to do with Russia and more to do with1) the way they view the experience of the resolutions that was interpreted by Western forces as a licence to overthrow. The Chinese, much like the Russians, maybe even more so, are really concerned about the fallout of the Arab revolts and what that could mean for China domestically.

And that is where the clash is, that fear of similar things happening in China or in parts of China and on the other hand their global interests as a global power where they have a global responsibility and as a global economic power where they are dependent on ensuring the supply of raw materials, of resources. That contradiction is not coming much more to the fore.

ELEANOR HALL: How extensive are China's direct interests in Syria? As extensive as Libya?

JAMES DORSEY: They are less extensive. For one, China had 35,000 workers in Libya which it had to evacuate very much at the beginning of the conflict in Libya. It does have some investment in the Syrian oil sector. The problem with Syria is that Syria, unlike the other revolts, could very well affect the region.

So the stakes are much higher. I don't think that the regime of Bashar al-Assad will last. I also think that the revolts that we've been seeing over the last year in the Arab world will leave no Arab country untouched, so in that sense the Chinese are getting on the wrong side of history.

ELEANOR HALL: And what is China risking with the contradictions in its policy?

JAMES DORSEY: I think the risk, one is very, very tangible and that is as the Libyan attitude immediately after the success of the revolt was that they were, when they were looking at contracts, they were looking in the first place at those that had helped them and the Chinese had not helped them.

They have $18 billion in contracts. They were the largest contractor in Gaddafi's Libya and those contracts are still in limbo. They haven't been able to secure those. There was a Chinese delegation in Libya last week so there is an immediate economic and tangible impact.

And the second impact is a moral impact and a projection of their image. China is a rising super power. As such, it takes on responsibilities that it may not have had before it was becoming so economically and politically and diplomatically strong and those responsibilities are things it has to live up and it hasn't done it so by opposing a resolution that Bashar al-Assad clearly has interpreted as a licence to try and suppress the revolt against him no matter how many lives that costs.

ELEANOR HALL: Dr Dorsey, thanks very much for joining us.

JAMES DORSEY: It was my pleasure.

ELEANOR HALL: James Dorsey is a senior fellow at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies in Singapore. You can listen to a longer version of that interview where Dr Dorsey speculates on whether the tumult in the Middle East will force China to completely shift its foreign policy.

Ultras call for retaliation as parliament blames fans and security for Port Said deaths

Al Ahli fans seek to escape the Port Said stadium (Source: Reuters)

By James M. Dorsey

An Egyptian parliamentary inquiry into this month’s death of 74 soccer fans in the Suez Canal city of Port Said has blamed fans and lax security for the worst incident in the country’s sports history. The inquiry’s preliminary report also suggests without going into detail that unidentified thugs were involved in the violence that erupted at the end of a match between Port Said’s Al Masri SC and crowned Cairo club Al Ahli SC.

The report is scheduled to be debated in parliament on Monday. It was drafted by a committee headed by Ashraf Thabet, the assembly’s first deputy speaker and a member of the Salafist Al-Nur Party, which is believed to enjoy backing from Saudi Arabia and advocates adherence to Islam in line with 7th century practices at the time of the Prophet Mohammed.

A controversial member of Al Nur, Salafist preacher Sheikh Abdel Moneim El-Shaha, was last week attempting to talk his way out of reports that he had condemned soccer as a sin and said that the 74 fans were killed because they had been watching a forbidden form of entertainment. Mr. El-Shaha charged that he had been misquoted.

The parliamentary report is unlikely to reduce tension between the fans or ultras – militant, well-organized, highly politicized, street battle-hardened soccer support groups modelled on similar organizations in Serbia and Italy – and Egypt’s ruling military and security forces. At least 16 people were killed in the wake of the Port Said incident in six days of fighting between security forces and youths seeking to storm the interior ministry in central Cairo.

The military last week said troops and tanks would ensure security in advance of a general strike last weekend called by activists and youth groups to demand the immediate return of the military to their barracks and the formation of a civilian government. The failure of the strike on the first anniversary of the toppling of President Hosni Mubarak after religious leaders called on Egyptians to ignore it signalled the increasing isolation of the ultras – the military’s most militant opposition – and other activists who led the protests that forced the Egyptian leader to resign after 30 years in office.

Ultras Ahlawy, the Al Ahli support group that lost scores in the Port Said incident, called in a statement on Facebook on the eve of the release of the parliamentary report for retaliation against those responsible for the death of their comrades. The statement also called for the cleansing of the interior ministry, under which the security forces, the focus of their animosity whom they accuse of engineering the fatal brawl, resort.

The interior ministry or dakhliya symbolizes for many ultras their battle for karama or dignity. Their dignity is vested in their ability to stand up to the dakhliya, particularly in the wake of Port Said; a sense that they no longer can be abused by security forces without recourse; and the fact that they no longer have to pay off policemen to stay out of trouble.

“This Wednesday will mark two weeks since the passing of some of Egypt’s finest youth. They died because they refused to live without dignity and screamed loud calling for freedom,” the Ultras Ahlawy statement said.

It demanded an investigation of what it alleged was the failure of the interior ministry and the security forces to ensure safety and security during the match in which Port Said defeated Al Ahli 3:1 as well as “the cleansing of the ministry of interior and a full reconstruction of its system.”

The ultras further demanded that authorities drop references to involvement of a “third” party in the incident, a reference to the military’s attempt to position the Port Said incident as part of a foreign conspiracy to destabilize post-revolt Egypt. The ultras said they would not “accept the outcome of an investigation that blamed an anonymous (group for an incident) that wasted the lives of the martyrs.” They demanded the immediate arrest of the culprits whom they said were known to authorities “so as not to put us in the position of taking the right (into our own hands).”

While the Ultras Ahlawy charge that security forces failed to intervene in the lethal attack on their members and accuse thugs hired by the government of instigating the incident they also appeared to agree with the parliamentary inquiry’s conclusion that television footage documents the involvement of Al Masri fans in the attack on them. Ultras Ahlawy believes it was targeted because of its key role alongside other ultras groups in the toppling of Mr. Mubarak and its opposition since then to military rule.

Leaders of the ultras suggested that the incident was intended to exploit waning public support for the ultras, which were revered for their fearlessness, years of confrontation with security forces in the stadiums, role in manning defending Tahrir Square during the anti-Mubarak protests last year and militant support of their clubs. Their militancy and contentious street politics is however increasingly out of step with the mood in a country that is protest weary, retains confidence in the military despite its brutality, is frustrated that its revolt has not produced immediate tangible economic fruits and yearns for a return to normalcy so that Egypt can recover economically.

Deputy Parliament Speaker Thabet said in parliament Sunday that the Port Said incident had been sparked in part by incitement on sports TV channels. Disclosing details of the inquiry, he charged that thugs and hard core soccer fans had taken "advantage of the tension surrounding the game to achieve some political gains," but gave no details. Mr. Thabet promised to release the names of the instigators a later stage. He said 12,000 tickets had been sold for the match but 18,000 spectators had been admitted to the stadium.

Mr. Thabet said fans were not inspected while entering the stands and there was a lack of order inside and outside the stadium. "Security facilitated, allowed and enabled this massacre," he said, adding that security forces ignored mounting tension in advance of the Al Masri-Al Ahli match. "Both ultras and thugs attacked Ahly fans and this is part of Ultras' culture," he said.

Mr. Thabet acknowledged that similar pitch invasions had occurred in Port Said in the past year. Like in stadiums elsewhere in Egypt, security was often lax and security forces where more interested in avoiding clashes with fans in a bid to shore up their tarnished image as the Mubarak regime’s henchmen than in ensuring security. The Port Said incident has sparked suspicion that more than just laxness was involved because stadium exits that were normally open had been locked and because security forces refused to intervene despite the fact that the brawl had turned lethal.

The parliamentary inquiry also took the Egyptian Football Association (EFA) to task for violating world governing body FIFA’s security standards that call for monitoring by a security official of the security and political situation before, during and after a match.

The charge cast a further shadow over FIFA president Sepp Blatter’s demand for the reinstitution of the EFA board that was last week dismissed by the government in the wake of the Port Said incident. Mr. Blatter’s charge that the dismissal constituted political interference rings hallow given that the board consists of Mubarak appointees who furthered the ousted president’s efforts to control and manipulate the game to his political benefit. It also rings hallow given the fact that despite a nominal 2013 FIFA deadline for a restructuring of Egyptian soccer FIFA essentially tolerated the fact that the vast majority of Egyptian premier league clubs fail to meet the soccer body’s criteria for league membership.

FIFA sources said the Mr. Blatter’s demand was part of a flawed communications strategy designed to position the FIFA president as a leader and defender of soccer in a bid to repair the reputational damage he suffered as a result of a series of scandals in the last year that have rocked the soccer body and tarnished its image and that of its president. One source described the strategy as dating from the 1930s.

The sources said FIFA’s announcement that it was donating $250,000 to the families of those who died in Port Said was part of Mr. Blatter’s strategy. They noted that it was being handled personally by the FIFA president rather than the soccer body’s emergency committee and doubted that there was a mechanism to distribute the funds. In a separate move, the Confederation of African Football (CAF) which is headed by a controversial Blatter ally, Issa Hatou, said it was donating $150,000.

In the first regional fallout of the Port Said incident, Tunisia’s interior ministry ordered that all league matches be played behind closed doors because of concern about deteriorating security. Le Presse sports editor Sami Akrimi said the decision stemmed from the failure of the Tunisian soccer body to work with fan groups to ensure security.

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.

Thursday, February 9, 2012

Port Said deaths send businessmen, politicians and clerics scrambling

A protester hurls a rock in post-Port Said protests (Source: Reuters)

By James M. Dorsey

The deaths of 74 militant soccer fans in a politically loaded soccer brawl in the Egyptian Suez Canal city of Port Said has political forces across the country’s political spectrum scrambling to score points and counter a tsunami of rumours as security forces appear to have gained the upper in days of clashes with ultras and youth groups near the interior ministry in downtown Cairo.

With the military and security forces accused of at best negligence and at worst having deliberately instigated the violence that led to the death of the fans immediately after last week’s match between Port Said’s Al Masri SC and crowned Cairo club Al Ahli SC, businessmen associated with the regime of ousted President Hosni Mubarak and fundamentalist Salafi politicians who advocate Islamic practice as it was at the time of the Prophet Mohammed in the 7th century are being drawn into the maelstrom.

Yasser el-Mallawany, the chief executive of EFG-Hermes, the Arab world’s largest privately owned, London and Cairo-listed investment bank, denied allegations that he had funded an unidentified group of thugs who reportedly had mingled with the Al Masri fans and instigated the violence that led to the 74 deaths. Al Masri fans said they had noticed a group of people in the stadium that they had never seen before.

The allegations were reported after Mr. El-Mallawny was barred from boarding a flight from Cairo to Dubai on instructions from Egypt’s attorney general. Associated Press quoted a justice ministry official as saying that Mr. El-Mallawny was together with Mr. Mubarak’s imprisoned son Gamal, whom he was grooming as his successor, being investigated for having paid the thugs to attack the Al Ahli ultras. The ultras played a key role in toppling Mr. Mubarak and have since been the most militant thorn in the side of the military that succeeded the ousted president with a promise to lead the country to democracy.

Mr. El-Mallawany was a member of the policies high committee of Mr. Mubarak's National Democratic Party. He said he was on the committee to "give ideas regarding the technical issues of finance".

Sources close to EFG-Hermes said Mr. El-Mallawny was among 300 people barred from leaving Egypt because of their alleged ties to the ancient regime and corruption but that it had nothing to do with the incident in Port Said. Gamal Mubarak is believed to have an 18 percent stake in one of EFG Hermes’ numerous subsidies, EFG-Hermes Private Equity that contributes an estimated 7% per cent to the bank’s total profits. EFG-Hermes has denied managing any funds or portfolios for Mr. Mubarak or members of his family.

“No charges of any form have been laid against Mr. El-Mallawany. The firm has been informed that the ban was issued as a precautionary measure, as similar bans have been imposed in the past 12 months on other individuals in Egypt,” EFG-Hermes said in a statement.

EFG-Hermes has offices in Egypt, the UAE, Saudi Arabia, Qatar, Oman, Kuwait and Lebanon and employs more than 850 people. It has advised companies such as Vodafone, Sainsbury and Heineken on deals in the region.

At the very other end of Egypt’s political spectrum, Sheikh Abdel Moneim El-Shaha, a controversial Salafist preacher, was attempting to talk his way out of reports that he had condemned soccer as a sin and said that the 74 ultras were killed because they had been watching a forbidden form of entertainment. Mr. El-Shaha charged that he had been misquoted. He said that while he considered soccer a sport like swimming, archery and horse riding that was encouraged by Islamic law, he objected to large sums of money being spent on the sport instead of on youth centers.

Mr. El-Shaha however did little to correct the impression that he was in-line with hard-line Salafist beliefs that condemn soccer as a game of infidels with his refusal to acknowledge the 74 dead ultras as ‘ash-shuhada’ or martyrs, an Islamic and Arabic term used to describe among others those who died in innocence. The families of the 74 describe their lost ones as martyrs.

"What I said exactly was that not everyone who died unjustly is a martyr. And the people who died in Port Said died unjustly and no more. In sharia (Islamic law), a martyr is someone who died in battle or dies a painful death, drowns, or dies under the rubble of a building. But those who died in Port Said only died unjustly," Mr. El-Shaha told Al Arabiya.

Mr. El-Shaha was quoted by Al Arabiya Asharq Al-Awsat and El-Badil as telling an audience in the El-Fath mosque in the Mediterranean port city of Alexandria, a Salafist stronghold, that the 74 died while watching an a forbidden sport that is alien to Muslims, distracts from praying to God and that had been imported from the West. “They were not in a war fighting for God, they were just having fun. This fun distracts Muslims from worshipping God,” Mr. El-Shaha was quoted as saying.

The Salafist Noor party won a quarter of the votes in Egypt’s recent first-post Mubarak parliamentary election. Mr. El-Shaha, who failed to win a seat in that election, earlier stirred controversy by demanded that statues which he denounced as idols be covered with was and condemning the writings of Egyptian Nobel laureate Naguib Mahfouz as “prostitution literature.”

Mr. El-Shaha’s comments are in line with the banning of soccer on the threat of execution by the Al Qaeda-affiliated Al Shabab militia, which controls chunks of war-torn Somalia, earlier remarks by Egyptian Salafi Sheikh Abu Ishaaq Al Huweni and a 2005 attempt by Saudi Salafi clerics to rewrite the rules of the game to allegedly Islamify it.

“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. Al Noor has yet to distance itself from Sheikh Al Huweini’s comments.    

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.

In Egypt’s political center, a parliamentary committee meanwhile blamed Interior Minister Mohamed Ibrahim for the deaths of some 15 protesters in the wake of the Port Said incident and called for a vote of no confidence in the minister.

Outside the interior ministry security forces appear to have gained control of streets that were the scene of four days of pitched battles with ultras and youth groups. Leaders of the ultras have denied that they were involved in the fighting but admit that many of those attempting to storm the interior ministry are members of their groups who are beyond their control. The security forces gained the upper hand by using tear gas and bird shot after attempts to mediate a truce by clerics and activists had failed.

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.