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Soccer success has a price: Pressure builds to lift Egypt’s stadium ban

Dr. James M. Dorsey

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With Egypt qualifying for World Cup finals for the first time in 28 years and a crackdown on militant soccer fans that has put hundreds behind bars, pressure is mounting on the government to allow supporters back into stadiums from which they were banned for much of the last six years.

It has also sparked calls for the release of incarcerated, militant and politicized fans who have been at the core of Egypt’s 2011 popular revolt and subsequent anti-government protests.

The pressure puts Egyptian general-turned-president Abdel Fattah Al-Sisi on the spot as he associates himself with the success of Egypt’s national team. Thousands poured into the streets of Cairo, a city that effectively bans mass demonstrations, to celebrate Egypt’s defeat of Congo.

Taking advantage of the fact that soccer in Egypt evokes the same deep-seated passion that religion does, Mr. Al-Sisi arranged to meet the team shortly after the its victory. The president rewarded the players with a $85,000 bonus each.

Mr. Al-Sisi’s celebration has, however, a dark side. Egyptians have largely been barred from stadiums since the day before the 2011 popular revolt erupted that forced President Hosni Mubarak to resign after 30 years in office. The ban is intended to prevent stadiums from again becoming venues for anti-government protest.

The government twice temporarily lifted the ban in a bid to test the waters. Both instances resulted in incidents in which tens of militant soccer fans died.

Some 74 fans were killed in 2012, the only period since 2011 in which the ban was lifted for a longer period, in a politically loaded brawl in the Suez Canal city of Port Suez for which many believe the military and security forces were responsible. The ban, effective for domestic rather than international matches, was re-imposed immediately after the incident, the worst in Egyptian sporting history, and has been in place since.

Another 20 were killed in a stampede in 2015 caused by security forces’ handling of the situation. Authorities had wanted to test the waters by agreeing to allow a limited number of fans into a Cairo stadium for a domestic match. An Egyptian court last month sentenced two men to life in prison and a dozen others to jail terms ranging from two to ten years for the incident, which authorities blamed on the outlawed Muslim Brotherhood.

Soccer fans, who constituted the backbone of the student movement, drove mass student protests against Mr. Al-Sisi after he seized power in 2013 in a military coup that toppled Egypt’s first and only democratically elected president. The movement was brutally crushed as security forces took physical control of Egyptian universities.

Egypt’s parliament began this week discussing a lifting of the domestic ban after 60,000 fans attended without incident the World Cup qualifier in the Borg El-Arab stadium in the Mediterranean Sea city of Alexandria against Congo. Authorities allowed a maximum of 10,000 spectators to attend past international games in a bid to avoid censorship by world soccer body FIFA and ensure that the government did not get blamed for potential setbacks because fans were unable to give the team the necessary moral support.

Earlier attempts to lift the ban stranded on resistance from the interior ministry and security forces as well as a reluctance by clubs to shoulder the expense of engaging private security firms.

“We need the audience to come back again, everyone can see that that there is no acts of violations or destruction,” said New Wafd Part deputy Hany Abaza.

The parliament debate was accompanied by calls by deputies for the release from prison of hundreds of ultras or militant fans, whose support groups were banned in 2015 as terrorist organizations, and granting them too access to stadiums.

Haitham al-Hariri, one of parliament’s few critical members, asked Mr. Al-Sisi to pardon the ultras. Muhammad al-Husini, another deputy, added his voice, saying that “we want President Al-Sisi to release the Ultras tomorrow or the day after tomorrow.”

Hundreds of ultras, battle-hardened, anti-authoritarian fans opposed to the commercialization of soccer and with a history of violent clashes with security forces, have been arrested in recent months for wearing jerseys with the number 74 on them in commemoration of those killed in Port Said, attempting to attend an international match, and disrupting the public order.

Some 500 members of Ultras White Knights (UWK), the militant support group of storied Cairo club Al Zamalek SC, were arrested in July as they tried to attend their team’s match against Libya’s Al Ahli Tripoli. About half have since been released; the others were scheduled to be tried by a military court. Pictures on social media showed fans ripping seats out of the Borg al-Arab stadium and throwing flares and other objects onto the pitch. Fans launched an online campaign with the hashtag #NoToMilitaryTrialsForFans.

“What is happening is an act of revenge against ultras for their participation in the January 2011 Revolution,” one fan, who escaped arrest, said.

Ultras pose a challenge to Mr. Al-Sisi because of their rejection of autocracy and their analysis of the power structure of Egyptian soccer. Fiercely independent, ultras view themselves as the only true supporters of their club and stake a claim to ownership of the stadium in a country that tolerates no uncontrolled public space. The ultras see club executives as corrupt pawns of the government and players as mercenaries who play for the highest bidder.

Said human rights activist Dalia Abdel Hamid: “The continued security crackdown on ultras reflects the state’s fear over the ways in which they organize, not only to cheer on their teams, but also to mourn fans who have died”

Dr. James M. Dorsey is a senior fellow at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies, co-director of the University of Würzburg’s Institute for Fan Culture, and the author of The Turbulent World of Middle East Soccer blog, a book with the same title, Comparative Political Transitions between Southeast Asia and the Middle East and North Africa, co-authored with Dr. Teresita Cruz-Del Rosario and three forthcoming books, Shifting Sands, Essays on Sports and Politics in the Middle East and North Africaas well as Creating Frankenstein: The Saudi Export of Ultra-conservatism and China and the Middle East: Venturing into the Maelstrom.

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Middle East

Turkey and the time bomb in Syria

Mohammad Ghaderi

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The Turkish attack on northern Syria has provided conditions for ISIS militants held in camps in the region to escape and revitalize themselves.

Turkey launched “Operation Peace Spring” on Wednesday October 9, claiming to end the presence of terrorists near its borders in northern Syria. Some countries condemned this illegal action of violation of the Syrian sovereignty.

The military attack has exacerbated the Syrian people’s living condition who live in these areas. On the other hand, it has also allowed ISIS forces to escape and prepare themselves to resume their actions in Syria. Before Turkish incursion into northern Syria, There were many warnings that the incursion would prepare the ground for ISIS resurgence. But ignoring the warning, Turkey launched its military attacks.

Currently, about 11,000 ISIS prisoners are held in Syria. ISIS has claimed the responsibility for two attacks on Qamishli and Hasakah since the beginning of Turkish attacks.

Meanwhile, Donald Trump said that Turkey and the Kurds must stop ISIS prisoners from fleeing. He urged European countries to take back their citizens who have joined ISIS.

It should be noted that the U.S. is trying to prove that ISIS has become stronger since the U.S. troops pulled out before the Turkish invasion, and to show that Syria is not able to manage the situation. But this fact cannot be ignored that ISIS militants’ escape and revival were an important consequence of the Turkish attack.

Turkish troops has approached an important city in the northeast and clashed with Syrian forces. These events provided the chance for hundreds of ISIS members to escape from a camp in Ayn Issa near a U.S.-led coalition base.

 The camp is located 35 kilometers on the south of Syria-Turkey border, and about 12,000 ISIS members, including children and women, are settled there. The Kurdish forces are said to be in charge of controlling these prisoners.

Media reports about the ISIS resurgence in Raqqa, the former ISIS stronghold, cannot be ignored, as dozens of terrorists have shot Kurdish police forces in this city. The terrorists aimed to occupy the headquarters of the Kurdish-Syrian security forces in the center of Raqqa.  One of the eyewitnesses said the attack was coordinated, organized and carried out by several suicide bombers, but failed.

In response to Turkey’s invasion of Syria, the Kurds have repeatedly warned that the attack will lead to release of ISIS elements in the region. Turkey’s President Recep Tayyib Erdogan denied the reports about the escape of ISIS prisoners and called them “lies”.

European officials fear that ISIS prisoners with European nationality, who have fled camps, will come back to their countries.

Kurdish forces are making any effort to confront Turkish troops in border areas, so their presence and patrol in Raqqa have been reduced.

Interestingly, the Turkish military bombarded one of temporary prisons and caused ISIS prisoners escaping. It seems that ISIS-affiliated covert groups have started their activities to seize the control of Raqqa. These groups are seeking to rebuild their so-called caliphate, as Kurdish and Syrian forces are fighting to counter the invading Turkish troops. Families affiliated with ISIS are held in Al-Hol camp, under the control of Kurdish forces. At the current situation, the camp has turned into a time bomb that could explode at any moment. Under normal circumstances, there have been several conflicts between ISIS families in the camp, but the current situation is far worse than before.

There are more than 3,000 ISIS families in the camp and their women are calling for establishment of the ISIS caliphate. Some of SDF forces have abandoned their positions, and decreased their watch on the camp.

The danger of the return of ISIS elements is so serious, since they are so pleased with the Turkish attack and consider it as an opportunity to regain their power. There are pictures of ISIS wives in a camp in northern Syria, under watch of Kurdish militias, showing how happy they are about the Turkish invasion.

In any case, the Turkish attack, in addition to all the military, political and human consequences, holds Ankara responsible for the escape of ISIS militants and preparing the ground for their resurgence.

Currently, the camps holding ISIS and their families are like time bombs that will explode if they all escape. Covert groups affiliated with the terrorist organization are seeking to revive the ISIS caliphate and take further actions if the Turkish attacks continue. These attacks have created new conflicts in Syria and undermined Kurdish and Syrian power to fight ISIS.

From our partner Tehran Times

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Middle East

The Turkish Gambit

Dr. Arshad M. Khan

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The only certainty in war is its intrinsic uncertainty, something Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan could soon chance upon.  One only has to look back on America’s topsy-turvy fortunes in Iraq, Afghanistan and even Syria for confirmation.

The Turkish invasion of northeastern Syria has as its defined objective a buffer zone between the Kurds in Turkey and in Syria.  Mr. Erdogan hopes, to populate it with some of the 3 million plus Syrian refugees in Turkey, many of these in limbo in border camps.  The refugees are Arab; the Kurds are not.

Kurds speak a language different from Arabic but akin to Persian.  After the First World War, when the victors parceled up the Arab areas of the Ottoman Empire, Syria came to be controlled by the French, Iraq by the British, and the Kurdish area was divided into parts in Turkey, Syria and Iraq, not forgetting the borderlands in Iran — a brutal division by a colonial scalpel severing communities, friends and families.  About the latter, I have some experience, having lived through the bloody partition of India into two, and now three countries that cost a million lives.   

How Mr. Erdogan will persuade the Arab Syrian refugees to live in an enclave, surrounded by hostile Kurds, some ethnically cleansed from the very same place, remains an open question.  Will the Turkish army occupy this zone permanently?  For, we can imagine what the Kurds will do if the Turkish forces leave.

There is another aspect of modern conflict that has made conquest no longer such a desirable proposition — the guerrilla fighter.  Lightly armed and a master of asymmetric warfare, he destabilizes. 

Modern weapons provide small bands of men the capacity and capability to down helicopters, cripple tanks, lay IEDs, place car bombs in cities and generally disrupt any orderly functioning of a state, tying down large forces at huge expense with little chance of long term stability.  If the US has failed repeatedly in its efforts to bend countries to its will, one has to wonder if Erdogan has thought this one through.

The Israeli invasion of Lebanon in 1982 is another case in point.  Forever synonymous with the infamous butchery at Sabra and Shatila by the Phalange militia facilitated by Israeli forces, it is easy to forget a major and important Israeli goal:  access to the waters of the Litani River which implied a zone of occupation for the area south of it up to the Israeli border.

Southern Lebanon is predominantly Shia and at the time of the Israeli invasion they were a placid group who were dominated by Christians and Sunni, even Palestinians ejected from Israel but now armed and finding refuge in Lebanon.  It was when the Israelis looked like they were going to stay that the Shia awoke.  It took a while but soon their guerrillas were harassing Israeli troops and drawing blood.  The game was no longer worth the candle and Israel, licking its wounds, began to withdraw ending up eventually behind their own border.

A colossal footnote is the resurgent Shia confidence, the buildup into Hezbollah and new political power.  The Hezbollah prepared well for another Israeli invasion to settle old scores and teach them a lesson.  So they were ready, and shocked the Israelis in 2006.  Now they are feared by Israeli troops.   

To return to the present, it is not entirely clear as to what transpired in the telephone call between Erdogan and Trump.  Various sources confirm Trump has bluffed Erdogan in the past.  It is not unlikely then for Trump to have said this time, “We’re leaving.  If you go in, you will have to police the area.  Don’t ask us to help you.”  Is that subject to misinterpretation?  It certainly is a reminder of the inadvertent green light to Saddam Hussein for the invasion of Kuwait when Bush Senior was in office. 

For the time being Erdogan is holding fast and Trump has signed an executive order imposing sanctions on Turkish officials and institutions.  Three Turkish ministers and the Defense and Energy ministries are included.  Trump has also demanded an immediate ceasefire.  On the economic front, he has raised tariffs on steel back to 50 percent as it used to be before last May.  Trade negotiations on a $100 billion trade deal with Turkey have also been halted forthwith.  The order also includes the holding of property of those sanctioned, as well as barring entry to the U.S.

Meanwhile, the misery begins all over again as thousands flee the invasion area carrying what they can.  Where are they headed?  Anywhere where artillery shells do not rain down and the sound of airplanes does not mean bombs.

Such are the exigencies of war and often its surprising consequences. 

Author’s Note:  This piece appeared originally on Counterpunch.org

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Middle East

Could Turkish aggression boost peace in Syria?

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On October 7, 2019, the U.S. President Donald Trump announced the withdrawal of American troops from northeast Syria, where the contingent alongside Kurdish militias controlled the vast territories. Trump clarified that the decision is connected with the intention of Turkey to attack the Kurdish units, posing a threat to Ankara.

It’s incredible that the Turkish military operation against Kurds – indeed the territorial integrity of Syria has resulted in the escape of the U.S., Great Britain, and France. These states essentially are key destabilizing components of the Syrian crisis.

Could this factor favourably influence the situation in the country? For instance, after the end of the Iraqi war in 2011 when the bulk of the American troops left the country, the positive developments took place in the lives of all Iraqis. According to World Economics organization, after the end of the conflict, Iraq’s GDP grew by 14% in 2012, while during the U.S. hostilities the average GDP growth was about 5,8%.

Syria’s GDP growth should also be predicted. Not right away the withdrawal of U.S., French, British, and other forces, but a little bit later after the end of the Turkish operation that is not a phenomenon. The Turkish-Kurdish conflict has been going on since the collapse of the Ottoman Empire when Kurds started to promote the ideas of self-identity and independence. Apart from numerous human losses, the Turks accomplished nothing. It is unlikely that Ankara would achieve much in Peace Spring operation. The Kurds realize the gravity of the situation and choose to form an alliance with the Syrian government that has undermined the ongoing Turkish offensive.

Under these circumstances, Erdogan could only hope for the creation of a narrow buffer zone on the Syrian-Turkish border. The withdrawal of the Turkish forces from the region is just a matter of time. However, we can safely say that the Turkish expansion unwittingly accelerated the peace settlement of the Syrian crisis, as the vital destabilizing forces left the country. Besides, the transfer of the oil-rich north-eastern regions under the control of Bashar Assad will also contribute to the early resolution of the conflict.

It remains a matter of conjecture what the leaders of Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, and Russia agreed on during the high-level talks. Let’s hope that not only the Syrians, but also key Gulf states are tired of instability and tension in the region, and it’s a high time to strive for a political solution to the Syrian problem.

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