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Friday, June 28, 2013

Planned mass protests in Egypt echo Cairo’s Tahrir Square uprising

Ultras play cat and mouse

By James M. Dorsey

Egyptian President Mohammed Morsi and militant, street battle-hardened soccer fans, in a replay of the run-up to mass protests two years ago that ousted Hosni Mubarak are positioning themselves for planned watershed mass demonstrations for and against the government this weekend.

In a statement almost identical to the one they issued on January 24, 2011, the eve of 18 days of protests that toppled Mr. Mubarak, Ultras Ahlawy, the militant support group of crowned Cairo club Al Ahli SC that played a key role in the former president’s overthrow, said this week that as an organization it would not participate in the demonstrations on the anniversary of Mr. Morsi’s ascendancy as Egypt’s first freely elected president, but that its members were free to do so.

The statement insisted that that Ultras Ahlawy was a group of soccer fans “that has nothing to do with politics.” It said the group had decided “not to get involved in politics again after realizing that the opposition doesn’t care about the country but simply aims to rule.”

Militant Egyptian soccer fans, who constitute one of Egypt’s largest civic groups, have a history of publicly defining themselves as non-political and as a group refusing to openly underwrite political protests. Ultras leaders told their tens of thousands of followers privately two years ago after officially declaring that they would not take part in the Tahrir Square uprising that the protests were the litmus test they had been preparing for and that they were free to participate.

The tactic employed by similar groups in Turkey and elsewhere was designed to shield soccer fan groups from being exposed to allegations that they were political organizations and as a result more vulnerable to government attempts to suppress them. 74 members of Ultras Ahlawy were killed last year in a politically loaded brawl in the Suez Canal city of Port Said.

Ultras Ahlawy as well as the Ultras White Knights (UWK), the supporters of Cairo arch rival Al Zamalek SC, and fans of two other Egyptian clubs last weekend stormed stadiums where there clubs were playing in protests against a ban on fans attending soccer matches. Egypt’s league that restarted in February after a one-year suspension in the wake of Port Said has again been suspended in advance of this weekend’s protests. Zamalek coach Jorvan Vieira announced that he was taking extended leave because of Egypt’s mounting volatility.

This weekend’s protests were organized by ad hoc grassroots group Tamarud (Rebel) that hopes to commemorate Mr. Morsi’s anniversary with a million-man march on the presidential palace. Tamarud has reportedly collected 15 million signatures, two million more than the 13 million votes the president garnered a year ago, on a petition demanding Mr. Morsi’s resignation and new elections.

The petition that a significant number of militant soccer fans are believed to have signed, takes Mr. Morsi to task for his failure to tackle the country’s economic crisis, dispel fears that he is pursuing an Islamist agenda, and his haughty style of government that many see as a continuation of Mubarak’s authoritarianism. It calls on the military and the judiciary in violation of the constitution to lead the country to new elections.

In an echo of terminology used by Mr. Mubarak and more recently Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan to denounce their detractors, Mr. Morsi said that the interior ministry had established a special unit to combat thuggery. The ministry controls the police and the security forces that are among Egypt’s most hated institutions because of their execution of the Mubarak-era repression and the deaths of some 900 protesters since the overthrow of Mr. Mubarak for which officials have yet to be held accountable. Brutal police force turned recent smaller protests in Brazil and Turkey into massive anti-government demonstrations much as the brutality of security forces on Tahrir Square two years ago strengthened protesters’ resolve.

Fears of violence this weekend have been further fuelled by the expectation that Morsi supporters will hold counter demonstrations this weekend. Those fears were reinforced by recent attacks by Morsi supporters on Tamarud representatives as they publicly collected signatures on street corners and other public spaces.

Supporters and opponents of Mr. Morsi clashed earlier this month for hours in the Mediterranean city of Alexandria. Two people were killed and more than 200 injured this week in clashes in the Lower Egyptian cities Mansoura and Tanta. Four Shiites were stabbed, lynched and mutilated by a mob in a village near Cairo last Sunday in an attacked that had been motivated by opposition by militant Sunni Muslim sheikhs to a religious feast.

The ultras in past protests in Egypt, much like like-minded groups more recently in Istanbul’s Taksim Square, often see their role as protecting protesters against abuse by the security forces. Their approach is rooted in a deeply rooted sense of having been abused and mistreated for years in clashes with security forces in stadiums. The Black Bloc emerged earlier this year as a group of masked black clad vigilantes founded primarily by battle-steeled soccer supporters with the aim of protecting protesters against violence by Morsi supporters.

The sense that this weekend could mark a watershed in Egypt’s volatile transition from autocracy to a more open society was heightened by a statement this week by the country’s top general describing the role of the security forces as a safety valve against political conflict. Security officials said the military had moved troops closer to Egyptian cities in advance of this weekend’s protest and armored vehicles appeared this week in the streets of Cairo.

Mr. Morsi, in a carefully worded rebuke insisted he was the commander in chief and that the army's role was solely to protect the country's borders. Amid wild speculation of what the military may do, much rides on whether the protesters, who see this weekend’s demonstration as a launching pad for a second revolution, succeed in mobilizing large numbers and whether events and to what degree they turn violent.

The last two years have demonstrated that the leaders of violence-prone militant soccer fans are struggling to control their rank and file which often itches for a confrontation with security forces whom they see as the symbol of their perceived misery. Said a young militant earlier this year: “To hell with our leaders. This is not the moment to backdown.”

James M. Dorsey is a senior fellow at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies, co-director of the University of Würzburg’s Institute of Fan Culture, and the author of The Turbulent World of Middle East Soccer blog.

Tuesday, June 25, 2013

Transition in Qatar: Will he or won’t he?

By James M. Dorsey

Conventional wisdom predicts that 33-year old Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad Al Thani will adhere to his father’s use of sports as a key foreign, defense and security policy tool to embed Qatar in the international community. Experts and pundits suggest that Sheikh Tamim at best will nibble at the fringe of his father’s at times bold policies by expanding the government’s focus on domestic issues.

No doubt, Sheikh Tamim has demonstrated his interest in sports as head of the Qatar Olympic Committee and by creating Qatar National Sports Day, a popular annual event on February 14. That move coupled with his chairing of the Supreme Education Council lies at the core of the suggestion that he will focus not only on the emirate’s regional and global projection but also on his country’s domestic affairs.

As always, the devil is in the detail. No doubt, outgoing emir Sheikh Hamad bin Khalifa Al Thani will be remembered as a visionary who put his tiny country on the world map, changed the Middle East and North Africa’s media landscape with the creation of the Al Jazeera television network, offered the Gulf an alternative vision of leadership by stepping aside to make place for a younger generation and turned Qatar into a nation with the world’s highest income per capita of the population.

Few Qataris will question the achievements of Sheikh Hamad, who on Tuesday handed over power to his son, a virtually unprecedented step in a region in which rulers hang on to power untill death even if they at times have experienced a deterioration of health that has incapacitated them not only physically but also mentally. A wave of demand of change sweeping the Middle East and North Africa only serves to highlight the significance of Sheikh Hamad’s move. “The time has come to turn a new leaf where a new generation steps forward… Our young men have proven over the past years that they are a people of resolve,” Sheikh Hamad said in a nationally televised address.

Sheikh Hamad’s accomplishments notwithstanding, conservative segments of Qatari society with whom Sheikh Tamim at times appeared to empathize have questioned some of the side effects of the emir’s policies, including:

    n  Huge expenditure on a bold foreign policy that put Qatar at the forefront of regional demands for        greater freedom and change but also earned it significant criticism;

    n  Unfulfilled promises of change at home that would give Qataris a greater say in where their country is going;

    n  A stark increase in foreign labor to complete ambitious infrastructure projects many of which are World Cup-related and have exposed Qatar for the first time to real pressure for social change;

    n  More liberal catering to Western expatriates by allowing controlled sale of alcohol and pork;

    n  Potential tacit concessions Qatar may have to make to non-Muslim soccer fans during the World Cup, including expanded areas where consumption of alcohol will be allowed, public rowdiness and dress codes largely unseen in the Gulf state, and the presence of gays.

A discussion in Qatar about possibly transferring ownership of soccer clubs from prominent Qataris, including members of the ruling family, to publicly held companies because of lack of Qatari interest in “the sheikh’s club” illustrates a degree of sensitivity to popular criticism.

Sheikh Tamim has moreover enhanced his popularity by his close relationship to Qatari tribes, his upholding of Islamic morals exemplified by the fact that alcohol is not served in luxury hotels that he owns and his accessibility similar to that of Saudi King Abdullah. He was also the driving force behind last year’s replacement of English by Arabic as the main language of instruction at Qatar University. He is further believed to have been empathetic to unprecedented on-line campaigns by Qatari activists against the state-owned telecommunications company and Qatar Airways. Sheikh Hamad appeared to anticipate a potententially different tone under Sheikh Tamim by urging Qataris “to preserve our civilized traditional and cultural values.”

Much of the criticism of Sheikh Hamad’s policies have been quietly supported by Saudi Arabia whose relation with Sheikh Hamad, who came to power in a bloodless coup in 1995, has more often than not been troubled. Sheikh Tamim could well bring a different tone to Saudi-Qatari relations. Since the eruption of the crisis in Syria, Sheikh Tamim has been the point man in coordinating policies with the kingdom and instead of the emir greeted guests as they arrived in March for an Arab summit in Doha.

“Sheikh Tamim will not rock the boat. He is well-versed and immersed in Qatari vision and policy. He understands the importance to Qatar of sports. At most, he will be more publicly embracing of traditionalism in what remains at the bottom line a conservative society,” said a Qatari with an inside track.

James M. Dorsey is a senior fellow at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies, co-director of the University of Würzburg’s Institute of Fan Culture, and the author of The Turbulent World of Middle East Soccer blog.

Friday, June 21, 2013

Egyptian soccer matches foreshadow mass anti-government protest

By James M. Dorsey

Controversial soccer matches this weekend constitute a potential walk-up to a watershed mass anti-government demonstration on June 30 that has Egyptians of all political stripes bracing themselves for political violence and increased uncertainty

The soccer matches and mounting tension in advance of the protest are likely to be seen by militant, highly politicized, violence-prone and street battle-hardened soccer fans as an opportunity to demonstrate their sustained mettle and resolve. The fans, one of Egypt’s largest civic groups, played a key role in the toppling two years ago of President Hosni Mubarak 2.5 years ago and opposition to the military and the Muslim Brotherhood-led government since.

Concern about clashes at the matches and the protest has also sparked debate within the security forces and the military, who are widely held responsible for the deaths of some 900 protesters since the ousting of Mr. Mubarak, on how to deal with potential soccer-related violence as well as the planned protest.

The interior ministry, which controls the police and security forces, initially opposed allowing Egyptian league matches to proceed because of threats by soccer fans to storm stadiums in protest against a ban on spectators. The ministry feared that clashes with fans would add to already mounting tension in advance of June 30. In an about face however, the ministry late this week said it would permit the games to be played on Saturday and Sunday instead of on Thursday and Friday as originally scheduled.

Security forces are nevertheless bracing for renewed clashes with fans that in the past two years have left thousands injured and scores dead. Fans have been largely banned from matches ever since the league resumed in February after a year-long suspension in the wake of the deaths of 74 supporters last year in a politically loaded brawl in Port Said.

"We are giving you 48 hours; we are giving you a chance to stop suppressing and provoking us. Either we return to the stands or … you will know what will happen soon,” the Ultras White Knights (UWK), the militant support group of storied Cairo club Al Zamalek SC, warned this week in a statement.

Mr. Morsi’s Brotherhood spotlighted the importance of soccer and the role of the militant fans in football-crazy Egypt earlier this month by announcing that it would field candidates for the board elections of Zamalek and other major football teams in what many see as a bid to control the politically significant sport.

Attempts by soccer fans to gain access to stadiums this weekend could be a foretaste of what may happen on June 30, the first anniversary of Mohammed Morsi’s inauguration as Egypt’s first freely-elected post-revolt leader. Ad hoc group Tamarud (Rebel) hopes to commemorate his anniversary with a million-man march on the presidential palace. Tamarud has reportedly collected 15 million signatures, two million more than the 13 million votes the president garnered a year ago, on a petition demanding Mr. Morsi’s resignation and new elections.

The petition that a significant number of militant soccer fans are believed to have signed, takes Mr. Morsi to task for his failure to tackle the country’s economic crisis, dispel fears that he is pursuing an Islamist agenda, and his haughty style of government that many see as a continuation of Mubarak’s authoritarianism. It calls on the military and the judiciary in violation of the constitution to lead the country to new elections. Youth groups and soccer fans see Tamarud’s mobilization success and the June 30 march as an opportunity to reinvigorate their movement and launch a second revolution.

Fears of violence have been fuelled by attacks by Morsi supporters on Tamarud representatives as they publicly collected signatures on street corners and other public spaces. Supporters and opponents of Mr. Morsi clashed for hours last week in the Mediterranean city of Alexandria.

To ensure the authenticity of its petition, Tamarud has insisted that signatories identify themselves and register their identity document. Irrespective of whether or not the soccer matches and the June 30 march produce the kind of violence that could shift Egypt’s political paradigm, they indicate just how deeply divided Egypt is and the degree of lack of confidence in Mr. Morsi among a significant segment of the population.

Concern that violence could prevail was reinforced by some Islamist groups calling for counter demonstrations on June 30 as well as the expectation that soccer fans and the Black Bloc, a vigilante group founded by militant soccer enthusiasts, will act as a protective and potentially provocative force during the anti-government march. Attempts by cooler heads within Mr. Morsi’s Muslim Brotherhood and other Islamist groups to avert what could prove to be a game-changing outpour of anger against the government by reaching out to opposition groups have so far failed.

The mounting tension has further thrown the spotlight on Mr. Morsi’s troubled relationship with the security forces witness the interior ministry’s dithering on the soccer matches as well as an initial statement that police would stay away from the Tamarud demonstration that was later withdrawn. Security officials fear that the police, which is widely despised because of its enforcement of repression in the Mubarak era and its subsequent at times deadly clashes with protesters, will be seen as being supportive of a Morsi government it distrusts if it comes to clashes with protesters this weekend and on June 30.

Hossam Ghali, the captain of crowned Zamalek rival Al Ahli SC, reflected Egyptians’ worries about where there country is heading by deciding this week to postpone a decision on whether to extend his contract until after the June 30 march. "I'm now considering leaving Egypt because of the ongoing political turmoil, which is seriously affecting Egyptian football. It will be difficult to continue in Egypt under such circumstances," Al Ahli’s website quoted him as saying.

James M. Dorsey is a senior fellow at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies, co-director of the University of Würzburg’s Institute of Fan Culture, and the author of The Turbulent World of Middle East Soccer blog.

Tuesday, June 18, 2013

Iran’s New President: Averting a Popular Revolt

RSIS presents the following commentary Iran’s New President: Averting a Popular
Revolt 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. 109/2013 dated 18 June 2013

Iran’s New President: Averting a Popular Revolt

 By James M. Dorsey

The election of Hassan Rouhani as Iran's new president signals a possible change in
direction in Iran’s foreign policy. It also underscores Supreme Leader Sayed Ali
Khamenei’s apparent move to avert a popular uprising.


THE ELECTION by a clear majority of cleric Hassan Rouhani as Iran's new president
on 15 June 2013 has secured for Supreme Leader Sayed Ali Khamenei the most
moderate of candidates. Rouhani’s landslide victory, his endorsement by reformist
leaders barred from running, and the high voter turnout, all signalled the depth of
discontent and desire for change among the majority of voters. In his inaugural press
conference, President-elect Rouhani promised a path of moderation and offered a
conciliatory approach with the West.

Supreme Leader Khamenei’s prime goal in the election was to have a high voter
turnout that would lend it legitimacy, while the fervour of the campaign suggested
that the slate of candidates was geared towards a conservative and loyalist victory.
In urging voters to go to the polls, Khamenei - the ultimatte authority in Iran - made
clear that turnout was more important to him than which of the six candidates
would emerge victorious. In so doing, he sought to avert a repeat of the popular
uprising of 2009 that was driven by widespread belief of a fraudulent election.

Ensuring some degree of change

Campaigning was initially dominated by the hardline rhetoric of Saeed Jalili, a
devoted Khamenei acolyte and Iran’s nuclear negotiator, whose electoral
programme, based on a hard line in nuclear talks with Western powers and vague
Islamic solutions to the country’s economic woes, effectively promised to reinforce
Iran’s international isolation. A closer look at the slate of candidates suggests
however that Iranians were in fact offered a choice of varying degrees of change –
and the candidate with the greatest promise of reform emerged on top.

In many ways, Jalili’s role in the election campaign may well have been that of a
scarecrow – the man whose proposed policies would be frightening enough to
persuade voters who may otherwise have boycotted the election to go to the polls,
just to prevent him from winning.

Former foreign minister and Khamenei foreign policy adviser Ali Akbar Velayati
held out the prospect of a president with significant international exposure who
chided Jalili for defining diplomacy as being tough and stubborn rather than as a
process of give-and-take. Velayati effectively blamed Jalili for the hardening of
sanctions designed to persuade Iran to compromise on its nuclear programme. He
also suggested that he would roll back to some degree the role of the Revolutionary
Guards in public life by calling for an end to political interference in sports.

Similarly, Tehran Mayor Mohammad Bagher Qalibaf, a former Revolutionary Guard
air force commander, who emerged a far second in the election, is widely believed
by militant conservatives to be a closet technocrat. Qalibaf campaigned on the
platform of respect for those imprisoned for their political beliefs. As a mayor he
reformed public service and introduced budget transparency despite being an
outspoken critic of the reform movement and social liberalisation.
In short, Khamenei may well have engineered this election to ensure that Iran’s next
president and the Islamic republic’s face to the outside world would embody some
degree of change away from the provocative foreign policy and devastating economic
populism of outgoing president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad with whom the supreme
leader was increasingly at odds.

A win-win situation

The challenge now for Rouhani, a former nuclear negotiator and national security
adviser, is to demonstrate amid high public expectations that he will be able to
bring about change. Reducing economic hardship that has sent inflation and
unemployment spiralling entails negotiating a deal with Western powers that
ensures Iran’s right to enrich uranium while assuring the international community
that its intentions are exclusively non-military. It also means reversing
Ahmadinejad’s policy of handing out cash to the poor and ignoring budgetary

Further, it suggests a loosening of security that in Ahmadinejad’s last year in
office had become omnipresent with a sharp increase in the numbers of journalists
imprisoned and a crackdown on access to the Internet. The country will be
watching to see if Rouhani will be allowed to loosen the tight grip on society and
release political prisoners.

High expectations on Rouhani’s first year in office could well be compounded by the
combustible combination of widespread discontent and soccer fervour if Iran
qualifies for the 2014 World Cup this week (June 18) when it plays a decisive match
against South Korea. Celebrations of a 1997 World Cup qualifier sparked protests
barely a month after reformist Mohammad Khatami took office as president. Fans
chanted twice within a matter of months “Death to the Mullahs” while thousands of
women stormed Tehran’s Azadi stadium.

Need for wise leadership
A soccer defeat four years later prompted protests against a backdrop of
disappointment with Khatami’s failure to achieve change. Khatami’s younger brother,
the then deputy speaker of parliament, warned at the time that the protests reflected
popular frustration with unemployment and low standards of living and a rejection of
the regime’s “excessive interference in people’s private lives.”

Rouhani’s victory offers Khamenei and the regime’s middle-aged revolutionaries as
well as Iran’s Western detractors an opportunity to achieve their goals. Rouhani is
certain to project a very different image to the outside world from that of Ahmadinejad.

To achieve his goals of achieving a resolution to the nuclear issue that will lift punishing
sanctions, turning Iran’s crippled economy around and reducing intrusive repression,
Rouhani needs not only Khamenei’s endorsement but also Western interlocutors who
can convince Iranians that their goal is a mutually acceptable deal rather than regime

It’s a win-win situation for all but it will take wise leadership willing to grab the bull by
the horns.
James M. Dorsey is Senior Fellow at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies,
co-director of the University of Würzburg’s Institute of Fan Culture, and the author of
The Turbulent World of Middle East Soccer blog.

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Monday, June 17, 2013

Egypt’s Morsi turns to Syria and soccer to polish his tarnished image

President Morsi announces rupture with Syria in Cairo stadium

By James M. Dorsey

Egyptian President Mohammed Morsi and his flailing Muslim Brotherhood have turned to foreign policy and soccer to improve their battered image in advance of a planned mass anti-government protest at the end of this month and mounting calls for his resignation.

In a bid to distract attention from his domestic woes, curry favor with the United States and Gulf countries and restore Egypt to a leadership position in the Middle East and North Africa, Mr. Morsi chose a Cairo stadium to announce to his rallied supporters that he was cutting diplomatic ties with the regime of embattled Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.

The president’s ruling Muslim Brotherhood at the same time said it would field candidates for the board elections of storied Cairo soccer club Al Zamalek SC and other major football teams. The move is an effort to gain control of clubs in a soccer-crazy country whose huge fan base played a key political role in and since the toppling of Hosni Mubarak two years ago.

The fans, one of the largest civic groups in Egypt, are likely to participate in a mass opposition Tamarod (Rebel) march on the presidential palace scheduled for June 30, the first anniversary of Mr. Morsi’s inauguration as Egypt’s first freely-elected post-revolt leader, to demand his resignation and early elections. Egyptian media report that a petition calling for Mr. Morsi’s resignation has so far attracted 15 million signatures, two million more than the 13 million votes the president garnered a year ago. A significant number of militant soccer fans are believed to be among the signatories.

Criticism of Mr. Morsi has mounted in the past year as a result of his failure to halt Egypt’s stark economic decline, his haughty leadership style that many believe harks back to Mr. Mubarak’s authoritarianism and his perceived efforts to Islamize Egyptian society.

Militant, highly politicized, well-organized and street battle-hardened soccer fans have in the last year played a key role in protests against Mr. Morsi. The conviction to death of soccer fans and perceived leniency towards security personnel in a trial earlier this year against those responsible for the death last year of 74 fans in Port Said in a politically loaded brawl sparked a popular uprising in Suez Canal cities and violent protests in Cairo.

Prominent Egyptian artists, writers, actors, filmmakers and intellectuals camped out in front of the culture ministry in Cairo to demand the resignation of Minister Alaa Abdel-Aziz because of his alleged efforts to force the arts to conform to Islamic conservatism called last week on the militant soccer fans to protect them against attacks by supporters of Mr. Morsi.

The Brotherhood’s intention to increase its influence in soccer clubs, many of which are financially troubled as the result of long suspensions sparked by Egypt’s political turmoil since 2011, is the movement’s latest effort to come to grips with the country’s most popular pastime. Brotherhood officials initially toyed with the creation of their own soccer clubs but then opted for a promise to clean the sport of corruption, including the replacement of Mubarak-era officials.

Zamalek coach Jorvan Vieira warned last month that “despite not getting their salaries, the players do their best in the matches. The management must solve the problem as I can't ask them to play while they are losing their concentration."

While Mr. Morsi’s breaking off of relations with Syria strikes a popular cord among Egyptians who are largely abhorred by Mr. Al-Assad’s brutal crackdown on his opponents, his attempt to gain control of soccer clubs risks backfiring against the backdrop of mounting calls for his resignation.

Islamists hardly endeared themselves to soccer fans by recently suggesting that their rivalries were a Zionist plot to destabilize Egypt. Al Hafiz TV, a Salafi television station critical of Morsi that promotes a return to the 7th century lifestyle of the Prophet Muhammad and his immediate successors made the insinuation by airing a video portraying an alleged ultra-Orthodox Jew as advocating the instigation of strife between various groups in Egypt, including soccer fans.

Gamal Abdallah, a member of the Brotherhood’s sports committee, announced the movement’s intention to gain control of clubs on the website of the group's political arm, the Freedom and Justice Party. "The group is considering fielding candidates or endorsing certain contenders in some posts during Zamalek's board of directors election… The group also intends to take part in all club elections in the coming period," Mr. Abdallah said.

The Brotherhood is likely to back Mortada Mansour, a lawyer and Brotherhood supporter, who is challenging incumbent Zamalek chairman Mamdouh Abbas, a wealthy businessman, in elections scheduled for September.

Militant Zamalek fans last month interrupted a news conference by sports minister El-Amry Farouk intended to announce new regulations for clubs and unveil his development plans because of his dismissal of Mr. Abbas and imposition of a temporary board in advance of the September elections. The fans have since demonstrated and blocked roads to demand the release of militants detained during the storming of the minister’s conference.

James M. Dorsey is a senior fellow at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies, co-director of the University of Würzburg’s Institute of Fan Culture, and the author of The Turbulent World of Middle East Soccer blog.

Monday, June 10, 2013

Soccer threaten to spark protests as Iran goes to the polls

President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad visits Iranian national team

By James M. Dorsey

With four days left in the run-up to Iran’ presidential election, Supreme Leader Sayed Ali Khamenei has more to worry about than ensuring that a sufficiently malleable candidate emerges as winner. A crucial victory on Tuesday in Iran’s 2014 World Cup qualifier could bring thousands into the streets in celebrations that have in the past turned into anti-government protests.

The risks mount if none of the eight presidential candidates wins 50 percent. A second round on June 21 would follow on the heels of the Iranian national team’s final qualifier against South Korea on June 18. An Iranian victory in that game would provide Iranians two opportunities to celebrate: on match day and when the victorious team returns to Tehran shortly thereafter.

If the past is any yardstick, World Cup soccer victories are volatile moments in Iran. This time round, a soccer victory could prove to be particularly volatile. Discontent in the Islamic republic is bubbling at the service. While the elections as a result of the disqualification of former president Ali Akbar Rafsanjani, who is seen as a reformer, are less likely to provoke mass protests as they did in 2009 against a poll that was perceived to have fraudulently returned President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad to a second term in office, soccer could provide the spark.

The strength of a desire for change among a significant segment of the public is reflected in the emergence of Hassan Rohani, a cleric who was Iran’s chief nuclear negotiator in the early 2000s, as a reformer and potential frontrunner. The importance of sports in general and soccer in particular is highlighted by the fact that political interference has become an important theme in the election campaign.

Presidential candidate and former foreign minister Ali Akbar Velayati vowed in one of three televised debates among the candidates that he would ensure that sports management is shielded from interference by the government and the Revolutionary Guards by returning it to professionals. By the same token, Tehran Mayor Mohammad Baker Qalibaf, widely viewed as a conservative, prepared for his candidacy by using his municipality and its bank to sponsor clubs.

Mr. Qalibaf’s move is in line with the growing influence of the Revolutionary Guards and other security officials in the management of the country’s major soccer clubs by either taking over ownership or ensuring that they play an influential role in management. This includes clubs like Persepolis, Iran’s most popular club that has its roots in the left and historically catered to Iran’s lower social classes, and Traktor Sazi. Based in Tabriz, the capital of the predominantly Azeri province of Eastern Azerbaijan, Traktor Sazi has emerged as a symbol of an Azeri national identity. Its stadium has been the scene of environmental and nationalist protests in recent years.

The potential of World Cup qualifiers to create opportunity for protest in Iran was demonstrated in 1997, 1998, 2002 and 2006. When Iran’s 1997 victory against Australia qualified it for the first time in two decades for the World Cup finals, public celebrations quickly turned into protests. They erupted barely a month after the election of Mohammed Khatami as president held out the promise of a less restricted society. Men and women honked their car horns, waved Iranian flags and danced in the streets together to blacklisted music and sang nationalist songs as they did six months later when Iran defeated the United States. Some chanted, “Death to the Mullahs.”  Some 5,000 women stormed Teheran’s Azadi stadium where the team was being welcomed in protest against their banning from attending soccer matches in defiance of calls in the media for them to watch the ceremony on television at home.

Bahrain’s defeat of Iran four years later in a World Cup qualifier sparked mass protests against a backdrop of mounting disappointment with Mr. Khatami’s failure to implement change. Shouting anti-government slogans, soccer fans attacked banks and public offices and clashed with security forces. Khatami’s younger brother, the then deputy speaker of parliament, warned that the protests reflected popular frustration with unemployment and low standards of living and a rejection of the regime’s “excessive interference in people’s private lives.”  The protests ignited heated debate in parliament and on the pitch about where the Islamic republic was heading.

Like in 1998, women celebrated soccer victories in 2002 and 2006 by discarding their veils and mixing with the opposite sex. When Iran’s chances were dashed by Bahrain, rumors abounded that the match had been fixed to ensure a loss so that people would not take to the street. Journalist Nicole Byrne, who attended a match against Ireland in Tehran’s Azadi Stadium days after Iran’s loss reported that “under an enormous mural of the late Ayatollah Khomeini, Iranians ripped out and set fire to seats, tore down banners depicting images of the country's senior mullahs and trashed the windscreens of several hundred cars outside.”

An Iranian sports journalist notes that “in terms of freedom of expression, soccer stadiums are nearly as important as the Internet in Iran now. The protest is more secure there because the police can't arrest thousands of people at once. State television broadcasts many matches live and the people use it as a stage for resistance. They're showing banners to the cameras and chanting protest songs, which is why some games are broadcast without sound now.” 

Mr. Ahmadinejad, a player and fan, who was at the forefront of increased Revolutionary Guard influence in soccer in a bid to use soccer’s popularity to enhance his image, visited the Iranian national team in advance of the match against Lebanon. Unable to run for a third term and having failed to position a presidential candidate close to him, Mr. Ahmadinejad is concerned about his legacy and the possibility of charges of corruption and economic mismanagement once he no longer enjoys immunity.

Lebanon’s national team coach, German-born Theo Buecker, holds out little hope for Mr. Khamenei’s ability to avoid potential soccer-related protest. He notes that Iran has to win on Tuesday. The match “is not important for us,” he says, adding that he is not able to field some of his top players because they were suspended in a match-fixing scandal. That raises the likelihood of celebrations and increases the risk of protests on the eve of the presidential election.

James M. Dorsey is a senior fellow at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies, co-director of the University of Würzburg’s Institute of Fan Culture, and the author of The Turbulent World of Middle East Soccer blog.

Wednesday, June 5, 2013

Mega sports events: A double-edged sword

By James M. Dorsey

There is a lesson to be learnt from this year’s Formula One public relations disaster in Bahrain, trade union pressure on Qatar, controversy over Israel’s hosting of the FIFA Under-21  finals, last year’s successful International Olympic Committee (IOC) campaign that forced three reluctant Muslim nations to field for the first time women athletes at a global sporting event and the recent election of a Bahraini soccer executive as president of the troubled Asian Football Confederation : mega-events and campaigning for office in international sports associations empower activists and put nations at risk of reputational damage.

Formula One boss Bernie Ecclestone acknowledged as much saying in April that Bahrain had been “stupid” to allow the Grand Prix to go ahead because it gave a platform to thousands demonstrating against perceived autocratic rule and lack of rights. Mr. Ecclestone’s criticism didn’t stop him however from expressing willingness to extend his contract with Bahrain for another five years until 2021.

Nevertheless, Mr. Ecclestone’s comment highlighted the fact that mega events and public office are double-edged swords. They potentially allow countries to showcase themselves, polish or improve a nation’s international and a government’s domestic image, serve as tools to enhance soft power and create commercial, economic and political opportunity. That is if host nations of mega-events and office holders and their home countries understand that winning the right to organize a major tournament or an association election puts on display not just their best side but also their warts and at times even existential problems. 

That empowers activists, spotlights their demands amid intense media focus and gives them the moral high ground if a country fails to respond adequately in word and deed. The lesson learnt from recent experiences in the Middle East is that mega events and public office give not only countries and governments leverage but also their detractors.

Qatar, Bahrain, Saudi Arabia and Israel prove the point. Their responses have failed to allow them to gain the upper hand in popular perception and coverage in the media that are both dominated by activists highlighting their failure to adhere to international standards of human, labor and/or gender rights. Worse even, mega events and nominating officials for regional and international office has reinforced the negative perceptions they were trying to reverse. Their failure has strengthened calls for such rights to become key criteria in the awarding of future mega-events. It has also rendered the separation of sports and politics a fiction and focused attention on the need to develop systems that acknowledge the relationship but eliminate conflict of interest and ensure that it is not abused for partisan political interests on an individual, national, regional and international scale.

For two years running, Bahrain’s Grand Prix backfired with protesters dominating news coverage. The image that emerged in television pictures and independent reporting of thousands protesting was not one of an island state that has put a squashed popular uprising in 2011 behind it, but one of a nation wracked by continued strife to which the government responds with force.

By the same token, the newly elected AFC president, Sheikh Salman Bin Ebrahim Al Khalifa, head of the Bahrain Football Association, has been unable to put an end to persistent questions about his alleged failure to stand up for Bahraini national soccer team players who were arrested, publicly denounced, tortured and charged for taking part in anti-government demonstrations two years ago during a popular uprising that was brutally squashed. The charges were later dropped under pressure from FIFA.

Sheikh Salman’s legalistic argument that football and politics are separate and that he had not violated FIFA or AFC rules rather than addressing the larger moral issues involved has resulted in persistent media questioning, activist calls for his disqualification and a reinforcement of the Bahraini government’s image as repressive and uncompromising. Rather than categorically refusing to address the issue, Bahrain and Sheikh Salman, although restricted by being a member of a royal family that is dominated by hard liners, would have been better served by allowing the government’s own inquiry into the suppression of the revolt that admitted to wrongdoing by security forces, including torture, to shape his response and deflate the criticism.

Similarly, neither Israel nor Saudi Arabia have succeeded in turning the tide of public opinion or at least establishing a degree of equity in perception. To be fair, Saudi Arabia, which grudgingly allowed a few underperforming expatriate Saudi women to represent it at the 2012 London Olympics, left the field to its critics by effectively refraining from engagement in the debate about severe restrictions imposed on women in the kingdom. In doing so, it failed to leverage assets it could have deployed to moderate perceptions, including the economic clout of women in the kingdom as a result of rights enshrined in Islamic law, moves to authorize physical education in private schools, the re-emergence of women’s health clubs, plans to license for the first time women’s soccer clubs that currently operate in a legal nether land and last year’s unprecedented election of a commoner as head of the Saudi Arabian Football Federation to replace an appointed royal. 

Similarly, a video on You Tube features Palestinian youth in a village near the wall separating Israel from the West Bank tearing off their FC Barcelona jerseys, hanging them over razor wire the Israeli military erected around the village and setting them on fire. The protest was part of a campaign protesting Israel’s hosting in June of the U-21 championship finals intended to counter Israel’s increasingly tarnished image as the obstacle to settling its long standing dispute with the Palestinians, growing objections to Israeli policies perceived as intentionally making daily life difficult for West Bank residents and its ever greater integration into European soccer. Israel is part of UEFA rather than Asia because of Arab refusal to play Israeli teams as long as a peace settlement has not been achieved.

The U-21 is the most important tournament Israel has ever hosted and comes at a time that Israel has lost significant ground in the global battle for hearts and minds. A hunger strike last year by a Palestinian national soccer team player who was suspected of association with a militant group, Islamic Jihad, but never charged proved to be costly in the global soccer world. The player was released under pressure from FIFA, UEFA and FIFPro, the global players’ organization amid fears that he would die as a result of his hunger strike. 

"Football is an effective vehicle for Israel to rehabilitate its image with the international community. A large sporting event is an ideal opportunity for Israel to present itself as a normal country," Tamir Sorek, a University of Florida expert on Israeli soccer told UAE newspaper, The National.

As a result, more than 60 prominent European players, including Chelsea's Eden Hazard, Arsenal's Abou Diaby and Paris Saint-Germain's Jeremy Menez, publicly warned that holding the U-21 in Israel would be “seen as a reward for actions that are contrary to sporting values.” Published last year as Israeli forces attacked Gaza, the players declared: "We, as European football players, express our solidarity with the people of Gaza who are living under siege and denied basic human dignity and freedom.”  UEFA, denying that it was mixing sports and politics, rebutted criticism of the awarding of the tournament to Israel by saying that it would bring ‘people’ – Israelis and Palestinians -- together

Even Qatar, the nation that has gone the furthest in seeking to address criticism and engage with its critics, has so far been unable to shift the epicenter of international public opinion and perception. Its major issue is lack of adherence to international labor standards and labor conditions denounced by trade unions and human rights groups as modern day slavery rather than expected Islamic restrictions on fan behavior during the 2022 World Cup, persistent unproven allegations of wrong doing in its campaign to win hosting rights and concern about lack of a soccer tradition and extreme summer temperatures.

Criticism of labor conditions, including the restrictive sponsorship system that puts workers at the mercy of their employers, not only in Qatar but in the Gulf at large, is long standing. What has changed is that the hosting of the World Cup has shifted the playing field. The driver of pressure for change are no longer human rights groups like Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch who have at best moral power and little ability to mass mobilize but an international trade union movement that potentially can activate 175 million members in 153 countries.

With foreign workers constituting a majority of the population and at least half a million more expected to swell their ranks to work on World Cup-related infrastructure projects, Qatar has moved to improve material working and living conditions and the 2022 organizing committee has issued a charter  of workers’ rights. The moves fall short of union demands for the creation of independent workers’ organizations and collective bargaining and despite talks with labor ministry officials has put the two on a collision course with the International Trade Union Confederation (ITUC) demanding that world soccer body FIFA deprive Qatar of its hosting rights.

The jury is out as the battle unfolds. The outcome is likely to demonstrate the limits of the leverage of both parties and the price they risk paying. The unions could well succeed in reducing if not stopping the influx into Qatar of unionized labor but are unlikely to persuade millions of impoverished unskilled and semi-skilled Asian workers from seeking greener pastures and a better life for their loved ones. To project success, the ITUC has to win the buy in of its members, many of whom are preoccupied with resolving problems arising from the global economic crisis. By the same token, Qatar will likely have little problem retaining its hosting rights and attracting non-unionized labor, but will continue to suffer reputational damage, defeating one of the goals of its comprehensive sports strategy.

If reputational damage and failure to achieve a key goal is a host nation’s primary risk, activists may see achieving that as a moral victory. Similarly, they are likely to claim any progress such as an improvement of workers’ material labor and living condition as a success even if they were unable to meet their ultimate goal. 

Underlying their inability, however is the fact that in taking on Bahrain, Qatar, Saudi Arabia and Israel they were addressing issues perceived by government to effect national security if not their nation’s very existence. That inability highlights limitations to their power and the uphill battle of sparking a meaningful broad-based global campaign like the sports boycott of South Africa that ultimately was effective only because it exploited a willingness in the international community to confront apartheid. The international community has proven so far to have little appetite for paying more than lip service to workers’ rights in the Gulf, women’s rights in Saudi Arabia or Israeli policies towards the Palestinians.

At the bottom line, the message for host countries is: mega events constitute a platform for showcasing both a country’s positive aspects as well as its warts. The question potential hosts have to ask themselves is what price are they willing to pay in terms of reputational risk if they are not willing or able to address their vulnerabilities. That question is all the more acute as international sports bodies like FIFA are under pressure to make human, labor and women’s rights part of the criteria for awarding events. In doing so, they are likely to raise the barrier for a country’s chance of gaining the opportunity to host a major event.

For activists, the message is one of empowerment but empowerment that comes with the responsibility to employ it effectively. The trade union’s battle with Qatar over labor rights is likely to become a case study. With nine years to go until the World Cup, the question is whether ITUC played its trump card too early by already asking FIFA to deprive Qatar of the World Cup.

In doing, so the ITUC has gone out on a limb. Union officials concede privately that European unions are preoccupied with austerity measures and stark unemployment in the Eurozone, US unions confront slow recovery in North America and Asian unions with the exception of Japan have demonstrated little engagement.

“What happens to the workers if Qatar loses the World Cup? The ITUC loses its bargaining chip. Moreover, they are campaigning for taking away the World Cup even before the bids for construction of stadiums have been awarded. Qatar’s construction boom will continue with or without the World Cup. Even if they lose those workers, others will come. It’s the market’s push and pull factor. If the Nepalese don’t come, the Bangladeshis will. If the Bangladeshis don’t come, the Vietnamese will and if the Vietnamese don’t come, the Chinese will,” said an independent labor analyst.

James M. Dorsey is a senior fellow at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies, director of the University of Würzburg’s Institute of Fan Culture, and the author of The Turbulent World of Middle East Soccer blog

Monday, June 3, 2013

Tahrir’s lesson for Taksim: Police brutality unites battle-hardened fans

By James M. Dorsey

If there is one lesson Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan should have drawn from the popular revolts that toppled four Arab leaders and sparked civil war in Syria in the last two years, it is that police brutality strengthens protesters’ resolve and particualrly that of militant, street battle-hardened soccer fans.

As police on Friday unleashed tear gas and water cannons on demonstrators opposed to the planned destruction of a historic park on Istanbul’s Taksim Square, thousands of fans from rival clubs, united for the first time in decades, arrived to protect the protesters and raise morale.

In a replay of events on Cairo’s Tahrir Square that toppled Egyptian president Hosni Mubarak, thousands of fans took up positions, erected barricades, counterattacked the police and threw tear gas cannisters straight back into the ranks of law enforcement.

“It was a critical moment. Supporters of all the big teams united for the first time against police violence. They were more experienced than the protesters, they fight them regulalrly. Their entry raised the protesters’ morale and they played a leading role,” Bagis Erten, a sports reporter for Eurosport Turkey and NTVSpor said.

To be sure, Turkey is not Egypt, Taksim is not Tahrir, at least not yet, and Mr. Erdogan’s Islamist Justice and Development Party (AKP) is not the Muslim Brotherhood. Turkey unlike Egypt has long been a pluralistic society, albeit with warts, and had a tradition of protest. Whether Taksim turns into Tahrir is as much dependent on the protesters’ ability to persevere and on whether Mr. Erdogan maintains his defiant stance or listens to criticism that is widespread rather than continueing to bank on the fact that he retains a massive base of popular support among conservative segments of Turkish society.

What started out as an effort to save trees has mushroomed into the most serious challenge to Mr. Erdogan’s decade in government that intially was marked by serious democratic reform, significant economic growth and Turkey’s emergence as a regional powerhouse. Mr. Erdogan is Turkey’s first prime minister in decades to have swept three elections with enough votes to form a one-party government.

Yet Turkey outranks countries like China, Iran and Eritrea in the number of journalists it has incarcerated. And while the gap between secular and conservative segments of society initially narrowed under his rule, Mr. Erdogan’s more recent hubris and haughtiness coupled with Islamist-tinted measures has renewed secular suspicion of his true intentions.

That suspicion together with excessive police force is what drives the mushrooming protest in a society that is more or less split between secularists and conservatives. Some secularists wonder whether the police intervention in Gezi Park does not have roots that go back to 1909 when that location was where under the Ottomans the Young Turks defeated the Hunter Brigades who were calling for the introduction of Islamic law.

What is emerging is that there are four apparent parties to the current crisis in Turkey: the secularists, Mr. Erdogan’s Islamists, the police and the military. Mr. Erdogan’s Islamist rival Fethullah Gulen, a powerful, self-exiled, Pennsylvania-based cleric, who wields influence in the police may well have seen the protests as an opportunity to undermine the prime minister. Mr. Erdogan’s party colleague, President Abdullah Gul, is viewed as close to Mr. Gulen. In a veiled reference to Mr. Erdogan, Mr. Gulen recently preached against hubris. For their part, reports circulating in Istanbul say that the military, which shares secularist suspicisions, has refused police requests for help and that a military hospital had even handed out gas masks to protesters.

Secularist suspicion is also what prompted militant, mostly secular Turkish soccer fans used to fighting each other, to unite much like they did in Cairo. The fans were driven by an instinctive dislike of the police that makes them sensitive to excessive use of force, particularly when it is aimed at suppressing legitimate expression of dissent.

Tension was already mounting between the police and the fans before their entry into Taksim Square. Police last month attacked Carsi, the militant Besiktas JK club’s support group and the most politicized of the supporters, as they marched after a final league match to celebrate the end of the season. The clash was sparked by the fact that the fans were getting to close to Mr. Erdogan’s Besiktas office near the club’s stadium.

“The intensification of police control inside and outside the stadia led the ultras to adopt a mode of military organization and a warlike attitude against the police. As a result football hooliganism qua social problem has to be regarded as the legacy of such policing,“ Italian sociologists Alessandro Dal Lago and Rocco De Biasi argued already 15 years ago in an essay about militant Italian soccer fans.

“What happened on Taksim is incredible, it is unbelievable. Two weeks ago we were discussing how divided we were, how intolerant fans of Galatasaray, Fenerbahce, Besiktas, Trabsonspor and others were. We felt the culture of football was deteriorating. Occupation Gezi Park (the Taksim Square park) has changed that,” a Turkish militant said.

On Taksim Square, the fans, taunting the police, chanted in unision:

“You can use you tear gas bombs, you can use your tear gas bombs,

Have courage if you are a real man,

Take off your helmet and drop your batons,

Then we’ll see who the real man is.”

The ball is in Mr. Erdogan’s court. Restraining his police and saving trees on Taksim are unlikely to do the trick. Mr. Erdogan will have to re-build bridges and demonstrate that he listens to those who elected him as well as those that didn’t by among other things pursuing an agenda that is inclusive rather than overtly Islamist.

James M. Dorsey is a senior fellow at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies, director of the University of Würzburg’s Institute of Fan Culture, and the author of The Turbulent World of Middle East Soccer blog.

Sunday, June 2, 2013

Taksim is not (yet) Tahrir

Thousands of soccer fans march towards Taksim

By James M. Dorsey

Almost a week of countrywide protests in Turkey have left an indelible mark on the country’s political landscape: broad discontent with the policies of Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s policies and increasing haughtiness bubbled to the surface; militant soccer fans thousands of whom joined the Taksim Square protests united and were politicized; and the role police force plays in solidifying opposition groups and resolve was highlighted.

Mr. Erdogan’s intransigence and hard-handed police attempts to suppress the protest with tear gas and water cannons swelled the ranks of the demonstrators and turned a demand for perseverance of a 75-year old Istanbul park into a massive call for the prime minister’s resignation. Thousands of militant fans of Istanbul’s three rival soccer clubs led by the left-wing, most politicized of the support groups Carsi, the ultras’ of Besiktas JK, joined forces for the first time in 30 years as they march to Taksim Square. So did rival soccer fans in other cities.

Comparisons between Taksim and Cairo’s Tahrir Square that has come to symbolize the ability of the street to topple a government are tempting. To be sure, there are superficial similarities but these are outstripped by the differences. The two square share the unification of rival soccer fans with a history of fighting one another; the occupation of a main city square; the protesters’ slogan: Erdogan, istifa! or Erdogan resign in imitation of Egypt’s Mubarak irhal! or Mubarak leave!; the violent police crackdown; and the ultimate at least partial government backdown.

But unlike mass demonstrations that toppled leaders in North African nations, the protests in Turkey are against a democratically elected leader who has won three elections with a respectable majority, presided over a period of significant economic growth and repositioned his country as a regional power with global ambitions. They also occurred in contrast to Arab countries in a country that despite all its warts is democratic and has a strongly developed, vociferous civil society.

The Taksim protests in the week that Istanbul celebrated its capture by the Ottomans 560 years ago have sent Mr. Erdogan an unambigious message: discontent with the prime minister’s authoritarian streak, the Turkish government’s support of Sunni Muslim rebels in Syria, increasing government control of large chunks of the media and attempts to stifle independent reporting and commentary, and suspicion that he is attempting to Islamize public life is mounting. The protests constitute a warning that maintenance of his style of government could as yet turn Taksim into Tahrir.

A decision by the diverse, uncoordinated groups that came together on Taksim not to occupy the square and build a semi-permanent tent camp to press their demands for reversal of their demands for preservation of the park that is to be replaced by a shopping mall, an apology by the police for its heavy handed use of force and resignation of the Erdogan government has taken the wind out of the protests. The momentum has temporarily shifted in favor of Mr. Erdogan but to retain it Turks will have to see a real change in his style of governing. Mr. Erdogan benefits from the fact that with no soccer league matches scheduled for the foreseeable future, stadiums, a traditional protest venue in a soccer-crazy country, militant soccer fans are deprived of their natural organizing grounds.

Despite this, major questions remain that need to be addressed and answered to prevent soccer fans and thousands of others from returning to Taksim and other city squares across Turkey. Will Mr. Erdogan back off his plans to redevelop Taksim that has already led to the shutting down of the square’s historic bakery, Inci Pastanesi, and its iconic Emek Theater? Mr. Erdogan responded to this week’s Gezi Part protest by saying the government would push ahead with its Gezi Park plan “no matter what they do.” The prime minister warned that he could put 100 people on the street for every anti-government protester.

For much of the week, events on Taksim and in other Turkish cities were underrreported in much of the media in Turkey, which ranks high on the list of media-unfriendly countries according to the number of incarcerated journalists. The government strengthened in May its grip on the media with its takeover from financially troubled Cukurova holding television stations and Digiturk pay-tv. The underreporting was allegedly after government phone calls to various media.

The explosion of discontent allowed secularists with the opposition Republican People’s Party (CHP) in the lead to turn the protests into alleged Islamization of society. Secularists point to this month’s new restriction on the sale and consumption of alcohol and the naming of a third, controversial Istanbul bridge that spans the Bosporus as the Yavuz Sultan Selim or Selim the Grim Bridge in honor of the Ottoman sultan widely blamed for the massacre of Alevis in the early 16th century. Alevis, accounting for an estimated 20 percent of the population, although distinct from Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s Alawite community see Mr. Erdogan’s support for Syria’s Sunni Muslim rebels has further disregard of their concerns and have tapped into widespread popular dislike of the government’s anti-Bashar policy.

An interior ministry investigation into the police’s crackdown on Taksim ordered by Mr. Erdogan will also have to clarify whether the crackdown reflected the split between the prime minister and Fethullalh Gulen, who is also opposed to unrestricted Turkish support for the Syrian rebels. Mr. Gulen, a powerful, self-exiled, Pennsylvania-based cleric, is believed to wield considerable influence within the police force.

The two men have clashed in the past year over measures to prevent match-fixing after Turkey was rocked by a major match-fixing scandal. Mr. Erdogan defeated Mr. Gulen’s attempts to ensure harsh penalties which would have weakened the prime minister’s grip and potentially strengthened the clerics influence in Fenerbahce FC, which has a fan base of millions.

“Erdogan is smarter than the Egyptians. He lets people demonstrate.  He caters to the rights of the religious and the Kurds to garner votes and ignores the secularists. The fans are largely secular. This week’s demonstrations have shown that one can stand against the government and that soccer fans can work together. Things will settle for a few weeks. But Erdogan is on notice,” said a soccer fan as he marched against the government in Izmir.

James M. Dorsey is a senior fellow at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies, director of the University of Würzburg’s Institute of Fan Culture, and the author of The Turbulent World of Middle East Soccer blog.