By James M. Dorsey
Play the Game 21 March 2011
James M. Dorsey is an award-winning journalist and blogger with an in-depth knowledge on sport and the Middle East. This article is the first of three in an article-suite on how sport has been and is an important and considerable influencer on the current upheavals in the Middle East and North African countries.
Football matches are but one battle fought on the pitches of North Africa. The other is the struggle for the region’s future.
With fans emerging as key forces in the anti-government protests that toppled the presidents of football-crazy Egypt and Tunisia and as both hired guns for Libyan leader Col. Moammar Gadaffi and participants in the rebellion to overthrow his 41-year old rule, authorities in all three countries have banned professional matches since the beginning of this year.
Popular pressure earlier this month persuaded Egypt’s reluctant military authorities to authorize a resumption of the country’s league on April 15, two months after the fall of President Hosni Mubarak.
Football fans as a force to be reckoned with
Concern that the football pitch could become a renewed rallying point for public pressure on the post-revolt governments of Egypt and Tunisia is rooted in the pitch’s political history as well as the fact that football fans emerged from the successful overthrow of Mubarak and Tunisian President Zine Abedine Ben Ali with a heightened sense of empowerment. That sense coupled with the organizational skills and street battle experience that the ultras of Cairo arch rivals Al Ahly SC and Al Zamalek SC brought to the protesters’ stronghold on the city’s Tahrir Square makes them a force to be reckoned with.
The ultras’ influence was evident in the organization and social services as well as the division of labour established on the square as thousands camped out for 18 days until Mubarak was left no choice but to step down on February 11. Much in the way that a municipality would organize services, protestors were assigned tasks such as the collection of trash. They wore masking tape on which their role as for example medics or media contacts was identified in writing.
Street battle-hardened ultras meanwhile joined those patrolling the perimeters of the square and controlling entry. Their experience in brawls with rival fans and battles with the police benefitted them in the struggle for control of the square when the president’s loyalists employed brute force in a bid to dislodge them. The ultras’ battle order included designated rock hurlers, specialists in turning over and torching vehicles for defensive purposes and a machine like quartermaster crew delivering projectiles like clockwork on cardboard platters.
Officially, the ultras - fanatical fan organizations modelled on Italy’s autonomous, often violent fan clubs - participated in the protests as individuals rather than as representatives of their organizations. Yet, they did so with the tacit sanctioning of their groups, whose membership represents a cross section of Egyptian society.
The ultras’ key role in the revolt extends a tradition of soccer’s close association with politics in Egypt that dates back to when the then British colonial power introduced the game to the North African country in the early 20th century.
Founded about a century ago as an Egyptians only meeting place for opponents of Britain’s colonial rule, Al Ahly, which means The National, was a nationalistic rallying ground for common Egyptians. Its players still wear the red colours of the pre-colonial Egyptian flag.
Dressed in white, Zamalek, which first was named Al Mohtalet or The Mix and then Farouk in honour of the hated and later deposed Egyptian monarch, was the club of the British imperial administrators and military brass as well as the Cairo upper class. The clubs’ bitter feud has been no less political since Egypt became independent.
Football as a political means for both rulers and opposition
The ultras emerged in Egypt as soccer increasingly became a political football in recent years. The Mubarak regime, much like Gadaffi and Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, viewed the game as a way of garnering popularity and diverting attention away from popular grievances while its opponents saw the pitch as a rare venue to express pent-up anger and frustration.
US embassy cables disclosed by Wikileaks describe how opposition leader Ayman Nour, the leader of the Kifaya movement who was jailed in on forgery charges to stop him from challenging Mubarak in presidential elections, was welcomed in 2009 at a soccer match by spectators shouting ‘Down with Mubarak.’
The cables also detail the fuelling of nationalist emotions by Mubarak’s sons Gamal, who the president was believed to be grooming as his successor, and Alaa, to shore up the regime’s image after riots erupted in the wake of a crucial 2009 World Cup qualifier in which Algeria dashed Egypt’s hopes of playing in the finals in South Africa. A November 25, 2009 cable said the only time Gamal displayed emotion during a presentation on healthcare was when he discussed the violence that took place in the Sudanese capital Khartoum where the match was played.
“He leaned forward in his seat and told the audience that Egyptians must have national pride. Growing increasingly passionate and raising his voice for the first time, Gamal stated that our voice must be heard in the Arab World,” the cable said. It quoted Gamal as saying that he had stayed in Khartoum to accompany the Egyptian team to the airport to ensure their safe departure from Sudan.
With Mubarak and his sons fanning the flames, the soccer riots brought the world for the first time since the 1969 football war between Honduras and El Salvador to the brink of a soccer-inspired conflict. Egypt recalled its ambassador to Algeria while Algeria slapped Egyptian-owned Orascom Telecom’s Algerian operation with a tax bill of more than half a billion dollars. Libyan leader Col. Moammer Gadaffi intervened to prevent the dispute from escalating.
Soccer also goes a long way to explain the military's popular support in football-crazy Egypt, which last month forced President Hosni Mubarak to resign after 30 years in office. At least half of the Egyptian Premier League's 16 teams are owned by the military, the police, government ministries or provincial authorities. Military-owned construction companies built 22 of Egypt's soccer stadiums.
Protests in Tunisia
Much like Egypt, anti-government protests on the football pitch preceded the mass demonstrations that erupted in Tunisia in December and sparked the wave of protests sweeping the Middle East and North Africa. Tunisian fans jeered Confederation of African Football (CAF) president Issa Hayatou in November during the Orange CAF Champions League return final between Esperance Tunis and TP Mazembe from the Democratic Republic of Congo. The fans charged that the Togolose referee in the first encounter between the two teams in Congo in which Esperance lost had been corrupt and waved banknotes at Hayatou. The protests led to clashes between the fans who like their counterparts in Egypt are street battled-hardened and police.
As far back as 2005, dissatisfaction with the Ben Ali regime started to surface at football matches. Fans shouted anti-Ben Ali slogans during the Tunisia Cup final that year and insulted the Tunisian leader’s son Chiboub, forcing him to leave the match prematurely. Football fans, many of whom are unemployed, recognized themselves in Mohamed Bouazizi, a Tunisian street vendor who sparked the demonstrations that led to Ben Ali’s downfall by setting himself on fire in protest against the confiscation of his wares and the harassment and humiliation he suffered at the hands of a municipal official.
Benghazi vs. Tripoli
Gadaffi’s controversial football-playing son, Saadi, a leader in his father’s fight for survival, took manipulation of the game to garner public support to the extreme. Football became an arena of confrontation between Gadaffi supporters and opponents long before the eruption last month of the revolt. Resentment against the Gadaffis in the eastern opposition stronghold of Benghazi started to build up when the fortunes of the city’s soccer team, Al Ahli (Benghazi), tumbled on and off the field a decade ago when Saadi took a majority stake and became captain of it its Tripoli namesake and arch rival.
Saadi’s association with Al Ahli (Tripoli) meant that the prestige of the regime was on the line whenever the team played. Politics rather than performance dictated the outcome of its matches. Journalist and author Brian Whitacker describes a match in the summer of 2000 in which Al Ahli Benghazi had a 1:0 lead on Al Ahli Tripoli in the first half, “but in the second half the referee helpfully imposed two penalties against it and allowed al-Ahli Tripoli an offside goal.” Benghazi's players walked off the pitch but were ordered to return by Saadi's guards and Tripoli won 3-1.
Whitacker also recalls a July 20, 2000 game that Al Ahli (Benghazi) played against a team from Al-Baydah, the home town of Saadi’s mother and the place where the first anti-Gadaffi demonstrations against corruption in public housing were staged last month. Benghazi fans were so outraged by a penalty that they invaded the pitch, forcing the game to be abandoned. Off the pitch, the angry fans set fire to the local branch of the Libyan Football Federation headed by Saadi. In response, the government dissolved the Benghazi club, demolished its headquarters and arrested 50 of its fans. Public outrage over the retaliation against Benghazi forced Saadi to resign as head of the federation, only to be reinstated by his father in response to the federation’s alleged claim that it needed Gadaffi’s son as its leader.
The Benghazi – Tripoli rivalry is still being played out as opponents aided by the imposition of a no-fly-zone above Libya by an international military coalition and supporters of Gadaffi battle for the future of Libya. For Al Ahli (Benghazi) fans, the wresting of control of the city from Gadaffi’s forces represents payback time. By contrast, Al Ahli (Tripoli) fans last month cheered Saadi as he toured Tripoli’s Green Square on the roof of a car, waving and shaking the hands of supporters, who chanted “God, Libya and Moammar only.”