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Once the backbone of Middle Eastern protests, ultras are down but not out

Dr. James M. Dorsey

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Ali Issa Ahmad, a British football fan, who was lingering earlier this year in jail in the United Arab Emirates for wearing a Qatari soccer jersey during the 2019 Asian Cup that Qatar state won.

Mr. Ahmad who potentially could have been sentenced to years in prison for supporting the wrong team in the eyes of the UAE was ultimately released after several days as the UAE sought to avoid the reputational damage his prosecution would have entailed.

Mr. Ahmad’s predicament suggested that the UAE’s stopping Qatari fans from attending recent Asian Cup matches and banning expressions of support for its nemesis because of the rift in the Gulf that has pitted the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain and Saudi Arabia against Qatar is about more than political rivalries between states determined to shape the region in their mould.

Mr. Ahmad’s plight is part of a region-wide effort to ensure that soccer fans who played major roles in recent Middle East history don’t get another opportunity.

Fans were central in the 2011 popular Arab revolts that toppled the leaders of Tunisia, Egypt, Libya and Yemen. They constituted the backbone of initial resistance to the military regime that in 2013 overthrew Mohammed Morsi, Egypt’s first and only democratically elected leader. And fans led the 2013 Gezi Park anti-government protests in Turkey and, beyond the Middle East, the 2014 anti-government demonstrations in Ukraine.

The effort to control soccer fans takes on added relevance with mass protests in the greater Middle East occurring in Sudan, Algeria and Jordan while Kazakh president Nursultan Nazarbayev recently replaced his cabinet in a bid to halt mounting social unrest.

The effort takes various forms ranging from banning support in the Gulf for a team to brutal repression and the closure to the public of most domestic matches in Egypt since the 2011 revolt to attempts in Turkey to politically control all fan activity. Like in Turkey, those fans admitted into Egyptian stadia in limited numbers are first politically vetted to ensure that they don’t turn the pitch into a protest venue.

The effort has succeeded to some extent, even if legal measures to ban militant fan groups in Egypt and Turkey failed. The return to stadia of some fans in Egypt suggests that the government feels it has gained the upper hand.

“The Egyptian regime has specific issues with fans organising collectively for football. So if these fans can be depoliticised, they can return to stadiums. This is the real political motivation for allowing fans back into the stadium: the belief that they have successfully depoliticised the game,” said Ziad Akl, an analyst with the Cairo-based Ahram Centre for Political and Strategic Studies.

The proof is in the pudding. Indications are it hasn’t persuaded militant fans who although a minority were the heartbeat of Egyptian fandom.

“I haven’t been to matches for years, and I’m certainly not going to start now. I’m not stupid enough to give the security services my address, where I work, and my full name. I don’t mind doing this to vote or to get a national ID, but I won’t do this for a football match,” said a member of a Cairo ultras group.

He was echoing the response of Turkish fans to government efforts to force identification of fans through an electronic ticket system.

The ultras’ message was that militant soccer fans may be down but are not out and that Egyptian general-turned president Abdel Fattah al-Sisi will have to get a grip on simmering discontent by addressing widespread social and economic discontent rather than relying primarily on brutal repression.

To be sure, the differences between 2011 and 2019 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 toppled leader Hosni Mubarak’s rule look relatively benign.

Nonetheless, militant soccer fans pose enough of a continued threat to prevent the government from fully lifting the ban on spectators attending soccer matches that has been in place for much of the last eight years. The government recently agreed to allow a meagre 5,000 fans per match.

The ban was initially imposed when the popular revolt erupted in 2011 but was lifted once Mr. Mubarak was forced to resign after 30 years in office. It was reintroduced and has been in force uninterrupted since February 2012 when 72 supporters of storied Cairo club Al Ahli were killed in stampede in a Port Said stadium in what many believe was an attempt by the military and law enforcement to cut the ultras down to size that got out of hand.

“No one is excited that the fans are back. People went to the stadiums because of the atmosphere created by ultras – Egyptian football has died with the banning of ultras,” said one of the founding members of Ultras White Nights, the militant support group of Al Ahli arch rival Al Zamalek.

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.

The student protests against Mr. Al-Sisi’s coup, 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 Ultras White Nights and their Al Ahli counterpart, Ultras Ahlawi, officially dissolved themselves in 2018 in a bid to ensure the safety of their members. With continued Ultras White Knights activity on social media, where both groups have/had huge followings, the dissolution was widely seen as tactical and a sign of goodwill.

“We are tired of going around police stations and prisons looking for our comrades. We want things to quieten down with the government, see the detainees go free and the crackdown end,” said former Ultras leader Mohammed Saheel.

The Ultras are desperate and don’t see a bright future. They hope for a reconciliation with the regime to get their fellow members out of prison,” added journalist and soccer fan Mahmoud Mostafa.

The decision to dissolve came in the wake of a statement by the ultras that appealed to Mr. Al-Sisi to initiate a dialogue between the fans and police to iron out their differences. The called for the pardoning of detained militant fans.

The peace offering was a far cry from the ultras’ heyday. To the founders of various groups of ultras in Egypt and elsewhere in the Middle East, the battle for the stadia in the years prior to the 2011 revolts constituted a struggle for public space in a country governed by a regime that tolerated no uncontrolled public spaces.

The ultras constituted the only group that was willing to not only challenge government control of public space but also to put their lives on the line in staking their claim. They derived their title to the stadium from their analysis of the power structure of the sport that positioned ultras as the only true supporters of the club as opposed to a corrupt management that was a pawn of the regime and players who were mercenaries who played for the highest bidder.

That was what attracted thousands of young, under‐educated and un- or under-employed men who joined the ranks of the ultras because the fans were the only organized group that persistently and physically stood up to corrupt and brutal security forces who made their lives difficult in the stadia as well as in the neighbourhoods where they lived.

Members of the ultras and people close to them caution that the Al- Sisi government’s apparent success in whipping the ultras into submission may be temporary.

Many believe that “nothing will happen. Standing up to the regime amounts to suicide. The question is how long that perception will last… Things will eventually burst. When and where nobody knows. But the writing is on the wall,” said a source close to the ultras.

Added a founder of one Egypt’s original ultras groups: “This is a new generation. It’s a generation that can’t be controlled. They don’t read. They believe in action and experience. They have balls. When the opportunity arises, they will do something bigger than we ever did.”

This article is an edited version of a German-language chapter in a book to be published in conjunction with the Macht der Masse – 4e Halbzeit (Power of the Mass – 4th Intermission at the Ludwig Forum Aachen in Germany

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

Turkish Strengthened Parliamentary System

Muratcan Isildak

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“Corrected” or “enhanced” system of parliamentary debate, thoroughly sat on Turkey’s agenda in recent days. There are two reasons for this. First, it is unclear what, all from a single source power is collected, brought Turkey no balance-point of the current regime where there is no monitoring mechanism. Of democracy, of freedom, which abolished the rule of law, both inside and outside the war which, as all institutions of workers pouring connected to a single person, the economy of bottoming out, which is a record level of unemployment, inequality of well increase as a Turkey. Undoubtedly, the first step to get out of this darkness and tidy up the wreckage is to get rid of the one-man regime called the “Presidential Government System”. The question then arises of what kind of management system to replace. The second reason is the increasing signs that the MHP-backed AKP government is about to end. A transition period will begin after the end of AKP rule. But where is the transition? This question should be discussed and an answer should be sought.

The parliamentary system has led to the domination of the majority over the minority in Turkey. Since there are no mechanisms to prevent the executive from dominating the legislature, the power is meeting in the hands of the prime minister, who is the head of the ruling majority party. The end of the independence of the judiciary, the silencing of the press, the pressure on the opposition, the arbitrary administration all took place in the parliamentary system.

Such a new democracy changes the focus of politics. The subject of politics, political parties cease to be party heads, but become the people themselves. However, in order to create a grassroots popular movement, people need to unite within the framework of a project and not be a “mass”, but turn into a “people” that decide their future. Such “people” make decisions about their own problems and demand that governments implement these decisions. Such a people does not leave their future to the rulers, they take control of their future. Such a people becomes the engine of change in society, creates a libertarian, egalitarian, new society.

One of the most important features of participatory democracy is that it is based on equality. Equality in income distribution as well as in participation can be achieved in this way. We have seen the concrete application of this in the example of Porto Allegre in Brazil.

There are many different models of participatory democracy. These models cover a wide spectrum, from the budgeting powers of local units to different decision-making platforms. It is necessary to discuss these and, according to the results, the construction of local democratic institutions. 

However, no matter what model is adopted, participatory democracy has some unchangeable basic principles:

Participation is open to all who live in that place.

Participatory democracy institutions are independent from the state. The aim of the system is to realize a power sharing between representative democracy institutions and local democracy institutions. Representative democracy institutions will lose their power as they will transfer some of their powers to local institutions. 

But considering that representative democracy is not working well anyway, this weakening is not a loss for democracy.

Informing the public correctly. For this, there is a need for effective use of social media as well as the prevalence of freedom of expression and press in the country.

Participatory democracy leads to deepening democracy and creating a culture of participation. However, the main problem here is that the people adopt this culture with an active citizenship awareness. Successful pilot project implementations are required for this.

Let’s not forget that my imagination of the future determines what we will do now.

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Middle East

The Battle for Jerusalem: Turkey’s Erdogan stakes his claim

Dr. James M. Dorsey

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Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan didn’t mince his words at this month’s opening of parliament. In his first assertion of a claim to a lost non-Turkic part of the Ottoman empire, Mr. Erdogan declared that Jerusalem is Turkish.

“In this city, which we had to leave in tears during the First World War, it is still possible to come across traces of the Ottoman resistance. So Jerusalem is our city, a city from us,” Mr. Erdogan said.

He went on to say that “the current appearance of the Old City, which is the heart of Jerusalem, was built by Suleiman the Magnificent, with its walls, bazaar, and many buildings. Our ancestors showed their respect for centuries by keeping this city in high esteem.”

Mr. Erdogan was referring to the 16th century Ottoman sultan, a sponsor of monumental architectural development, who is widely viewed as having protected his Jewish subjects.

In July, Mr. Erdogan described that month’s return of Hagia Sophia in Istanbul, a sixth century Orthodox-church-turned-mosque-turned-museum, to the status of a Muslim house of worship as paving the way for the “liberation” of Jerusalem’s Al-Aqsa mosque, Islam’s third holiest site.

Mr. Erdogan’s office released a month later a four-minute video clip suggesting that Turkey’s quest for leadership of the Islamic world was as much a military and nationalist endeavor as it was a religious drive. Laced with martial music, the clip meshed religious and Ottoman symbolism.  Entitled Golden Apple, the clip ended with a panorama view of Al-Aqsa.

The president, who embeds his often raw nationalism in a religious mantle, can have no illusion that Jerusalem would return to Turkish rule.

Yet, by putting forward his claim, Mr. Erdogan hopes to put his quest for leadership of the Muslim world on par with that of one Turkey’s staunchest rivals, Saudi Arabia. The kingdom is home to Islam’s two most sacred cities, Mecca and Medina.

Rather than seeking to regain lost Ottoman territory, Mr. Erdogan is staking a claim to custodianship of Jerusalem’s Haram ash-Sharif or Temple Mount and Al Aqsa mosque compound that currently rests with a Jordanian-controlled religious endowment known as the Waqf.

The president escalated his rhetoric at a moment that the Palestine Authority has reached out to Turkey as well as Qatar in the wake of the normalization of relations between Israel, the United Arab Emirates and Bahrain and a series of statements by prominent Saudi and other Gulf leaders taking President Mahmoud Abbas’ administration to task for squandering opportunities for peace with the Jewish state.

Mr. Erdogan’s claim adds to Jordan’s worries that Israel, in the wake of the formalization of its ties to Gulf states, could support Saudi ambitions to join the Hashemite kingdom, if not replace it, as the holy site’s administrator.

Israel Hayom, Israel’s most widely read newspaper that is supportive of Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu, quoted an unidentified Arab diplomat as saying that Saudi funds were needed to counter Turkish influence in Jerusalem.

“If the Jordanians allow the Turks to operate unhindered at the Al-Aqsa Mosque compound, within a matter of years their special status in charge of the Waqf and Muslim holy sites would be relegated to being strictly ‘on paper,’” the diplomat was quoted as saying in June.

Raed Daana, a former director of preaching and guidance at the Al-Aqsa Mosque Directorate, said in 2018, in the wake of US President Donald J. Trump’s recognition of Jerusalem as Israel’s capital, that Saudi Arabia had secretly invited Palestinian Muslim dignitaries in a bid to garner support for a Saudi role in the Waqf.

Mr. Daana attributed the secrecy in part to a refusal to accept the invitation by a number of Palestinian religious figures.

Jordan last year increased the number of members of the Waqf from 11 to 18 in a bid to give it a more a more Muslim rather than exclusively Jordanian  flavour and to fend off attempts by regional powers to muscle their way into the body.

The new members included officials of Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas’ Palestine Authority as well as figures with links to Turkey and Gulf states like Sheikh Ekrima Sabri, a former grand mufti of Jerusalem and Holocaust denier who has defended Mr. Erdogan’s militancy regarding Jerusalem; and Mr. Sabri’s successor, Muhammad Hussein, who had close ties to the United Arab Emirates until he last month barred Emiratis from visiting Al Aqsa in protest against the UAE’s recognition of Israel.

Mr. Erdogan has in recent years been laying the groundwork for his claim with millions of dollars in donations to local Islamic organizations as well as Turkish religious activists and pilgrims in Jerusalem whom Israel has accused of instigating Palestinian protests.

Turkey’s Directorate General for Religious Affairs (Diyanet), that is part of Mr. Erdogan’s office, lists Al-Aqsa as a site for the umrah, the lesser Muslim pilgrimage.

Israeli sources say Turkey’s cultural center in Jerusalem as well as a Turkish renovated coffeeshop two minutes from the city’s Western Wall that is adorned with Turkish and Palestinians flags as well as portraits of Mr. Erdogan and Ottoman Sultan Abdul Hamid II serve as a meeting point for activists and pilgrims.

“Turkey is working diligently to deepen its involvement and influence on the Temple Mount, in the Old City of Jerusalem, and in east Jerusalem neighbourhoods. It is encouraging welfare-religious (dawa) activities…aimed at drawing the Palestinian public toward the Turkish-Islamic heritage and at weakening Israel’s hold on the Old City and east Jerusalem,” said conservative Israeli journalist and analyst Nadav Shragai.

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Middle East

Kingdom’s journey from ultra-conservatism to ultra-modernism

Abdul Rasool Syed

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Saudi Arabia, currently, is undergoing a phenomenal metamorphosis; a country widely known for its ultra-conservative posture is now gradually moving towards liberalism. It is witnessing a remarkable transformation in its socio-economic-cultural contours. The kingdom, once influenced and controlled by orthodox clergy, did not let women come out of their domestic confines but, now, the situation has diametrically changed. It has allowed the womenfolk incredible latitude to not only come out of home but also to travel abroad independently. They are, thus, supposed to contribute to country’s socio-economic development by working shoulder to shoulder with men. Economy, too, is being diversified; the kingdom is jettisoning its chronic dependence on oil revenues and is moving towards rapid Industrialization. Acculturation, once regarded as taboo by Saudi society is now, being appreciated bit by bit.

The man, who masterminded this movement of colossal change, is none other than Crown prince Mohammad bin Salman (MBS); He is the real catalyst that is working devotedly and diligently to improve his country’s image nationally and internationally. His ideology is described as nationalist and populist, with conservative attitude towards politics and a liberal stance on economic and social issues.

However, His style of governance came under severe stricture by journalistic community. He has been dubbed as “extremely brutal” by journalist Rula Jabrael and “authoritarian” by Late Jamal khashoggi. On contrary, his move to reform the country has been widely lauded and supported by Saudi populace.

Prince Mohammad is of opinion that his country has been severely harmed by traditional clergy that considered any reformative move as a sin and hence, has kept the country stagnant economically and socially. He emphatically stated at one occasion: “we are returning to what we were before, a country of moderate Islam that is open to all religions and to the world. We will not waste 30 years of our lives dealing with extremist ideas. We will destroy them today.” He later added that Saudi Arabia “will remain committed to the principles “of Islam, “the religion of tolerance and moderation”. The kingdom “will keep on fighting against extremism and terrorism”—a message directly meant to counter the outrageous edicts released by leading clerics against anything they perceived a threat to Saudi society.

The crown Prince took the clergy as a great hurdle in the way of kingdom’s socio-economic development. He, therefore, trimmed its wings of power by stripping it of its policing powers. Instead, the government took the reins into its hands to guide the society. Now, with the passive and emaciated clergy, Prince is aggressively pursuing his agenda of reforms.

“Vision 2030” is the bedrock of Prince Mohammad’s scheme of socio-economic change. Under this vision, he is going to transform country’s economic physiognomy. Vision 2030 aims at steering Saudi’s economy towards more diversified and privatized structure. It expounds goals and measures in various fields, from developing non-oil revenue and privatization of the economy to e-government and sustainable development.

To this end, Bin Salman, in October 2017, at the inaugural conference of Future investment initiative in Riyadh, announced the plan for the creation of NEOM, a $ 500 billion economic zone to cover an area of 26000 sq km on Saudi Arabia’s Red Sea cost, extending into Japan and Egypt.  NEOM aims at attracting investment in sectors of renewable energy, biotechnology, robotics and advanced manufacturing.

 A project to build Saudi Arabia’s first nuclear reactor was also announced by Prince Mohammad in November 2018. The kingdom aspires to build 16 nuclear facilities over the next 20 years. Efforts to diversify Saudi energy sector also include wind and solar energy.

Apart from this, a much awaited high-speed railway line connecting two holiest cities of Islam Mecca and Medina was inaugurated by Mohammad bin Salman (MBS) in last week of September 2018. The Harmain Express is 450 km line travelling up to 300 km/h that can transport around 60 million passengers annually.

In addition, before the outbreak of corona virus, in order to boost tourism industry, the kingdom started issuing e-visas to tourists. It  opened up its borders to fans of live sport, music and culture for the first time with the launch of a new online visa process dedicated to welcoming international tourists.

Moreover, in 2016, Prince Mohammad Bin Salman (MBS) shared the idea for “Green cards” for non-Saudi foreigners with Al-Arabia Journalist Turki Al-Dakhil. In 2019, Saudi cabinet approved a new residency scheme “Premium Residency” for foreigners. The scheme will enable expatriates to permanently reside, own property and invest in the kingdom.

Prince MBS is staunch proponent of women emancipation. He contends that dream of progress and sustainable development cannot be realized unless women become part and parcel of workforce. He, therefore, has brought about many reforms pertaining to the status of women in Saudi society.

For this very purpose, he allowed women to drive in the kingdom. Driving licenses are, therefore, being issued to women at a very fast pace; the number of women drivers on the road, according to Saudi officials, is expected to grow to 3 million by 2020. Further, Saudi women may now attend soccer matches and sporting events. Gyms and fitness centers for women are being established. They can also join the military and intelligence services. They are allowed to open their own business without male’s permission and to travel abroad independently without male guardian. In this very spirit, Saudi Arabia appointed its first woman to head Saudi stock exchange.

On entertainment side, Saudi government has established an entertainment authority that began hosting comedy shows, professional wrestling, live music concerts and monster truck rallies.

In April 2017, Prince MBS announced a project to build one of worlds largest cultural, sports and entertainment cities in AL-Qidiya, southwest of Riyadh. The plan includes a safari and a six flags theme park.

Additionally, cultural transformation of the kingdom is also underway. It held its first public concert by female singer in December 2017. And in January 2018, a sport stadium in Jeddah became the first in the kingdom to admit women. In April 2018, the first public cinema opened in Saudi Arabia after a ban of 35 years, with plans to have more than 2000 screens running by 2030.

This all became possible, when clerical hold over the kingdom was eviscerated. The orthodox clergy with its antiquated and rigid doctrines was the biggest obstacle in the way of progress and development of the kingdom. Addressing this issue, Prince MBS said that he aimed to have Saudi Arabia start “Returning to what we were before—a country of moderate Islam that is open to all religions and to the world.” He told the country’s clerics that the deal the royal family struck with them after the 1979 siege of Grand Mosque in Mecca was to be re-negotiated.

The crown prince believes that industrialization and wahhabism are mutually exclusive. The wahhabies are committed to fixed social and gender relationships. These are consistent with an economy built on oil sales, but industrialization requires a dynamic culture with social relations constantly shifting.

 Inter alia, Ayaan Haris Ali, a celebrated author and human rights activist claimed that if MBS “succeeds in his modernization efforts, Saudis will benefit from new opportunities and freedoms, and the world will benefit from curtailing Wahhabi radicalization agenda. A decade from now, the kingdom could look more like the UAE, its prosperous and relatively forward looking neighbor”.

In the end, I would like to quote Prince Mohammad bin Salman who while addressing to packed audience at the Future Investment Initiative forum in Riyadh said that Middle East can be the “New Europe” and that he would like to see the economic transformation of the region happen within his life time. He said: “his ‘war’ was restoring the Middle East to its past glory. “I believe that the new Europe is the Middle East”. “Saudi Arabia in five years, he added,” will be completely different”.

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