|Soccer Clubs Central to Ending Egypt's "Dictatorship of Fear"
by Dave Zirin
OVER THE DECADES THAT have marked the tenure of Egypt's
"President for Life" Hosni Mubarak, there has been one
consistent nexus for anger, organization, and practical
experience in the ancient art of street fighting: the
country's soccer clubs. Over the past week, the most
organized, militant fan clubs, also known as the "ultras,"
have put those years of experience to ample use.
Last Thursday, the Egyptian Soccer Federation announced that
they would be suspending all league games throughout the
country in an effort to keep the soccer clubs from
congregating. Clearly this was a case of too little, too
late. Even without games, the football fan associations have
been front and center organizing everything from the
neighborhood committees that have been providing security
for residents, to direct confrontation with the state
police. In an interview with Al Jazeera, Alaa Abd El Fattah,
a prominent Egyptian blogger said, "The ultras -- have
played a more significant role than any political group on
the ground at this moment." Alaa then joked, "Maybe we
should get the ultras to rule the country."
The involvement of the clubs has signaled more than just the
intervention of sports fans. The soccer clubs' entry into
the political struggle also means the entry of the poor, the
disenfranchised, and the mass of young people in Egypt for
whom soccer was their only outlet.
As soccer writer James Dorsey wrote this week, "The
involvement of organized soccer fans in Egypt's
anti-government protests constitutes every Arab government's
worst nightmare. Soccer, alongside Islam, offers a rare
platform in the Middle East, a region populated by
authoritarian regimes that control all public spaces, for
the venting of pent-up anger and frustration."
Dorsey's statement proved prophetic on Sunday when it was
announced that Libya's government had instructed the Libyan
Football Federation to ban soccer matches for the
foreseeable future. Sources in the government said that this
was done to head off the mere possibility that Egypt's
demonstrations could spill over the border. The fear was
that soccer could be the artery that would connect the
challenge to Mubarak to a challenge to former U.S. foe
turned ally Muammar al-Gaddafi.
The critical role of Egypt's soccer clubs may surprise us,
but only if we don't know the history that soccer clubs have
played in the country. For more than a century, the clubs
have been a place where cheering and anti-government
organizing have walked together in comfort. Egypt's most
prominent team, Al Ahly, started its club in 1907 as a place
to organize national resistance against British colonial
rule. The word Al Ahly translated into English means "the
national," to mark their unapologetically political stance
against colonialism. Al Ahly has always been the team with
the most political fans. It's also a team that's allowed its
players to make political statements on the pitch even
though this is in direct violation of FIFA dictates. It's no
coincidence that it was Al Ahly's star player Mohamed
Aboutrika, aka "the Smiling Assassin," who in 2008 famously
raised his jersey revealing the T-shirt, which read
"Sympathize with Gaza."
Of course there are thousands in the streets of Egypt that
have no connection to the Ultras of Al Ahly or any of the
clubs in Egypt. But soccer clubs, whether in Europe, Africa,
Asia, or the Middle East, have a long history as a place
where anger, frustration and dissent been channeled.
Sometimes it's been channeled toward ill-ends like racist
hooliganism or even as instruments of ethnic cleansing
during the breakup of Yugoslavia. Other times, as in the
Ivory Coast, it's been a tool for unity during civil war.
Even more than either of those options, the soccer clubs
have been a safety valve where people have just let off
Today in Egypt they're at the heart of a rich mosaic of
resistance. They stand as a remarkable example of the
capacity that sports has to bring people together. An
anonymous member of Mubarak's ruling national party said to
the government newspaper, Al Ahram, on Wednesday, "What we
saw on the streets ... are not just Muslim Brotherhood
members or sympathizers but Egyptians at large; those are
the Egyptians that you would see supporting the football
national team - and their show of frustration was genuine
and it had to be accommodated." Pity the government official
with the sense to realize the enormity of the challenge in
the streets and the naivete to think it can be accommodated.
The great author of Soccer in Sun and Shadow, Eduardo
Galeano, in a different time and different context once
wrote, "The Dictatorship of Fear is Over." Truer words about
Egypt could never be spoken.
[Dave Zirin is the author of "Bad Sports: How Owners are
Ruining the Games we Love" (Scribner) and just made the new
documentary "Not Just a Game." Contact him at