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Egyptian ultras: Down but not out

Dr. James M. Dorsey

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Photo by Karim Abdel Aziz/Egypt Today

Egyptian general-turned-president Abdel Fattah Al-Sisi won a second term virtually unchallenged in what is widely seen as a flawed election. The run-up to the poll, including a soccer protest, suggests, however, that it will take more than a democratic whitewash to get a grip on simmering discontent.

The protest in early March signalled that militant soccer fans who played a key role in the 2011 toppling of President Hosni Mubarak may be down but not out.

To be sure, the differences between 2011 and 2018 could not be starker. Mr. Al-Sisi presides over the worst repression in recent Egyptian history that has targeted even the slightest form of dissent, making Mr. Mubarak’s rule look relatively benign.

Potential challengers in the recent election were either jailed or persuaded, sometimes in a heavy-handed manner, to withdraw their candidacy.

They included serving and former military officers as well as Mortada Mansour, a controversial member of parliament and head of starred Cairo club Al Zamalek SC. It was Mr. Mortada’s withdrawal that prompted a last-minute race to find a non-threatening challenger who could muster the endorsement by at least 26 members of parliament and 47,000 voters in time to meet the nomination deadline.

Mousa Mostafa Mousa, a largely unknown politician who had earlier declared his support for Mr. Al-Sisi, registered 15 minutes before the deadline, ensuring that the government could claim that the election would be competitive. Mr. Moussa secured three percent of the vote, while Mr. Al-Sisi won a 92 percent landslide.

Among Egypt’s estimated 60,000 political prisoners are scores of militant supporters of soccer clubs who were not only prominent in the 2011 uprising but also in subsequent anti-government demonstrations, including a wave of student protests in the wake of the 2013 coup that initially brought Mr. Al-Sisi, when he was still serving as Egypt’s top military commander, to power.

The student protests, that turned the country’s universities into security fortresses, were brutally squashed by law enforcement forces abetted by the adoption of a draconic anti-protest law, tight control of the media, and a crackdown on non-governmental organizations.

The seeming revival of the ultras comes at a time that soccer is re-emerging in Egypt as one of the few, if not the only valve for the release of pent-up frustration and escape from daily worries in an economic environment of austerity that has improved macro-economic indicators while fuelling inflation and making it harder for many Egyptians to make ends meet.

In the latest incident, seventeen supporters of storied Cairo club Al Ahli SCS, which traces its history back to the early 20th century when it was founded as an anti-monarchical club whose supporters played an important part in the 1919 anti-British revolution that paved the way for Egyptian independence three years later, were reprimanded in custody earlier this month.

The fans stand accused of participating in protests and clashes with security forces towards the end of a Confederation of African Football (CAF) Champions League match in Cairo that pitted Al Ahli against Gabon’s CF Mounana. They reportedly chanted slogans against the police and in favour of freedom.

As an international competition, the match was one of the few games exempted from a ban on public attendance of soccer games that has been in place for much of the last seven years in a bid to prevent stadiums from re-emerging as potential venues of anti-government protest.

The incident threatens to delay plans to lift the ban that has been enforced uninterrupted since early 2012 when 72 Al Ahli supporters died in a politically loaded brawl after a match in the Suez Canal city of Port Said.

The potential charges against the fans include being part of a group that incites disregard of the constitution and the law, preventing state institutions and public authorities from carrying out their work and threatening the safety and security of society.

Public investigators said the detainees included members of the outlawed Muslim Brotherhood that won Egypt’s only free and fair election in 2012 but was toppled a year later by Mr. Al-Sisi.

Ultras Ahlawy, the club’s militant support group, denied involvement in the protest. It said those involved did not represent the group and that it did not want the incident to be construed “in a political way.”

Phd student Hesham Shafick, however, described the CAF match as a return to the days prior to the 2011 revolt in which militants fans or ultras dominated the stadium with their highly artistic, choreographed  support for their club that was often laden with overt and covert political tones.

“Their famous flames lit up the stadium and their famous song ‘liberta’ resurrected the moribund spirit of the January 2011 revolution,” Mr. Shafick wrote.

Mr. Shafick’s description and pictures of the Cairo stadium during the match suggest that the ultras as a group staged the choreographed support for their club. The staging defied a 2015 court ban of all ultras groups even if individuals rather than the group itself may have been involved in the last-minute protest.

In a statement, Al Ahli president Mahmoud El-Khatib seemed to take the Ultras Ahlawy position into account by asserting that “a few people interfered with our great supporters and did these shameful acts. They wanted us to return back to the past years that witnessed the team playing behind closed doors.”

Mr. Al-Khatib was among a host of club presidents and athletes that attended a news conference hosted by the Egyptian Football Association (EFA) to endorse Mr. Al-Sisi’s candidacy in a seeming violation of a ban on mixing sports and politics, arbitrarily imposed by world soccer body FIFA.

The revival of soccer as a release valve was evident in a Cairo coffeehouse on the second-day of Egypt’s three-day election where men had gathered to watch a friendly match between Egypt and Greece.

“Our voice is heard when we cheer and make a difference to the players, who are also doing something for the sake of this country. But if we go and vote in the election, our voice does not count — it makes no difference,” 28-year-old Hassan Allam told an Arab News reporter.

“There was no real competition against Al-Sisi and many of the people I know were harassed by security forces for their political affiliations. The only safe route for us to support the country is by cheering on our national football team; we have nothing else to do,” Allam added.

It is that sentiment that Mr. Al-Sisi will want to turn to his advantage, much like Mr. Mubarak tried with at best mixed results when he sought to either polish his tarnished image by identifying himself with the success of the national team or at times manipulate soccer emotions into a nationalistic frenzy that involved rallying around the leader.

To succeed, Mr. Al-Sisi will have to do more than support the team, which this year qualified for the World Cup for the first time in 28 years or adopt a nationalist approach by creating a fund that would incentivize players to play for Egyptian rather than foreign teams.

Mr. Al-Sisi will have to ensure that economic reform trickles down to the ordinary Egyptian, get the upper hand in an Islamist insurgency in the Sinai, and ultimately loosen his grip on power to create space for political groupings and individuals to voice alternative and dissenting opinions. So far, there is little indication that Mr. Al-Sisi is rethinking his approach along those lines.

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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Suicide attack in Iran frames visit to Pakistan by Saudi crown prince

Dr. James M. Dorsey

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This week’s suicide attack on Revolutionary Guards in Iran’s south-eastern province of Sistan and Baluchistan, the second in two months, could not have come at a more awkward moment for Pakistani prime minister Imran Khan.

The assault on a bus carrying the guards back from patrols on the province’s border with the troubled Pakistani region of Balochistan killed 27 people and wounded 13 others. It occurred days before Saudi crown prince Mohammed bin Salman was scheduled to visit Pakistan as part of a tour of Asian countries.

While Baluchistan is set to figure prominently in Prince Mohammed’s talks with Mr. Khan, the attack also coincided with a US-sponsored conference in Warsaw, widely seen as an effort by the Trump administration to further isolate Iran economically and diplomatically.

Inside the conference, dubbed The Ministerial to Promote a Future of Peace and Security in the Middle East, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo insisted that US policy was designed to force Iran to alter its regional and defense policies and not geared towards regime change in Tehran.

Yet, US President Donald J. Trump appeared to be sending mixed messages to the Iranians as well as sceptical European governments with his personal lawyer, Rudolph Giuliani, addressing a rally outside the conference organized by the Mujahedeen-e-Khalq, a controversial Iranian exile group believed to enjoy Saudi backing.

Mr. Giuliani told the protesters who waved Iranian flags and giant yellow balloons emblazoned with the words, “Regime Change” that “we want to see a regime change in Iran.”

Mr. Trump appeared to fuel suspicion that Mr. Giuliani represented his true sentiment by tweeting on the eve of the Warsaw conference in a reference to the 40th anniversary of the Islamic revolution: “40 years of corruption. 40 years of repression. 40 years of terror. The regime in Iran has produced only #40YearsofFailure. The long-suffering Iranian people deserve a much brighter future.”

In a statement, the Revolutionary Guards blamed the attack on “mercenaries of intelligence agencies of world arrogance and domination,” a reference to Saudi Arabia, the United States and Israel.

Jaish-al-Adl (the Army of Justice), a Pakistan-based splinter group that traces its roots to Saudi-backed anti-Shiite groups with a history of attacks on Iranian and Shiite targets, has claimed responsibility for the attack.

The group says it is not seeking Baloch secession from Iran. Instead, it wants to “force the regime of the guardianship of jurisconsult (Iran) to respect the demands of the Muslim Baloch and Sunni society alongside the other compatriots of our country.”

Militants targeted a Revolutionary Guards headquarters in December in a rare suicide bombing in Chabahar, home to Iran’s Indian-backed port on the Arabian Sea, a mere 70 kilometres from the Chinese supported port of Gwadar, a crown jewel in the Pakistani leg of the People’s Republic’s Belt and Road initiative.

The attacks coupled with indications that Saudi Arabia and the United States may be contemplating covert action against Iran using Pakistani Balochistan as a launching pad, and heightened Saudi economic and commercial interest in the province, frame Prince Mohammed’s upcoming talks in Islamabad.

During his visit, Prince Mohammed is expected to sign a memorandum of understanding on a framework for US$10 billion in Saudi investments.

The memorandum includes a plan by Saudi national oil company Aramco to build a refinery in Gwadar as well as Saudi investment in Baluchistan’s Reko Diq copper and gold mine.

The investments would further enhance Saudi influence in Pakistan as well as the kingdom’s foothold in Balochistan.

They would come on the back of significant Saudi aid to help Pakistan evade a financial crisis that included a US$3 billion deposit in Pakistan’s central bank to support the country’s balance of payments and another US$3 billion in deferred payments for oil imports.

Taken together, the refinery, a strategic oil reserve in Gwadar and the mine would also help Saudi Arabia in potential efforts to prevent Chabahar from emerging as a powerful Arabian Sea hub.

Saudi funds have been flowing for some time into the coffers of ultra-conservative anti-Shiite, anti-Iranian Sunni Muslim madrassahs or religious seminars in Balochistan. It remains unclear whether they originate with the Saudi government or Saudi nationals of Baloch descent and members of the two million-strong Pakistani Diaspora in the kingdom.

The funds help put in place potential building blocks for possible covert action should the kingdom and/or the United States decide to act on proposals to support irredentist activity.

The flow started at about the time that the Riyadh-based  International Institute for Iranian Studies, formerly known as the Arabian Gulf Centre for Iranian Studies, an allegedly Saudi government-backed think tank, published  a study that argued that Chabahar posed “a direct threat to the Arab Gulf states” that called for “immediate counter measures.”

If executed, covert action could jeopardize Indian hopes to use Chabahar to bypass Pakistan, significantly enhance its trade with Afghanistan and Central Asian nations and create an anti-dote to Gwadar.

Pakistani analysts expect an estimated US$ 5 billion in Afghan trade to flow through Chabahar after India in December started handling the port’s operations.

Iranian concerns that the attacks represent a US and/or Saudi covert effort are grounded not only in more recent US and Saudi policies, including Mr. Trump’s withdrawal last year from the 2015 international agreement to curb Iran’s nuclear program despite confirmation of its adherence to the accord and re-imposition of harsh economic sanctions against the Islamic republic.

They are also rooted in US and Saudi backing of Iraq in the 1980s Gulf war, US overtures in the last year to Iranian Kurdish insurgents, the long-standing broad spectrum of support of former and serving US officials for the Mujahedeen-e-Khalq and in recent years of Prince Turki al-Faisal, a former head of Saudi intelligence and ex-ambassador to the United States and Britain.

Said Ali Vaez, the International Crisis Group’s Iran analyst: “The concern was never that the Trump admin would avert its eyes from Iran, but rather that is in inflicted by an unhealthy obsession with it. In hyping the threat emanating from Iran, Trump is more likely than not to mishandle it and thus further destabilize the Middle East.”

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Turkey-Israel: Caught between friendship and enmity

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In 1949, Turkey became the first Muslim country to recognize the State of Israel. Territorial disputes with Iraq (Ankara claims the Mosul region as Turkish territory) and with neighboring Syria (which has never recognized Alexandretta Sanjak, Hatayt vilayet’s joining Turkey after WWI) necessitated a search for a regional ally. Moreover, the long-simmering conflict with Greece and accusations of the Armenian genocide had threatened to cut off the supply of high technologies and weapons from Western countries. Therefore, Israel has from the very outset been a major supplier of such advanced technologies and weapons to Turkey.

As for Israel, ties with Turkey meant a breach in the Middle Eastern countries’ political and economic blockade of the Jewish state, and an example to follow by neighboring countries. The rapprochement between Ankara and Tel Aviv was good news also for the United States, as it set the stage for the emergence of a pro-American alliance in the Middle East.

The agreement that Israel and the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) signed in 1993 served as a “moral” basis for forging even closer ties between Ankara and Tel Aviv. After the Israeli intelligence services helped their Turkish colleagues to locate the whereabouts of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party leader Abdullah Ocalan, Turkey and Israel signed a raft of cooperation agreements on security, on combating terrorism and on the implementation of joint agricultural projects in Central Asia.

Exchanges of visits by the two countries’ senior military officials that followed resulted in the conclusion of contracts for the supply and joint development of certain types of weapons, with Turkey making its airspace available for training flights of Israeli military aircraft as the territory of the Jewish state is too small for this.

The Free Trade Agreement that Ankara and Tel Aviv inked in 1996, effectively opened the Israeli market, and also those of the United States, Canada and Mexico for Turkish goods. However, in that very same year, relations between the two countries suffered a setback when Turkish Prime Minister Nejmettin Erbakan, the founder of “Turkish political Islam,” openly branded Israel as the “archenemy” of the Arab and Muslim world, intimidating voters with a Zionist plot against Turkey and ultimately calling for an end to all ties with the Jewish state. Before long, however, Erbakan was forced out by the then-powerful Turkish generals.

However, after the Justice and Development Party came to power in Turkey in 2002, relations between Turkey and Israel cooled again. The anti-Israeli rhetoric in Turkey has been heating up since 2004 with Turkish filmmakers contributing to this process by presenting Israel in a bad light – to a point where Israel’s Mossad agents were shown in a TV series as taking the Turkish ambassador hostage, along with his entire family. Israeli Deputy Foreign Minister Danny Ayalon was forced to go on record saying that “scenes similar to those shown in the series make the life of Jews in Turkey unsafe.”

This did not prevent the two countries from raising the volume of their bilateral trade and continuing military-technical cooperation though. Even faced with a situation like that, Turkey still proved itself a cool-headed realist.

Tensions between Turkey and Israel came to a head in 2009 when Ahmet Davutoglu, the author of the “neo-Ottomanism with Muslim overtones” doctrine, which became the unofficial paradigm of Ankara’s foreign policy, was appointed foreign minister. Besides, a new Israeli invasion of the Gaza Strip prompted Ankara to postpone and ultimately cancel a planned drill by Turkish, US, Italian and Israeli military. And, to top it all off, incensed by Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s speech at the World Economic Forum in Davos, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan vowed never to return to the annual gathering again.

In May 2010, Israeli forces intercepted the so-called “Freedom Flotilla” with humanitarian aid for Gaza residents. Simultaneously, passengers of the Turkish ship Mavi Marmara actively attempted to thwart a landing on the ship by Israeli commandos. In the violent clash that followed nine activists were killed and 30 were injured. The Turkish Foreign Ministry condemned the incident, Ankara recalled its ambassador from Israel and an angry crowd hurled stones at the Israeli consulate in Istanbul. Many experts believe that the conflict was deliberately provoked. In any case, the “resistance” by the passengers of the Turkish ship and Ankara’s angry response earned it the laurels of a fighter for Muslim interests both inside the country and elsewhere in the Muslim world. Even though the UN commission investigating the incident concluded that the Israeli commandos had used force to defend themselves against “organized and armed resistance from a group of passengers.”

Alarmed by the events of the “Arab Spring” that fueled the rise of political Islam in the region amid the growing confrontation with Turkey, the Israeli leaders started building up ties with Greece and Cyprus. In 2013, Israel launched commercial development of an offshore natural gas field near  Haifa with an eye to exporting its gas to Europe via these two countries. Turkish companies, for their part, proposed building an underwater pipeline to a Turkish terminal, from where the gas could be delivered to European consumers through the Turkish pipeline system.

Wary of Moscow’s reaction to the November 2015 downing of a Russian Su-24 bomber over Syria, and fearing Russian sanctions, Ankara started looking for alternative trade partners. In a bid to ensure its energy security, Turkey now staked on Israeli natural gas. In a surprise move, President Recep Tayyip Erdogan said that peace in the Middle East was impossible without Turkey and Israel working together. Israel, meanwhile, while praising Ankara’s desire to mend fences, was still mindful of Russia’s possible backlash with then-Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman warning that “normalization of relations with Ankara will cause serious damage to our relations with Cyprus, Greece and, of course, with Russia.”

Israel still paid compensation to the families of the victims of the Mavi Marmara incident, and agreed to allow Turkish humanitarian supplies into the Gaza Strip.

Last year’s transfer of the US embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem in defiance of a resolution by the UN General Assembly, which condemned the move, sparked a new standoff between Turkey and Israel.  After Palestinian protests were harshly suppressed by Israel, Turkey expelled the Israeli ambassador, recalled its own envoy from Ankara and convened an extraordinary summit of the Organization of Islamic Cooperation in Istanbul. Speaking at the forum, President Erdogan said that he expected the OIC countries to “put the decision of the embargo [on trade with Israel] into practice.”

Erdogan’s hope never came true as Ankara did not actually want to cut ties with the Jewish state. Indeed, harsh as Ankara’s rhetoric was, it did not slow the pace of the trade and other economic ties between the two countries.  According to the Turkish Ministry of Commerce, in 2000, bilateral trade amounted to $1.13 billion, in 2005 – $2.27 billion, in 2010 – $3.44 billion, in 2017 – $4.91 billion and in the first 10 months of 2018 – $4.54 billion. This is what postmodern reality is all about.

Politics-wise, the future of relations between Turkey and Israel generally looks pretty bleak as Ankara is now relying on the Astana format in implementing its foreign policy goals, while Israel is gravitating towards a Saudi-led anti-Iranian bloc, which is now being established in the Middle East. Turkey refuses to recognize Bashar Assad as Syria’s legitimate president, but Israel would rather have Assad as a neighbor than religious radicals or a pro-Iranian government in Damascus.

Israel is much less concerned about the situation in northern Syria though. Turkey, whose freedom of geopolitical maneuver is much greater than what Israel can boast of, plays and will continue to play a leading role in bilateral relations. However, these relations will only be able to improve sustainably if the Turkish leaders give up on the ideology of neo-Ottomanism, where Israel is assigned a very unenviable rile. With the Turkish leaders’ ambitions extending far beyond the country’s boundaries, chances of Ankara revising its foreign policy any time soon look pretty slim. That being said, the history of the past few decades shows that rapprochement is still possible, but this will most likely have a tactical nature depending on the changing political situation. For example, if the United States abandons its doctrine of creating “controlled chaos” in the Middle East.

Russia, which is now returning to the Middle East, will avoid confrontation with any of the regional players (save for terrorists, of course) as the “above-the-fray” position allows it to act as a mediator in resolving major regional conflicts.

First published in our partner International Affairs

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Warsaw meeting: Roots of the crises in the Middle East

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The U.S. is co-hosting a conference on the Middle East with Poland in Warsaw. It has claimed the aim of the conference is to address crises in the region.

It is not difficult to really understand the chief causes of conflicts and instability in this volatile part of the world.

First and foremost, Israel and Washington’s blind support for Tel Aviv have been and will remain to be the main culprits behind the conflicts in the Middle East.

The continuous stealing of the Palestinian lands is not only a violation of international law and the basic rights of an entire nation, it has also radicalized the youth in the regional countries, especially those in the Arab world.

Add to this the transfer of the U.S. embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem al-Quds in violation of international law. This has just added salt to the wound.

Now Israel may boast that it is gradually normalizing ties with certain Arab countries but its continued policy will not help change the minds of the Arabs and other Muslims about the Tel Aviv regime.

The other main reasons behind the problems in the region is Washington’s support for dictators in the Arab world. Donald Trump’s sword dance with Saudi officials who ordered the brutal chopping of Jamal Khashoggi is a concrete example.

While the U.S. claims support for human rights, it is shamefully arming and supporting Saudi Arabia and its coalition partners in their relentless war on fellow Arab nation of Yemen.

Washington is also oblivious to the Shias’ struggle for equal rights in Bahrain and has closed its eyes to the Medieval Age verdicts against political opponents in the country.

There are many other examples to cite.

The other reason for the headaches in the region dates back to the United States’ support for Muslim youth fighting the Soviet Union in Afghanistan in the 1980s. In those days U.S. politicians viewed religious fanaticism as the main bulwark against the Soviets who were viewed as pagans. In fact, officials in Washington fueled religious fanaticism to prevent the influence of the Soviets in the Cold War era.

Later these Muslim youth, chief among them al-Qaeda members who were mostly from Arab countries, turned against their masters and started terrorist activities in the Middle East and other parts of the world.

Add to this the U.S.-British invasion of Iraq in 2003 in violation of international law and repeated warnings by international figures of the time such as Kofi Annan, Jacques Chirac, Gerhard Schröder, Atal Bihari Vajpayee, Nelson Mandela and many other dignitaries.

It is clear to the entire world that the U.S. invasion of Iraq, under the false claim that Saddam Hussein was hiding weapons of mass destruction, not only led to unspeakable suffering for the Iraqi people it also led to spread of terrorism and violence in the region.

Some of those notorious terrorists in Iraq had become battle-hardened in Afghanistan and through their bigoted ideology triggered civil war in Iraq.

When the Arab spring started people who were angry of the rulers and their corrupt systems rose up for a change but, without the exception of Tunisia, the uprisings in the Arab world were misled and struggle for democracy and justice changed their place with terrorism and violence.

Rich Arab nations in the Persian Gulf region were instrumental in misleading pro-democracy movements in order to prevent the spread of uprisings to their countries. Analysts say they transferred money and arms to terrorists in order to convey this message to the people that if they rise against their ruling system they will become another Syria.

Some of those youth who had been trained and fought in Afghanistan and years later committed many terror acts inside Iraq poured into Syria.

Certain Arab countries’ support for radicals to topple the Syrian government, which does not see eye to eye with Washington and its regional allies, was so great that it led to the birth of more terrorist groups such as ISIS who were crueler than al-Qaeda.

If the U.S. did not fan the flames of religious bigotry in Afghanistan in the 1980s and did not invade Iraq, and also if certain Arab countries such as Saudi Arabia did not support radicals in Iraq and Syria today there were not such names as al-Qaeda, ISIS, al-Nusra and some other terrorist groups.

So it is clear that Washington, especially its current administration, does not really seek a peaceful and stable Middle East. If it is really seeking ways to stabilize the region it must rectify its mistakes; stop support for countries such as Saudi Arabia which is the birthplace of the ideology of religious terrorism; pressure Saudi Arabia and the UAE to end their war on Yemen; and more importantly stop supporting Israel which has been acting for decades against all internationally accepted norms and international law.

Though Washington, under European pressure, has been forced to retitle the agenda of the Warsaw conference from demonizing Iran to a focus on peace and security in the Middle East, there is no doubt that Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, National Security Advisor John Bolton, Vice President Mike Pence, and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu will use the opportunity to vent their personal anger at Iran and say that Iran is the root of the problem.

However, demonization of Iran will not solve any problem so long as this policy continues. The Warsaw conference is in fact a disinformation campaign against Iran. To the surprise of Pompeo and his friends in Israel, Saudi Arabia and the UAE, the disinformation campaign in Warsaw faced a dead end before it started on Wednesday.

First published in our partner Tehran Times

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