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Friday, July 26, 2013

MEI Insight: Facing One's Demons: The Egyptian Military and the Brotherhood at a Crossroads


Events in Cairo have all the hallmarks of a return to the repression under ousted President Hosni Mubarak that prompted millions of Egyptians two years ago to camp out on Cairo’s Tahrir Square for 18 days until the military forced him to step down after 30 years in office. Little in the unfolding drama in Egypt genuinely responds to the demands put forward by the protesters two years ago: an end to the police state, greater political freedom, respect for human rights, an end to corruption, and justice and dignity. Is Egypt going to change? Or is this a return to Mubarak-style politics?

Same-Same or Same-Different?

Egypt was seemingly united two years ago when Mubarak was ousted. There were no mass demonstrations against the ousting of the president. This time round, the Muslim Brotherhood’s mass protests against the removal of President Mohammed Morsi, post-revolt Egypt’s first democratically elected leader, complicates things for the military that sees itself as the guarantor of the state. The military has in recent days demonstrated that it has learnt lessons from its bungling of Egypt’s transition from autocracy to democracy when it ruled the country for 17 months in the immediate aftermath of Mubarak’s departure.

The military is seeking to pull strings from behind the façade of a military-appointed interim president, Adly Mahmoud Mansour, rather than taking the reins in its own hand. Whatever government emerges from the current crisis will nevertheless govern a deeply divided country in which one substantial segment believes that the disruption of the democratic process was designed to exclude it from participation.

The military-backed unruly coalition of anti-Morsi liberals, leftists, Salafis and remnants of the Mubarak regime has only common denominator: opposition to the Muslim Brotherhood. Its future is one of increased fracturing and dissolution. The opposition’s disarray despite its ability to stage one of the largest protests in human history gave the military license and ability to shape Egypt’s future in its own mold. Middle East historian Mark Levine adeptly characterised the features of 2.5 years of protest in Egypt that has effectively kept the revolutionaries going round in circles as: “tear gas, tanks, camels, horses, tent cities, marches, birdshot, live ammunition, ultras, great music, torture, rape, disappointments, spears, knives, Facebook campaigns, undercover thugs, military detentions, men with scimitars, show trials, elections, referendums, annulments, arson, police brutality, negotiations, machinations, committees, strikes, street battles, foreign bailouts, extreme theatre, revolutionary graffiti, television drama, Leninist study circles, and Salafi sit-ins.”[1]

The opposition, like the military in line with its traditional understanding of itself, has gone to great lengths to portray intervention of the armed forces as an expression of the people’s will rather than a coup. There is no doubt that the military intervention had popular support. It is too simplistic to reduce events to a conspiracy in which the United States and Saudi Arabia together with the military decided that it was time for Morsi to go.

There is little doubt that the military felt that Morsi’s incompetence and intransigency was deeply dividing the country and risked leading it down a path of economic self-destruction, increased polarization, Islamization, anarchy, and chaos. To be fair, the military gave Morsi the opportunity to mend his ways and let Egyptians determine his legitimacy in a referendum. The coup was encouraged in an environment of revolutionary fervor that allowed it to tap into widespread popular discontent. Its preferred model was the Turkish military’s toppling of Prime Minister Necmettin Erbakan in 1997. Like the Turkish military, Egypt’s military command issued a series of statements in the walk-up to the mass June 30 protest against Morsi and the immediate days that followed. It stepped in when Morsi defied those calls for the protagonists to achieve a negotiated solution and failed.

It is also too simple to exaggerate the impact of the flow of US and European democracy funds to various groups and leaders of the anti-Morsi coalition. US funding of non-governmental organizations (NGOs) promoting human rights and greater transparency and accountability was controversial since its inception under Mubarak, and was targeted by the military after it succeeded the ousted president. Nevertheless, the fact that NGOs fronting for opposition politicians and retired military officers were included in the funding is certain to deepen Islamist distrust of the United States.

Similarly, it is also simplistic to portray Salafi groups in Egypt as Saudi stooges because of backing by the kingdom. There is however a post-intervention divergence between the military and the Saudis on the one hand and the West on the Over the fact that the coup is proving not simply to be a correction in which the Brotherhood is removed from power in advance of new elections, but in which a witch-hunt against the group jeopardizes Egypt’s transition. This development creates the notion of a free and fair election on a level playing field a mockery.

Perhaps most ominous in tracing the process of engineering Morsi’s downfall is the evidence that the accelerating shortfall of shortages in electricity and other services in the last months of the Morsi government was as much the result of the president’s disastrous economic policy as it was artificially engineered by institutions of the state that he was unable to control.[2]

The role of various arms of the state in opposing Morsi constitutes one key reason for Morsi’s demise. What Egyptians call the deep state but what in reality are key public institutions of the state – the military, the police and security forces, the judiciary and segments of the media – had only conditionally accepted the rise of the Brotherhood. They were willing to give Morsi the benefit of the doubt, committed to resisting attempts at reform that would have given the Brotherhood control of their institutions, and determined to intervene if he were to rock the boat.

If anything, the military’s intervention constitutes a reaffirmation of an understanding of itself that was first shaped by Gamal Abdel Nasser with his overthrow of the monarchy in 1952 and concentration of all power in 1954. The military sees itself as a separate caste and the ultimate arbiter of what is good for Egypt under the guise of executing the will of the people.

In a book published in 1955, Nasser formulated the concepts that guide the Egyptian military which has been maintained until today. “Were we in the army not obliged to do what we did on July 23, 1952? (…) The revolution of July 23 effectively fulfilled a great aspiration that throbbed in the heart of the Egyptian nation ever since it began, in the modern era, to be its own master and determine its own destiny.”[3] Referring to the 1952 coup, he went on to say: “We felt with every fiber of our being that this task was our burden to bear, and that if we did not fulfill it, it would be as if we turned down a sacred task that Providence itself has imposed upon us.” [4]

Certainly, 2013 is different from 1952 for a host of reasons. Ranking high among those is the fact that the Egyptian military is a very different institution from the one that first took power 61 years ago. Those differences explain why the military bungled its 17 months in power immediately after the fall of Hosni Mubarak in 2011 and why a smooth transition towards a civilian-led democracy in Egypt in the coming years is unlikely.

Nasser’s military was highly politicized. Its officer corps, particularly in the artillery and cavalry, was reformist and in favour of democracy.[5] Nasser’s defeat of the reformists set the stage for the police state created under President Anwar Sadat and perfected by Mubarak. It was and is a state dominated by forces controlled by the interior rather than the defence ministers with very different interests. Like in the first half of the 1950s, the security forces have much to loose in a transition towards democracy while the military has much to gain from liberalization provided it can retain its perks and privileges. The security forces had the upper hand in 1954 and that is also true in 2013 – if only because the military needs them.

The emergence of the police state involved the depoliticization of the military. As a result, the Egyptian military was effectively insulated from politics and consequently has proven to be politically naïve and inexperienced. In addition, the power balance between the two forces shifted. Egypt’s standing army counts half-a-million men; its security forces have ballooned to an estimated 1.5 million and are better connected to politics, business and crime syndicates. The military moreover relies on the security forces to prevent the destruction of what Egyptian sociologist Hazem Kandil terms the ‘dam of autocracy.’[6]

This development meant that the security forces rather than the military became the face of repression under both Mubarak and Morsi in ensuring that protests in favor of social justice and greater freedoms did not produce anarchy. The need to guard against anarchy and chaos was reinforced by the fact that the non-Islamist opposition forces lack of cohesion and effective leadership. Additionally, the Brotherhood has yet to develop the wherewithal to make the transition from a clandestine, secretive, illegal social movement. In order to be able to effectively govern and reach out to its critics, the Brotherhood needed to expand its skill to survive, and its ability to mobilize as to include the tools and mindsets that would allow it to become an inclusive political organization.

Nonetheless, General Abdel Fatah al-Sisi, the head of the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF), left little doubt about the military’s role in shaping Egypt’s future when he addressed the nation to announce his roadmap drafted together with leaders of the anti-Morsi movement. Al-Sisi, who is deputy prime minister and defense minister in the post-Morsi government, repeatedly referred to the legitimacy of the people, but not once referred to their sovereignty. “The speech is the intellectual gloss on the July 3 coup. Its point is that Egypt is too important to be ruled by its people. Too many regional and world powers are vested in the direction this country takes and how it gets there. Its population will be corralled to the side and left to practice their charming folkloric political rituals with parliamentary elections and even presidential elections and what have you. An arena of electoral democracy will be constructed, but many matters of grave national import will be outside its purview. And anyway, its outcomes can always be reversed,” wrote Egyptian blogger Baheyya.[7]

Morsi and the Brotherhood: New kids on the block

While there is little doubt that the Brotherhood was its own worst enemy and brought the coup upon itself, the question of whether Morsi was indeed rocking the boat and whether his string of ill-concieved moves would have fundamentally changed the nature of Egyptian society and turned it into an Islamic state is a matter of debate and perception. However, the debate on whether or not the military intervention constituted a coup or not is not one of definition but one of trying to shape domestic and international perceptions of recent events in Egypt, and in the case of the United States needing to circumvent the legal consequences – cut-off of aid and economic sanctions – of calling a spade a spade.
Military-appointed President Adly Mansour left no doubt about the nature of the military’s intervention by declaring that his authority stemmed exclusively from the statement made by Al-Sisi that was published in the Official Gazette as the law of the land with the suspension of Morsi’s constitution.[8] The military’s transitional roadmap is however no better conceived than its attempt in the wake of Mubarak’s fall to shape Egypt in its mold.

It is driving Egypt down the very road that brought it to today’s crisis: a constitutional drafting process that has the formal characteristics of inclusiveness and participation but is drafted by a selected group of lawyers and appointees rather than by politicians. This deflects questions of real reform, professes a willingness to let people speak out with no guarantee that they will be heard, produces a series of rapid succession referenda, and elections that gives people little time to discuss and reflect, and a favoring of those who cooperated with the coup. All of this is occurring in an environment of produced xenophobia, repression of the Brotherhood, restrictions on the media, and an opposition that lacks unity, cohesiveness and agrees at best on what it does not want.

Neither the military nor the protesters – despite the expressions of support of the armed forces – have any illusions about the nature of their relationship and its inherent contradictions. The military’s authoritarian and patriarchal nature and goal of preserving as much of the status quo ante to guarantee its privileges and perks are in direct conflict with the protesters’ aims of a more open, transparent, accountable and just society. The two sides are opportunistically using one another playing a dangerous game that can only end in failure, if not renewed strife. To be clear, the millions that signed the Tamarrud petition demanding Morsi’s resignation and sparked the anti-Morsi protests signed up for new elections rather than a return of the military to politics.

The Brotherhood offered the military and his critics an open goalpost. Morsi was the wrong man for the job. His inexperience, his stubbornness, his enamour with the office and his lack of sensitivity to public opinion was his downfall.

It was by the same token unrealistic to expect that the Brotherhood, for the first time in office after decades of having operated clandestinely or in a legal netherland, would be able to – overnight – make the transition from a secretive to an open, transparent and flexible group. The Brotherhood’s traditional instincts not to seek sole government responsibility were correct. The Brotherhood displayed those instincts at the beginning of Egypt’s popular revolt when it initially was reluctant to join the anti-Mubarak protests and then promised not to seek a parliamentary majority or the presidency. Most believe that it was the seduction of opportunity and potential power that persuaded the Brotherhood to break those promises. The unexpected rise of the Salafis as a potent political force contributed to the Brotherhood’s change of mind as did likely advice by Qatar, the Brotherhood’s main foreign backer.

The justification for the Brotherhood’s cautionary instincts and the reason why the expectation of a stellar performance of the Morsi government lies in Turkey. It took political Islam in Turkey some four decades to get from the intransigence of Adnan Menderes who was executed by the military in 1960 via Erbakan who was forced out of office in the late 1990s to current Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan. Erdogan, despite recent protests against him, is by and large a success story. He has achieved significant economic growth, enhanced Turkey’s regional status despite setbacks in Egypt and Syria, and yes, narrowed the gap between his country’s secular and conservative communities.

The reversal of the Brotherhood’s position was in fact predictable. The group’s history is characterised by continuous tension in deciding whether it is a social or a political movement. That tension explains its often disastrous decisions motivated by a hunger for power, to cut backroom deals with the military, and powers for which it has paid dearly in the past. The Brotherhood experienced perhaps the worst crackdown in its history two years after the coup in 1954 by the Free Officers. It opportunistically decided to drop its support for then president Mohammed Naguib, a reformist military officer, in favor of Nasser who had falsely led them, as well as the rest of the country, to believe that he would establish a democracy.[9] In fact, Nasser, and more importantly the security forces he had created were establishing in cooperation with the United States and Britain. This would effectively be the model for Arab autocracy for decades to come: a state controlled by the police and the security forces rather than the military with multiple variations ranging from the military being totally cut out of the power structure to cases where it shared power.

Underlying Morsi’s downfall are two factors. Morsi and Turkey’s Erdogan share a majoritarian interpretation of democracy which leads them to believe that their legitimacy stems from victory at the ballot box. The events in Egypt and Turkey illustrate that the ballot box is one of two elements that constitute legitimacy. The other element is acceptance by those that did not vote for the incumbent. That acceptance was withdrawn in Egypt while the message in Turkey was: it will be withdrawn if you don’t change and take us into account.

More fundamental in Egypt are different conceptions of the state and society. The Brotherhood failed to recognize that the state is an institution with its own identity and interests rather than a vehicle to propagate and implement Islamic values and that society is more than just the Ummah, the community of Muslims. Ironically, the Brotherhood’s concept of the state mirrors concepts among some of its opponents that were long prevalent among the secular elite: the state’s function is to guarantee secular society if need be at the expense of democracy.

Morsi’s mistake was that he gave the forces arrayed against him reason. The deep state rejected control by the Morsi government but was not bent on intervening. Military intervention was an option but not a foregone conclusion. However, by late spring of 2013, that need arose in the minds of the military and others as a result of Morsi’s inability to successfully reach out to all segments of society and adopt a truly inclusive approach.

Military officers did not shy away from hinting broadly in the months before the coup that they were waiting for the right moment to unseat Morsi. The military sought to project itself as a selfless mediator and arbitrator unbound by partisan or commercial interests. But it undermined its own ambition with the post-coup crackdown on the Brotherhood and its failure to learn the lessons of Egypt’s so far failed transition. The deep state moreover did its part in exploiting Morsi’s weaknesses and engineering a situation that was bound to significantly complicate his life if not become a failure. Perhaps the single event that set the stage was last year’s disbanding of the lower house of parliament, the one institutionalized forum for debate even if it was dominated by religious conservatives. That left opponents of the Brotherhood with only one alternative: the street.

Fuelling that perception of need was Morsi’s failed attempt to acquire super-constitutional powers that would have freed him of judicial oversight. The rise of militant groups in the Sinai backed by attempts by religious figures to impose Islamic law in some parts of the peninsula, the threat to use military force against Ethiopia to enforce what Egypt long has viewed as its rights to the waters of the Nile, his suggestion that Egyptians could join the anti-Bashar jihad in Syria, his nomination of a governor of Luxor who was associated with a group responsible for assassination of Sadat and the killing of 57 tourists in the late 1990s, and his failure to stand-up for minority rights when he stood on the same dias as a Salafi preacher who denounced Egypt’s tiny Shiite community as infidels. The economic deterioration under Morsi and his inability to deliver let alone maintain services stood moreover in stark contrast to the Brotherhood’s provision of services that were lacking in the Mubarak era. To be fair, Morsi inherited an economy with huge structural problems that stem from a scarcity of resources, rapid population growth, decades of corruption and nepotistic authoritarian rule.

Nevertheless, the sum total of Morsi’s failures falls short of what could be described as a grab to take full control of all of the state’s key institutions, let alone Islamize the state in its entirety. This is witnessed by the continued independence of the deep state, Morsi’s efforts for much of his period in office to accommodate the military, his more-or-less hands-off approach towards the interior ministry and the security forces that are in dire need of thorough reform, and his failure to make effective inroards into the culture ministry. In fact, Morsi, while in government, gave the military what it wanted: the replacement of the old guard by the second echelon of command, and preservation of its privileges and perks – control of national security, protection of its independent relationship with the United States, immunity against prosecution, maintenance of its commercial empire that accounts for at least 10 percent of Egyptian GDP, and no civilian oversight.

Nevertheless, Morsi’s core failure may be his inability or unwillingness to take on the one segment of the deep state at the root of the resistance to Mubarak’s regime that was building up in the stadiums in the last four years of the ousted autocrat’s rule and exploded on Police Day in January 2011 on Tahrir Square: the Ministry of Interior and the police and security forces it controls. The gap between Morsi and the security forces was widened by Morsi’s efforts to evade police reform by legalizing armed private security services.

Morsi’s failure was compounded by the failure of the security forces, Egypt’s most hated institution because of its enforcement of the Mubarak era repression, to formulate a vision of their own in a post-revolt environment. Instead, they opted to lie low so as not to provoke further animosity. They hoped that their absence and a decline of law and order would position them as the force that stood between Egypt and the abyss. The failure of the security forces’ leadership to redefine itself in a post-revolt environment was encouraged by the military’s opposition to real reform and calls for independent police trade unions, improved accountability, rules governing promotion, and training by reformist officers who – if acknowledged – could have sparked a similar development within the armed forces. 

The armed forces have been more successful in ensuring cohesion despite differences between the middle class officers corps and the lower class rank and file. That cohesion notwithstanding, army chief Sisi, concerned about Brothehood inroads into the military, sent elite troops to units of the 2nd Field Army, which is under command of Lt. Gen Ahmed Wasfy, immediately after meeting Morsi to demand his resignation. He then discovered that Morsi had sent envoys to the units. Wasfy and some of his units are believed to be potentially sympathetic to the Brotherhood. Denying allegations of a possible split in the military, Wasfy told the Associated Press: “We are united. The culture and principles of the armed forces don’t allow divisions.”[10]

One reason why the police unlike the military has reformists within its ranks is the fact that military personnel enjoyed economic and financial personnel that lower level police offices lacked, making them on the one hand more corrupt, dependent on getting bakshish for their services and more connected to criminal networks that often were employed to do the Mubarak’s regime’s dirty work. On the other hand, this made many in the police more inclined towards change.

As a result, the police force is split. The force had little reason to support Morsi and the Brotherhood but significant segments of it are less committed than the military to the road on which Egypt has now embarked. The police and security forces have taken note of the fact that the military has succeeded in retaining a degree of popular support that they lack. Herein lies the danger that the fallout of Morsi will be a weakening of the reformists in the security sector in favor of those who see liberalization as an undermining of their power.

The Salafis and the Brotherhood:  Can they Weather this Crisis?

Recent events in Egypt are widely viewed as the Brotherhood having lost the upper hand to the Saudi-backed Salafists. The rivalry between the Salafis and the Brotherhood reflects not only political differences but also those between a majority of Gulf states led by Saudi Arabia and Qatar. One reason the Salafists did almost as well as the Brotherhood in post-revolt Egypt’s first parliamentary election was that they in many ways were closer to their grassroots than the Brotherhood. It’s the image of the upstart Salafi travelling to a poor neighboorhood in Cairo by public transport or cheap taxi versus the established Brotherhood politician arriving in his privately owned car.

Ultimately, however, the Salafis puritan worldview is even less attractive to a majority of admittedly religious Egyptians than that of the Brotherhood against which a majority revolted. The knowledge that the Salafis have strong roots in only a sliver of Egypt is what allowed the Nour Party to straddle both sides of the fence: first endorsing Morsi’s conservative constitution and then supporting the anti-Brotherhood revolt and military intervention.

Those Salafi groups and parties that were less adept than Nour at playing politics have threatened to revert to violence if political Islam is refused a seat at the table in the wake of Morsi’s downfall. It would be premature however to predict that Egypt is travelling down the brutal and bloody road that Algeria followed in 1991 after Islamists were denied the opportunity to consume their electoral victory. That road ended in years of civil war and a quarter of a million dead. The emergence this month of Ansar al-Sharia in the Sinai that claimed responsibility for attacks on the military, builds on the fact that since the successful crackdown on jihadist groups in the 1990s. There were only two groups that physically resisted the Mubarak regime: Bedouins in the remote, lawless desert and soccer fans in stadiums.

That is not to say that there will not be incidents of political violence. The Brotherhood unlike the Algerian Islamic Salvation Front (FIS) had a long history of moving from violence to non-violence and was initially allowed to take office. Despite its deep-seated sense of victimhood, critics within its ranks recognize that Morsi is as much as anyone to blame for the group’s predicament. In addition, Egypt unlike Algeria is in the throws of popular revolution with a majority. In contrast to Algeria, Egypt is supporting the role of the military. Its jihadists embarked on a non-violent path a decade ago after being crushed by the military. Egypt’s revolutionary fervor coupled with the role of the Nour Party is likely to continue to counter the assertion of Al Qaida leader Ayman al-Zawahiri and other jihadists that jihad is the only path that does not strengthen un-Islamic rule.

The intensity of the Saudi-led Gulf counter-revolution notwithstanding, it would be wrong to write the Brotherhood off. The Brotherhood has weathered adversity for much of its existence. It is its strength as well as it weakness. Nasser Square in Eastern Cairo and officials like Mohammed El-Beltagy – for whom there is an arrest warrant out – represent its strength. Hundreds of thousands are camped out in the Square much like anti-Mubarak protesters did in early 2011. El-Beltagy and others wanted Brotherhood executives are among them. The cost of executing their arrest warrants is not one the military and the security forces can afford. The Brotherhood’s mobilization capability and continued peaceful protest draw a stark contrast with the military’s arrest warrants and targeting of media and businesses owned by Brothers.

Moreover, Nasser Square constitutes living proof that Islamists in general and the Brotherhood in particular retain a significant popular base. The Brotherhood’s ability to maintain its base is fuelled by its sense of victimhood reinforced by the recent coup. Morsi’s failures have caused the Brotherhood significant damage. Some of that damage is countered by the failure of liberals, leftists, secularists and youth groups to develop credible alternatives in the 30 months since Mubarak’s downfall. They appear to be able to agree and mobilize only on what they do not want despite their creation of a loose umbrella, the National Salvation Front (NSF).

In a Pew Research Poll some six weeks before the coup, 52 percent of those queried gave Morsi a positive rating while only 45 percent approved of the NSF.[11] Morsi’s ratings are likely to have dropped since. The question is whether the NSF is the beneficiary.

There is little reason to believe that various pillars of the anti-Morsi movement would perform in government much better than the ousted president. Initial indications from the military-backed government suggest the anti-Morsi forces have failed to ignore one key message from the president’s downfall: ignore the economy at your peril. Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, and Kuwait – Gulf states hostile to the Brotherhood – have thrown the military and the military-backed government a life line with $12 billion in immediate aid. The aid has allowed the government to entertain rejecting like its predecessor a $4.8 billion International Monetary Fund (IMF) loan that would have forced it to introduce the unpopular reforms needed to tackle the economy’s structural problems.[12]

To be sure if Morsi would have had a checklist of what not to do, he would have ticked off every box. A different scenario may have unfolded if Khatter al Shatter, a powerhouse within the Brotherhood, would not have been disqualified for the presidential race because of a conviction under Mubarak on political grounds. Unlike Morsi, Al Shatter is a successful, wealthy businessman who may have better understood entrepreneurial spirit, risk, the give and take of negotiation, economic needs and communication concepts stemming from his familiarity with marketing. Morsi reinforced fault lines in which distrust and mutual suspicion run deep. Some of his measures like appointing party cronies to office that would have elsewhere been percieved as a normal practice deepened the divide and suspicion that the Brotherhood was not really committed to a pluralistic democracy.

Is There A Way Forward?

As a result, Egypt is rendered with two antagonistic camps that each sees itself as the defender of democracy and the spirit of the more than two year-old popular revolt. Each believes that it has the wherewithal and resources to fight this out in an environment in which mutual suspicion and distrust has been cemented.

Egypt’s coup puts the Brotherhood at a crossroads. It can opt for the Salafi model involving acceptance that its grassroots constitute a minority and that it needs to keep one foot in and one foot outside the system. Alternatively, it licks its wounds, learns lessons from its failure, and returns to its long-standing instinct of biding its time. The Brotherhood’s recent history and its long-standing desire to be a political group with a mass following, despite its most recent failure, mitigates towards the second choice. A key factor influencing its decision making is likely to be the military’s ability to demonstrate that it is serious about allowing the Brotherhood to compete as one among equals in the country’s next elections. Despite verbal statements by the military and the president to that effect, that is not the message the military has conveyed with its post-coup crackdown on the Brotherhood.

Complicating the Brotherhood’s decision-making process is the fact that it has seen a steady drain of its more progressive elements that started under Mubarak and gathered speed with the demise of the autocrat. That in part explains the difficulty the group has in making the transition from secrecy, its fear of external threats and a view of politics as a zero sum game associated with clandestinity and legal uncertainty to the kind of inclusiveness, outreach, and transparency that characterizes electoral politics. The question is whether the Brotherhood can shed its posture as a victim to recognize that what it decides, will – to a large extent– determine whether Egypt can progress towards democracy. Brotherhood participation in that process is a sine qua non.

The military crackdown allows the Brotherhood to delay facing its own demons. Continuous mobilization and confrontation with the military enables it to maintain cohesion and count on a repetition of history. The Brotherhood’s ranks and support swelled in the past whenever it was repressed. The crackdown also allows it to portray itself as the underdog and paper over divisions within the group that would likely only be deepened by debate over who is responsible for its most recent debacle. For now, the Brotherhood’s strategy is working witness the apparently large numbers of non-Brother Islamists who have joined the pro-Morsi protests out of fear of a return of the Mubarak-era repression.

The best case scenario for Egypt in the absence of a reform wing within the military that is able to assert itself is the emergence of an imperfect democracy, guided by the military in which over time the armed forces would be submitted to civilian control. Turkey is the obvious example but also an indictment of the failure of the US and Europe to help create the circumstances for real democracy. Prime Minister Erdogan was able to finally subject the military to civilian control because he was given a straight jacket: the prospect of European Union membership.

For all the efforts of the United States and the EU to strike a balance between their support for autocracy in a bid to maintain regional stability and  support for the development of a strong and healthy civil society they exempted the one force that inevitably would play a key role in any transition: the military. As a result in contrast to Southeast Asian nations, like the Philippines, Indonesia, Thailand and Myanmar, there is no reformist wing of the military in Egypt, or for that matter in any other Arab country, that can lead the country from autocracy to democracy. The absence of such a reformist wing means that the military sees transition as a threat rather than an opportunity. Stay tuned: there is more drama to come.

James M. Dorsey is a Senior Fellow at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies as Nanyang Technological University in Singapore, co-director of the Institute of Fan Culture of the University of Würzburg, and the author of the blog, The Turbulent World of Middle East Soccer.

[1] Mark Levine, ‘L’Etat, C’est Nous: Who will control the Egyptian state?,’ July 6, 2013, Al Jazeera,
[2] Ben Hubbard and David D. Kirkpatrick, ‘Sudden Improvements in Egypt Suggest a Campaign to Undermine Morsi,’ July 10, 2013, The New York Times,
[3] Gamal Abdel Nasser, Philosophy of the Revolution, 1959, Buffalo, Smith, Keynes & Marshall, p. 48; Shlomi Eldar, ‘When Nasser Came to Tahrir Square,’ July 12, 2013, Al Monitor,
[4] Idem.
[5] Hazem Kandil, ‘Soldiers, Spies and Statesmen, Egypt’s Road to Revolt, 2013, London:Verso, p. 30.
[6] Idem. P. 233.
[7] Baheyya, ‘Military Tutelage, Egyptian-Style,’ July, 16, 2013, Baheyya: Egypt Analysis and Whimsy,
[8] David D. Kirkpatrick, ‘Egypt Leaders’ Transition Plan Meets With Swift Criticism,’ July 10, 2013, The New York Times,
[9] Idem. Kandil,  p. 40.
[10] Hamza Hendawi and Maggie Michael, ‘Mohammed Morsi’s Final Days: Egypt’s Former President Was Isolated But Defiant,’ July 5, 2013, The Huffington Post,
[11] Pew Research Global Attitudes Project, ‘Egyptians Increasingly Glum,’ May 16, 2013
[12] New Egypt minister says no need for IMF aid now, July 15, 2013, Reuters,

Tuesday, July 23, 2013

Gulf rivalries spill on to the soccer pitch


By James M. Dorsey

The battle between Iran and various Gulf state for the identity of the energy-rich region has spilled onto its soccer pitches. It’s the Persian Gulf League vs. the Arabian Gulf League.

The struggle erupted when the United Arab Emirates, alongside Saudi Arabia, the Gulf’s most fervent opponent of political Islam, recently renamed its premier league as the Arabian Gulf League. The Iranian football federation, whose own top league, the Persian Gulf League adheres to the Islamic republic’s position in the war of semantics, responded by blocking the transfer of Iranian players to UAE clubs and breaking the contracts of those who had already moved.

The war has stopped Iran’s national team captain Javad Nekounam from being sold for $2 million to UAE club Al Sharjah. "We had to stop him from joining the Emirati league. We will ask the president (Mahmoud Ahmadinejad) to allocate" funds to compensate Mr. Nekounam for his loss, said Iranian football federation head Ali Kafashian.  Quoted by Fars news agency, Mr. Kafashian said another eight or nine players had also been prevented from moving to the UAE.

“The Persian Gulf will always be the Persian Gulf. Money is worthless in comparison to the name of my motherland. I received an offer from Al Sharjah three months ago and noone forced me to deny it, but I refused to do so myself. I would never join a team from a league offending the name of the Persian Gulf,” Mr. Nekounam said on Iranian state television.

The Iranian federation, which has long been micro-managed from behind the scenes by Mr. Ahmadinejad, made its move three weeks before the president steps down and is succeeded by president-elect Hassan Rouhani, a centrist politician and cleric who many hope will seek to improve strained relations with Saudi Arabia and other Gulf states.

The kingdom together with the UAE and Bahrain have accused Iran of interfering in their domestic affairs by fuelling Shiite anti-government protests. They are also at loggerheads over Syria with Iran backing embattled President Bashar al-Assad and the Gulf states supporting rebels opposed to him. The animosity has fuelled a widening sectarian gap in the region between Sunni and Shiite Muslims.

The UAE moreover has its own gripes against Iran because of the Islamic republic’s four decade-old occupation of three potentially oil-rich islands claimed by the Emirates that are located near key shipping routes at the entrance to the Strait of Hormuz. The UAE last year declared a boycott of Iranian players which it did not implement in a bid to pressure Iran to return the islands and put its controversial nuclear program under international supervision.

A year earlier, the UAE became with remarks made by its ambassador to the United States, Yousef al-Otaiba, the first Gulf state to publicly endorse military force to prevent Iran from becoming a nuclear power.

The UAE has in recent years further worked to link more closely its security to U.S. and European security interests. France inaugurated in Abu Dhabi its first military base in the region. The base, which comprises three sites on the banks of the Strait of Hormuz, houses a naval and air base as well as a training camp, and is home to 500 French troops. Alongside other smaller Gulf states, the UAE has further agreed to the deployment of U.S. anti-missile batteries on its territory.

UAE clubs signaled this week that they would comply with the Iranian boycott in a move that strengthens Emirati resistance to Iranian policies. "We don't want to be drawn into a political warfare and if it is true, the club management will take necessary action to avoid any confrontations," said an official of the Sharjah club that was negotiating with Mr. Nekounam. Mr. Kafashian said it was negotiating with Ajman to break the contract of Iran’s Mohammed Reza Khalatbari who had transferred before the Iranian football federation declared its decision to bar Iranian players from moving to the UAE.

James M. Dorsey is Senior Fellow at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies (RSIS), Nanyang Technological University in Singapore, co-director of the Institute of Fan Culture of the University of Würzburg and the author of the blog, The Turbulent World of Middle East Soccer.

Monday, July 22, 2013

The US Bogeyman in Post-coup Egypt

RSIS presents the following commentary The US Bogeyman in Post-coup Egypt 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. 136/2013 dated 22 July 2013

The US Bogeyman in Post-coup Egypt

By James M. Dorsey


The military overthrow of President Mohammed Morsi has presented the Obama
administration with a dilemma. While the US saw its tacit backing for the Saudi-backed
military intervention as a way of steering Egypt towards a more consensual transition to
democracy, the military viewed its toppling of Morsi as an opportunity to deal a body
blow to the Muslim Brotherhood. Consequently the US has become the bogeyman of
both the revolutionary youth movement and the Brothers.


THE SAUDI-supported military overthrow of Egyptian president Mohammed Morsi on 3
July 2013 following massive demonstrations against him throughout Cairo and Egypt
presented the United States with a dilemma. The Obama administration was hard-pressed
to deflect the perception of US’ tacit support for the coup while calling for an inclusive
electoral process that would enable the Muslim Brotherhood to contest again for
parliamentary and presidential seats which they had been elected to before.

The US refusal to call the ouster of Morsi  a coup, combined with its long-standing financial
assistance to various pro-democracy groups, was perceived as proof that the US backed
efforts to create an illiberal democracy in Egypt.

Between democracy and stability

Such an outcome would prevent the return to power of Islamists who would challenge
the military’s efforts to contain the wave of change sweeping across the Middle East and
North Africa. Such a nuanced US message is hard to convey in a zero-sum environment
where anti-Morsi forces see the Morsi government as not inclusive while the Muslim
Brotherhood view Morsi’s overthrow as illegal.

The US reaction to the Egypt coup shows that its policy hinges on two ideas: democracy
and stability, which constitutes the dilemma. As a result this perpetually causes it
problems in the region. Moreover it has limited options because the Saudis are countering
the efforts of any potential cut-off of  US aid  while what constitutes US power has changed.
A small but significant sign of this change is that both the Brotherhood and the Tamarud
(Rebel) youth movement that had petitioned Morsi’s resignation refused to meet the US
Deputy Secretary of State William Burns when he visited Cairo last week; he could only
meet the military leaders.

The US parted ways with Saudi Arabia on Egypt when the military coupled its toppling of
Morsi with a crackdown on the Brotherhood, with mass arrests, legal proceedings, targeting
of Brotherhood-affiliated businesses and closure of Islamist media. The US tacitly agreed to
the removal of Morsi but not a witchhunt against the Brotherhood which will lead to an
illiberal democracy at best, and further volatility rather than a way out of the crisis.

The mass protest by the Brotherhood as well as its resolve to fight the coup and what it
sees as the illegal ouster of Morsi in the streets of Cairo and other Egyptian cities
demonstrates that it may be down but it is certainly not out. The crackdown as well as the
nature of the military-approved roadmap for Egypt’s return to an elected government
guarantees that the country will be at best a guided democracy - restricted or controlled
behind-the-scenes by the military.

Ignore the economy at your peril

The Obama administration’s message is further called into question by the fact that its
support for pro-democracy groups included aid to non-governmental organisations (NGOs)
that served as fronts for anti-Morsi politicians and even a former US-based police officer
who advocated violence. The US position is likely to be complicated as the broad anti-Morsi
coalition -- whose left-wing, liberal, Salafi, pro-ancien regime and youth wings agree on
little else besides Morsi’s downfall -- inevitably falls apart.

With the exception of the supporters of former autocrat, Hosni Mubarak, who was toppled
by a popular revolt in March 2011, few members of the coalition are likely to be happy with a government that may well  roll back hard-fought freedoms acquired two years ago.

Initial indications from the interim government suggest a return to Mubarak-era economics
that sparked the uprising in the first place. Anti-Morsi forces have failed to heed a key lesson
from Morsi’s failure: ignore the economy at your peril. Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates
and Kuwait – Gulf states hostile to the Brotherhood – have thrown the military and the
government a life line with US$12 billion in immediate aid. This has allowed it to entertain
rejecting, like its predecessor, a US$4.8 billion International Monetary Fund (IMF) loan that
would have forced it to introduce the unpopular reforms needed to tackle the economy’s
structural problems.

A no-win situation

The US’ dilemma is indicative of the contradiction between the Obama administration’s
rhetoric and its policy as well as its struggle to balance lofty ideals -- promotion of democracy
and human rights -- with perceived short-term interests. Wholehearted support for change in
the Middle East and North Africa would put the US at odds with almost all its Arab allies that
are governed by repressive, autocratic leaders and could endanger continued Egyptian
adherence to the peace treaty with Israel.

The contradictions mean that the US in effect responds to developments on the ground on a
case-by-case basis. By definition, that ambiguity makes it a target against the backdrop of a
policy that for decades saw autocrats as guarantors of stability at the expense of increasingly disenfranchised and discontented populace seeking social justice and greater freedom.

US options in Egypt are limited. Saudi Arabia has already pledged to compensate Egypt should
the US cut off its US$1.5 billion in primarily military aid.  Moreover, US power is globally
reduced by the fact that the world has changed. It no longer deals primarily with dependent,
poor nations playing both ends of the cold war. These countries have become largely
middle-income nations, and have alternative options in a multi-polar world. As a result the US
faces a no-win situation in Egypt.

James M. Dorsey is Senior Fellow at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies (RSIS),
Nanyang Technological University in Singapore, co-director of the Institute of Fan Culture of
the University of Würzburg and the author of the blog, 

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Thursday, July 18, 2013

Football: a sporting barometer of European integration policies (ICSS Journal)

James M Dorsey reports on the successes that football teams have had in helping immigrant communities to integrate with wider society, observing that football can be a useful indicator of how well integration policies are working across Europe
The phones ring continuously at Kurdish football club Dalkurd FF, a hot team for agents and players. In 2009, it signed Bosnian international Nedim Halilovic and upcoming Algerian-Swedish star Nadir Benchenaa. More prominent signings are in the works. Started in 2004 with the support of top Swedish football club IK Brage as a project to create jobs for Kurdish youth, Dalkurd’s meteoric rise has put it on the international football map and turned it into a model of how a Middle Eastern immigrant community can address its social and economic problems and project its identity.
Dalkurd, one of three Swedish clubs that have fielded Europe’s most successful immigrant teams, was founded in Borlänge, a small iron and paper mill workers’ town of some 50,000 predominantly ethnically Swedish residents 220 km north of Stockholm. The club was initially launched as a project to create jobs for the youth. Dalkurd’s Swedish identity is clearly identifiable on maps; its minority Kurdish identity is not. That makes Dalkurd as much a product of the social and economic challenges facing immigrants in Sweden and elsewhere in Europe as it is of the carve-up of the Ottoman Empire in the early 20th century that turned Kurds into the largest nation without a homeland, and scattered them across the Middle East and the globe. It also highlights Sweden’s relative success in integrating minorities from southern Europe and North Africa who in the 1960s and 70s began immigrating to western and northern Europe, which at the time were encouraging labour migration.
Dalkurd, like other immigrant teams and players, turns football into a prism through which to view how Europe is being shaped by significant Muslim migration and uses the game as a barometer of successes and failures in integration policy. It also spotlights football’s ability to encourage bonding and the development of separate, often multi-layered, identities that help groups to find a common ground and also to differentiate themselves from one another. 
National teams, international squads
On a continental scale, a third of all goals in major European competitions in recent years were scored by either foreign-born players or those from immigrant families. These footballers account for almost half of the players in the continent’s national teams. Of the 2,600 professional players in the five top European leagues – England, Spain, Italy, Germany and France – 800 are expatriates born and recruited in an often Muslim country, and another 500 are immigrants or their descendants.
The three Swedish teams formed by Kurds or Assyrians/Syriacs – two groups that faced off with each other in the early 20th century in rugged eastern Turkey – thrive in a country that is the most welcoming in Europe to non-EU immigrants. Sweden stands out at a time of economic crisis as a nation that has been able to maintain a welfare state and pay for it too.As a result, Sweden hosts more than 25 Assyrian/Syriac clubs alone2 as well as a score of less-prominent Kurdish ones.

Dalkurd’s initial players were Kurdish migrants and refugees, and their descendants. Kurdish immigrants moved to Europe in search of more fertile economic pastures and to escape the suppression of their cultural identity and political rights in Turkey. Elvan Cicen, Dalkurd’s co-founder and sports director, says that, instinctively, the founders thought of naming the club Kurdistan, but on reflection opted for Dalkurd: Dal for Dalarna, the region where Borlänge is located, and Kurd for Kurdistan.3 Dalarna’s famous wooden horses frame the yellow sun on the red, white and green Kurdish flag that the club adopted as its own

“We are both Kurdish and Swedish. Football is our tool to integrate people. We took kids off the streets and away from the gangs. Everybody blamed the kids. But the real problem was the parents, who often were analphabets. The kids lived in different worlds in school and at home. The parents didn’t see what was happening and the kids weren’t integrated. We started involving the parents,” Cicen says.4 Dalkurd players have become role models in local high schools. They have sparked a cultural revolution, inspiring girls to form their own team with the support of Dalkurd managers who seek to overcome the objections put forward by conservative parents.

Dalkurd’s leadership, much like that of other immigrant communities, draws a distinction between integration and assimilation. “Integration is not assimilation. It’s learning a new culture without losing one’s own. Even if we had Kurdistan, I wouldn’t move there. Sure, my parents didn’t come here to be Swedes. They socialise only with the Kurdish part of Dalkurd. I’m trying to learn from both cultures. Having two cultures is being richer. We would lose if we were only a Kurdish team. They call us the Kurdish national team. That is not a problem but we don’t close the door to other people,” Cicen says.
Cicen’s philosophy is backed up by research that shows that sport serves as an integrative tool, or in the words of sports anthropologist Paul Verweel, an enabler of social participation5 through clubs that have an open culture and ideology6 with football being a sport more obsessed with ethnicity than many others.7 That open culture is further encouraged by the fact that both Dalkurd and the Assyrian teams appeal to a fan base that is not purely local but includes a regional, and even global, diaspora. Their self-image as teams that represent a nation rather than just a local community means they are rooted both in the municipality that hosts them and a more geographically diverse community. The internet allows them to maintain bonds across boundaries by broadcasting their matches live on the web and including far-away supporters in their fan networks.

For Kurds, the dream of nationhood is a more realistic one than it is for Assyrians. While Assyrians acknowledge that their hopes for a home state are likely to remain a dream, Kurds can point to an Iraqi Kurdistan as a state-in-waiting with all the building blocks in place. Tumultuous events in Syria are likely to result in Kurds gaining more rights and the government in Turkey has been willing to negotiate with guerrillas who fought a war over almost two decades in which at least 40,000 people died. Nonetheless, Dalkurd is making its mark not in Iraqi Kurdistan, Iran, Turkey or Syria, but in Sweden, where it has won league after league as a Swedish team with a dual identity. Half of its players are the sons and daughters of parents who sought relief from economic under-development and suppression; the remainder are Swedes and other foreigners. Even so, its fans largely include refugees, and their Swedish-born descendants, who fled religious and ethnic discrimination in Turkey and Iran, and Saddam Hussein’s ethnic cleansing of Kurds in northern Iraq. Dalkurd’s sponsors are predominantly Swedish-Kurdish businessmen. 
Kurdish members of Dalkurd’s board do not hide their empathy for the Kurdish Workers’ Party (PKK), the guerrilla group that fought Turkish security forces in south-eastern Turkey. The PKK has, in recent years, dropped its demand for an independent Kurdish state in favour of full cultural and political rights within the framework of the Turkish state. Officials in Iraqi Kurdistan, where the PKK has bases, suggest that the group has helped fund Dalkurd, a claim the club’s executives deny. Nevertheless, Dalkurd chairman Ramazan Kizil, a Kurdish immigrant from Turkey, was sentenced in 2010 in absentia to 10 months in prison in his homeland after giving a speech in his native Kurdish and campaigning on behalf of a pro-Kurdish political party. Kizil’s ambition is to take Dalkurd into the UEFA Europa League, where he dreams of unfurling the Kurdish alongside the Swedish flag. Iraqi Kurdistan has long campaigned unsuccessfully to become a member of FIFA with a status like that of Palestine, the only member without a country, or England, Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland, all of which compete separately rather than as the United Kingdom.
The VIVA World Cup
In doing so, he would put a dent in Kurdistan’s status as a football outcast. Kurdish players are international stars and Kurdish clubs dominate the Iraqi league, but the Kurdish flag flies only at the VIVA World Cup, a tournament that operates by a different set of standards to those of FIFA. VIVA competitors are teams that hail from a tribal area, an agricultural province, an occupied nation, a semi-autonomous region, an ancient city-state, a disenfranchised minority enclave or a nation that is not recognised by football’s international governing body. “The goal is ideological,” says Jean-Luc Kit, vice president of the New Federation Board, VIVA’s organiser. “It’s about allowing peoples to exist through sport.”
8 In VIVA, Iraqi Kurds, who are the closest to statehood than Kurds have ever come, and hosted the VIVA tournament in 2012, join fellow aspirant nations, such as Provence, the former Roman province of Raetia in Switzerland, Occitania, the Western Sahara, Darfur, Northern Cyprus, Zanzibar and Greenland – a country that FIFA does not recognise in part because it is too cold to grow adequate grass there.

The goal of integration
If Dalkurd advances into the UEFA Europa League, the club would also achieve another goal: it would symbolise Kurdish integration into Sweden in much the same way that the country’s two other top performing immigrant teams from the industrial town of Södertälje, 35 km south of Stockholm, did for the Assyrian/Syriac community. Ironically, the split among Assyrians in Södertälje, where they account for a quarter of the population, over how to refer to their community in Swedish – depending on whether one emphasises religion and church or the ancient national characteristics of the group – reflects the degree to which they have integrated into their adopted homeland. Assyrians, unlike Kurds, immigrated to Sweden in the knowledge that they were unlikely to ever witness the resurrection of their homeland as a national entity. “We were born here. We don’t know exactly what happened over there. Sweden is good. It is our country. We have no other country. I would never want to live in Turkey. I go there on vacation and come back. Turkey is not for our people. When we play there, they stamp our passports at the border and throw them at us. They don’t like us,” said Syriac football player Robert Massi.
The split within the community has sparked two rival football teams. Each sees itself as the national squad of a disenfranchised nation. There are also two satellite television stations that broadcast in multiple languages, two churches, and a playground for criminal and foreign interests. The differing interpretations of history and identity are highlighted in symbols and chants during Södertälje’s derby.9 Assyriska FF fans boast tattoos of the Assyrian god Ashur while those of Syrianska FC display Christian symbolism or Syriac script on their bare upper bodies. Assyriska fans rolled out a huge flag portraying a medieval patriarch with a sword in commemoration of the mass killing of Assyrians in 1915 and an image of the Ishtar Gate in ancient Babel during the 2009 derby.10 Similarly, fans of both clubs often lace their debates about their teams with historic and religious references designed to prove their differing perceptions on whether the Assyrian kingdom will ever be resurrected and to what degree Assyrians can be distinguished from their church. The differing expressions of support constitute a continuous negotiation of what it means to be an Assyrian or Syriac.11 

The football pitch serves as their platform for becoming part of a new society while at the same time maintaining past cultural identity and resisting efforts to marginalise their national and religious roots. As such, the battles on the pitch are an extension of issues Assyrians and Syriacs confront in their daily lives.
If history and cultural tradition defines the Assyrian/Syriac and Kurdish communities in Södertälje and Borlänge, so does concern about the blood-drenched popular revolt in Syria, intermittent clashes between Turkish security forces and the PKK in predominantly Kurdish south-eastern Turkey, and the spectre of the two meshing with Kurds becoming pawns in the struggle for the survival of Syrian president Bashar al-Assad’s embattled regime. Those fears are reinforced by: the influx of Christian refugees from Iraq and, more recently, Syria; concerns about the rise of Islamism and the Muslim Brotherhood in Turkey, Syria and post-revolt Middle Eastern and North African nations; links between some Assyrians and Israel; and the grip of pro-Assad elements on the institutions of one significant faction of Assyrians. 
The decision of Ignatius IV Hazim, the late patriarch of Antioch, to back Assad12 highlighted the split in the community and raised concerns that the community might be seen in Sweden as supportive of the Syrian leader’s brutal regime. Football managers fear that such an image could undermine their efforts to project themselves as symbols of integration in a country traditionally sympathetic to their community, which migrated to stay and constitutes an economic success story. The community has produced one former minister and a number of well-known journalists. Yet Assyrians and Syriacs, like the Kurds, feel that no matter how integrated they are and how good their Swedish is they continue to be viewed as outsiders by Swedish society. “I have been here for 40 years but I am still a foreigner. They never make you feel a part of their country. I did my military service here, I play golf and I speak Swedish. But because of my name and hair colour, they treat me differently. I’m still thankful,” says Assyriska executive Aziz Jacob.13 

The perception that there is support for Assad from a significant segment of the community strengthens Swedish suspicions of links between the clubs and organised crime. These were reinforced by the recent trial of 17 people, including two Syrian nationals, on murder, blackmail and other charges involving Assyrian football in Södertälje.14 The fears are most prevalent among officials and supporters of Syrianska FC, the team aligned with the church of Ignatius IV Hazim. Ghayath Moro, a former Syrianska board member who now serves as the unelected head of security, fled Syria in the 1970s and arrived in Sweden aboard a United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights (UNHCR) flight from Lebanon. Moro’s unelected position of power in Syrianska serves as evidence for its Assyriska rivals that theirs is a more forward-looking, professionally run club in which officials are held accountable. To Assyriska officials and supporters, professionalism is a code word for ‘better integrated’ in Sweden. Assyriska officials note that their meetings are conducted in Swedish while those of Syrianska are in Aramaic. Swedish football association officials point out that Syrianska is managed by a small core group that has full control while Assyriska has a more professionally constituted board.15 In many ways, the split in the community that has been formalised in rival football teams has become one about the nature and degree of integration, with football as a manifestation of differing perceptions of history and culture. The differing perceptions are also reflected in the Syrian Orthodox Church’s close-knit ties with Syrianska, which are viewed by Assyriska supporters as a dangerous mingling of national and cultural identity.

Lulu Shanku, a Syrianska star who in 2011 stopped playing for the Syrian national team, freely describes the corruption in Syrian football and the intimidation of players by the Assad regime – until Moro joins the conversation. Replying to a question posed to Shanku about the fate of Mosab Balhous, the Syrian national team’s goalkeeper who initially vanished two years ago after reportedly being accused by the Assad regime of being an Islamist, Moro says: “Mosab disappeared because of one of the gangsters against the regime.” According to a senior Syrian football official, now a refugee in Jordan, Balhous resurfaced in Syria in 2013, though he could not explain his two-year disappearance. 
Using terminology employed by the regime, Moro denounces Syrian protesters and rebels as “gangsters” and accuses the United States, Israel and Al Qaeda of waging war against Assad. “It is clear that the people want Assad,” Moro says. “The gangsters bombed our church in Khaldiye [an embattled neighbourhood of the city of Homs where Balhous originates and where another national goalkeeper is an opposition leader]. Too many Christians died. Christians are 10 per cent of the population. We have two ministers [in Syria]. Christians and Syrians have always lived in peace and had good relations.” He says the siege of Homs has, since the bombing, enabled Assad to “clean” the city. 
Younger Assyrians and Syriacs raised in Sweden, with its long history of social democratic government, feel uneasy with Moro’s unabashed support for a regime whose ruthlessness has made it a pariah. They too, however, express concerns about the fate of the Christian minority in a post-Assad era. They feel more comfortable with Moro’s expression of frustration with a perceived lack of acceptance by Swedish society. “The Swedes don’t want us to succeed. We’re ambitious, that is what sets us apart. We try all the time to build bridges. It is not easy because we are a foreign team and always will be a foreign team. They don’t see us as Swedes… and the Swedish media do not show our good side,” Moro says, referring to reports on Södertälje football’s links to criminal groups. Describing Syrianiska as a tool to keep youth from drifting into alcohol and drug abuse, Moro blames the city’s criminality on high unemployment and an influx of refugees from Iraq, many of whom are unregistered. He says an increase in police officers had made streets safe again.
The perception that society is failing to embrace the descendents of immigrants as equals is even stronger on German football pitches. Take the case of Nuri Sahin, for example. He was heralded a future star at age 16. He was the youngest player ever to compete in Germany’s Bundesliga, the country’s premier league. A German-born Turk with an infatuating smile, Sahin had secured his place in Germany’s national football team. The German Football Association did everything to persuade him to grab the opportunity, but to no avail. Sahin, like many top German-Turkish footballers, was determined to play for Turkey, asserting that he may have been born in Germany but that at the bottom line he was Turkish.16 In his first international game, he scored the winning goal – against Germany. 

Sahin’s refusal to play for Germany is the product of a country that until recently refused to give citizenship even to those children of immigrants that were born in Germany. Yet, it shocked Germans, who see their national football team as proof that they are successfully integrating their seven million immigrants. With German spoken almost as much in Istanbul clubs as it is in German clubs, Sahin’s decision and the talent drain it represents are a loss and a tell-tale sign of Germany’s struggle with the integration of immigrants.
At the same time, it also tells the story of football’s cross-fertilising effect, not only in Europe but beyond the continent’s borders. The German Turks bring German virtues to Turkey and badly needed talent to European clubs. Football further bridges identities and constitutes a sort of reverse reconciliation, as is the case with France, whose French-born players join teams of their parents’ heritage in Algeria and elsewhere across the Mediterranean. 

The cross-fertilisation effect
The cross fertilisation goes a step further. The ultras – militant, highly organised, highly politicised, street-battle hardened football fans in Egypt and elsewhere in the Middle East and North Africa – trace their roots and model themselves on similar groups in Italy and Serbia. It was a German-Tunisian football player, Sami Khedira, who sparked the first crisis in post-revolt Tunisia between the media and the Islamist Ennahda-led government. Staff at Attounissia newspaper were arrested in February 2013 for reprinting a revealing cover of GQ Magazine on which Khedira, dressed in a tuxedo, covers with his hands the breasts of his otherwise naked girlfriend, German model Lena Gercke. 
If Germany’s struggle with immigration is a story of two steps forward, one step back, across the Rhine in France, home to western Europe’s largest Muslim community, it’s one step forward, two steps back. Germans feted their 2010 multi-cultural World Cup squad as proof of the new Germany, a country where integration of Muslim immigrants is succeeding even if it remains cumbersome 10 years after offering, for the first time, citizenship to the German-born offspring of migrants. Germany’s success, moreover, loomed large against the backdrop of the disintegration in South Africa of the French national squad, a damming condemnation of France’s integration policy.
In fact, when the jet carrying the disgraced French team home landed on the tarmac in Paris it resembled an aircraft being sequestered for security or safety reasons. The plane stood there for an hour with its doors closed as the French media, government ministers and politicians denounced the football team as scum, trouble-makers and ‘guys with peas in their heads instead of brains,’ who were led by a captain who refused to sing the Marseillaise. The team made the kind of football history that Frenchmen would prefer to forget about: they were the first team ever to go on strike during a World Cup tournament and turned France into a global laughing stock. 
Right wingers compared the players, many of whom hailed from immigrant suburbs, to hooded youths who set fire to cars on Saturday nights. Centre-right ministers echoed far-right National Front leader Marine Le Pen’s denunciation of the team before the World Cup. She said the squad did not represent France and were more interested in commercial endorsements than national pride. Her comments came in response to Zinedine Zidane, the French-born scion of Algerian immigrants. Zidane is married to a Spaniard whose children have Christian names, and who is widely viewed as one of the best players of his generation. He describes himself as “first a Kabyle [Berber] from La Castellane [a neighborhood of Marseille], then an Algerian from Marseille, and then a Frenchman”.
This was all a far cry from the days of glory in 1998, when a victorious black-white-Arab team united the country. The question is: what went wrong? The answer to some degree is former French president Nicolas Sarkozy’s focus on money and individualism that reinforced social and urban segregation, hardened the religious and cultural divide and fed post-9/11 prejudice against Muslims. Yet football was an indicator of the disintegration that predated Sarkozy and led to the World Cup disgrace. 

The hijab as a cultural symbol
By the same token, Denmark, a country that in recent years has adopted a tougher stance on immigration, emerged as an unlikely catalyst in the acceptance of women who choose to wear the hijab on the football pitch. In 2008 the Danish Football Association backed Zainab al Khatib, a 15-year-old star striker of Palestinian origin who carried the banner in Europe for women demanding the right to play with their heads covered. Its support inspired a campaign to portray the headdress as a cultural rather than a religious symbol. That distinction ultimately persuaded the International Football Association Board, the body that governs the rules of professional football, to rule in 2012 that religiously observant women could wear a headdress that meets their cultural requirements, as well as standards of safety and security. The Danish support for Al Khatib was remarkable as it came at a time that parliaments in France, Belgium and Spain were imposing restrictions on Muslim women’s garb. 
Khatib became the first covered national football player in Europe to be successfully fielded by her team. She wears a black scarf tightly wrapped around her head when she unleashes her lightning fast and nimble skills, and extraordinary her ability to score with a header. The Danish association defended the headscarf of its Under-18 national team’s most promising forward as a cultural rather than a religious commitment and compared it to the headband of Brazilian midfielder Ronaldinho Gaucho, which also violates FIFA’s insistence that all players should be dressed identically. 
The Danish association’s support of Al Khatib set an example for the coalition of female European and Asian football executives and trainers, and Middle Eastern women players led by FIFA vice president Prince Ali Bin Al Hussein of Jordan, which successfully campaigned for FIFA and IFAB’s lifting of the ban on women’s headdress. 
The football pitch has become an important tool for integration and a measure of the success of European integration policies. As such, it constitutes a barometer that local, regional and national policymakers in Europe cannot afford to ignore.
James M Dorsey is a senior fellow at the S Rajaratnam School of International Studies at Singapore’s Nanyang Technological University, Co-director of the Institute of Fan Culture at the University of Würzburg, and the author of The Turbulent World of Middle East Soccer blog

  1. Anne Jolis, The Swedish Model for Europe, The Wall Street Journal, 21 May 2012 
  2. Swedish Football Association quoted by Carl Rommel, Real Play, Suryoyo identification in Sweden Through the Performative Space of Football, unpublished MA thesis, 15 September 2009, page 25
  3. Interview with Dalkurd Co-founder and Sports Director Elvan Cicen on 12 May 2012
  4. Idem
  5. Paul Verweel, Respect in en Door Sport, Uitgeverij SWP, Amsterdam, 2007, page 30
  6. M Douglas, Essays with Sociology of Perception, Routledge, London, 1982
  7. Verweel, idem, page 19
  8. Interview with the author on 1 June 2012
  9. Carl Rommel, Real Play, Suryoyo identification in Sweden Through the Performative Space of Football, unpublished MA thesis, 15 September 2009
  10. idem
  11. Carl Rommel, Playing with difference: football as a performative space for division among Suryoye migrants in Sweden, Soccer & Society, 2011, page 850, 12:6
  12. David Gardner, Middle East: Febrile and Fragmented, Financial Times19 May, 2012
  13. Interview with the author on 12 May, 2012
  14. 17 Charged in Footballer’s ‘Gang-war’ Slaying, The Local, 16 November 2011
  15. Interview with the author on May 16 2011
  16. Markus Flohr and Maximilian Popp, Turkey Recruits Players ‘Made in Germany’, Der Spiegel, 17 September 2010