Football, violence and politics in the Arab world

By: Dag Tuastad, University of Oslo.

Lack of democracy and freedom of expression make the football arena an apt place for supporters to communicate political messages. In sectarian or ethnic divided countries, antagonisms actively suppressed by authorities have regularly been displayed during football matches. A spark at the football stadium could then lead to a riot and ethnic or sectarian violence. This is true for the Arab world. Thus in 2004 in Qamishli, a Syrian town near the border to Turkey and Iraq with a majority of Kurdish inhabitants, the Kurdish supporters of the Kurdish al Jihad club waved Kurdish flags and pictures of George Bush who had called for the Syrian President to stop supporting Saddam Hussein. This resulted in the police shooting into the crowd, killing 9 Kurdish spectators. The killings led to spontaneous demonstrations in Qamishli, and further to surrounding villages, to Damascus, and even beyond the borders of Syria to embassies in Europe. Tens of more protesters were killed in Syria before the rioting was crushed.

Also in Jordan supporter violence have occurred during football matches. In 2010 more than 250 supporters were injured in supporter related violence when the Palestinian supported Wihdat played against Al-Faisaly, supported by ethnic Jordanians. The matches between these two teams have had supporters chanting slogans from the civil war, the war between the Jordanian state and the Palestinian resistance movement, in 1970. Jordanian Palestinians have recently subdued their nationalist slogans at the stadiums. The urgent matter for the Jordanian Palestinians in Jordan now is to avoid that their Jordanian citizenships are revoked. Meanwhile, the so-called East Bankers of Bedouin origin, has chanted “we don’t want to see any Palestinians” during recent matches.

In Lebanon, the authorities have tried to avoid supporter violence the last years by simply forbidding spectators to enter the stadiums as the matches are played. The fear is that supporter violence at the stadiums could spark wider uncontrollable sectarian violence.

In Egypt, supporter violence has been widespread in spite of absence of sectarian or ethnic defined violence at the stadiums. But some organized Egyptian supporters reportedly have been inspired by Italian and Serbian ultras. In Serbia and Italy violent behavior of ultras have tended to have a right wing flavor. The notorious Italian Lazio ultras have displayed swastikas during matches. In Serbia, some ultras have sided with neo-fascists. Characteristic of the ultras phenomenon is not necessarily any right wing affiliation, though. In Serbia, the notorious ultras of the Red Star, some having participated in ethnic cleansing campaigns during the Balkan wars, nevertheless became part of the masses bringing down the Milosevic regime. Rather than being ideological or political at the outset, the crucial aim of ultras is to control the ground. The goal is to dominate the home arena, over the visiting supporters. Football territoriality is thus the phenomenon characterizing ultras. This makes football derbies especially critical matches, the supporters then struggle over controlling the same ground. The largest derby in the Arab world, the match between the Cairo clubs Zamalek and Al-Ahly, is therefore played on neutral ground, and not on the home stadiums of the clubs. Neither is the match between the two biggest clubs in Jordan, Wihdat and Al-Faisaly, both from Amman, played in the capital.

The huge presence of police at the stadiums during important matches have made the police rather than the other team’s supporters the chief antagonist. In Egypt the ultras of the Cairo teams, Zamalek and Al-Ahly, have, at least temporarily, buried hostilities and united against the military regime. Ultras versus police clashes came to be a feature of the Egyptian revolution. The ultras served as guards for the revolutionaries on Tahrir square, defining this territory as theirs against the regime’s security apparatus. There are allegations that police did not interfere in Port Said, where at least 74 people where killed, on 2. February 2012, because of the role of the Al-Ahly supporters in the revolution.

Some analysts see football and sport as the perfect alternative to war. George Orwell on the other hand once noted that sport was “war minus the shooting.” Football, the world’s most popular sport, is not good or bad, it does not have an intrinsic value. In the Arab world as elsewhere, football is popular culture, which implies that the nature of social reality is at stake. As a cultural site where various ideas, sentiments and discourses on life, politics, power and resistance are communicated, the actual sport events are overtaken by the dramas of the days of revolution.