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Thursday, January 29, 2015

Egypt appoints controversial UAE hired gun as elections monitor



By James M. Dorsey

Egyptian-general-turned-president Abdel Fattah Al Sisi’s efforts to lend legitimacy to parliamentary elections scheduled for this spring have gotten off to a murky start with the appointment of a controversial, reportedly United Arab Emirates-backed human rights NGO as one of five foreign election monitors.

The appointment of Norway-based Global Network for Rights and Development (GNRD) alongside four other foreign and 63 local NGOs followed statements by the European Union and The Carter Center that they would not be monitoring the Egyptian parliamentary election in March and April. The Egyptian Foreign Ministry said the African Union would be sending 50 monitors. International NGO’s complained that they were given only a week to enter bids for the monitoring of this spring’s election.

GNRD has in the last year taken partisan stands by seeking to thwart Qatar’s hosting of the 2022 World Cup, promoting the autocratic UAE as a model of adherence to human rights and backing Mr. Al Sisi despite his poor human rights record and brutal crackdown on his opponents.

EU foreign policy chief Federica Mogherini said it would only deploy a small expert mission to report on the parliamentary elections scheduled for March and April. It said the reporting would focus "on the political environment and the electoral campaign.” The Carter Center closed its Cairo office in October and justified its decision not to monitor the parliamentary election because "the political environment is deeply polarized and that political space has narrowed for Egyptian political parties, civil society, and the media. As a result, the upcoming elections are unlikely to advance a genuine democratic transition in Egypt.”

By contrast, GNRD, declared after monitoring last year’s election of Mr. Al Sisi as president, that Egypt had embarked on “a unique process toward democratic transition,” ignoring the fact that the president before shedding his uniform had in 2013 toppled Egypt’s first and only democratically elected president; outlawed the Muslim Brotherhood, a significant political force; allowed security forces to brutally suppress protests, killing more than a 1,000 people; incarcerated thousands of his opponents; and ensured that Egyptian media excel in self-censorship.

Founded in 2008, GNRD is headed by Loai Mohammed Deeb, a reportedly Palestinian-born international lawyer who has a track record as a human rights activist, owns a UAE-based consultancy, and operated a fake university in Scandinavia, according to veteran Middle East author and journalist Brian Whitaker.

The group is funded by anonymous donors to the tune of €3.5 million a year, much of which is believed to come from the UAE, a major backer of Mr. Al Sisi’s autocratic regime. GNRD says it aims to “"to enhance and support both human rights and development by adopting new strategies and policies for real change.”

Qatar last year briefly detained two GNRD investigators who were in the Gulf state to investigate the working and living conditions of migrant workers. Qatar has been under severe pressure to reform its controversial labour system that puts employees at the mercy of their employers. A FIFA executive committee warned recently that Qatar could lose its 2022 World Cup hosting rights if it failed to move forward with promised labour reforms.

Relations between Qatar and the UAE have long been strained as a result of deep-seated and long-standing resentment by Emirati leaders of Qatar’s support for the Brotherhood. The UAE, alongside Saudi Arabia and Bahrain, returned in December its ambassador to Doha after a nine-month absence in a move that papered over their differences without Qatar conceding any real ground to demands that it cut its ties to Islamist groups.

As a result, GNRD’s credentials for judging Qatar’s labour record or the forthcoming Egyptian election are questionable. The group’s International Human Rights Rank Indicator (IHRRI) last year listed the UAE at number 14 as the Arab country most respectful of human rights as opposed to Qatar that it ranked at number 94.

The ranking contradicts reports by human rights groups, including the United Nations Human Rights Council (OHCHR), which said it had credible evidence of torture of political prisoners in the UAE and questioned the independence of the country’s judiciary. Egypt’s State Information Service reported in December that GNRD had supported the banning of the Muslim Brotherhood as a terrorist organization and called for an anti-Brotherhood campaign in Europe.

An Emirati human rights activist told Middle East Eye: “They are supported by the UAE government for public relations purposes. The GNRD published a fake human rights index last year that wrongly praised the UAE.”

With offices in offices in Norway, Belgium, Switzerland, Spain, Sudan, Jordan and the UAE, GNRD is part of a network of reportedly Emirati-backed groups in Scandinavia and France that seek to polish the UAE’s image while tarnishing that of Qatar. It fits a larger Emirati effort that involved hiring a US lobbying firm established by former high-ranking US Treasury officials at a cost of millions of dollars to plant anti-Qatari stories in the US media, behind-the-scenes pressure on the Obama administration to revisit its relationship with Qatar and assessment of the Brotherhood; and the creation of religious groups to counter organizations headed by Doha-based Sheikh Yousef Qaradawi, an influential, controversial cleric with close ties to the Brotherhood.

The UAE has taken an increasingly activist role in opposing Islamist and jihadist groups with its participation in the US-led coalition against the Islamic State, the jihadist group that controls a swath of Syria and Iraq, and its military support for anti-Islamist forces in Libya. Nevertheless, its’ apparent effort to fuel calls for depriving Qatar of its World Cup hosting by highlighting the labour controversy backfired with the exposure of the two GNRD investigators and disclosure of its PR campaign in the US. The effort contrasted the UAE’s official backing of Qatar’s hosting of the World Cup.

The backfiring raises questions about GNRD’s credentials to act as an independent monitor of the Egyptian parliamentary election that would offer an unbiased assessment of the polling. Its appointment appears to be a nod to the UAE, which is a major financial contributor to the Al Sisi government and investor in Egypt, which is dependent on massive Gulf funding. UAE funding appears designed in part to strengthen the military’s already significant stake in the Egyptian economy.

Global Risk Advisors, an international consultancy, noted that Gulf states use their financial muscle “to expand their regional soft power. This type of soft power is usually expensive to acquire and often easily lost,” it warned. In the case of GNRD, the risk to the UAE and Egypt is primarily reputational rather than financial.

James M. Dorsey is a senior fellow at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies, co-director of the University of Wuerzburg’s Institute for Fan Culture, a syndicated columnist, and the author of The Turbulent World of Middle East Soccer blog and a forthcoming book with the same title.






Wednesday, January 28, 2015

Government and Fans Battle in Court and on the Pitch in Egypt and Turkey (JMD in Research Turkey)

Government and Fans Battle in Court and on the Pitch in Egypt and Turkey

Government and Fans Battle in Court and on the Pitch in Egypt and Turkey

Introduction
Egyptian and Turkish soccer pitches are set to re-emerge as battlegrounds between militant, street battle-hardened fans and authoritarian leaders in a life and death struggle that involves legal proceedings to brand the supporters as terrorists and efforts to undermine their popular base.
Struggles Heat Up
Egyptian fans, after recently storming a Cairo stadium in advance of an African championship final, have vowed in a statement on their Facebook page to break open Egyptian premier league games that have been closed to the public for much of the past four years.[i] Fans played a key role in mass anti-government protests that in 2011 toppled President Hosni Mubarak.
Similarly a nationwide boycott of a government-sponsored electronic ticketing system in Turkey viewed by fans who were prominent in the 2013 Gezi Park protests against the country’s leader, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, as a way of identifying them and barring them from stadia has so far all but defeated the effort.[ii] “The e-ticket system does not only demote the concept of supporters to a customer, but it also files all our private data. The system aims to prevent supporters from organizing and is designed to demolish stadium culture and supporter identity,” some 40 soccer fan groups said in a statement.[iii]
The struggles in Egypt and Turkey are heating up as criminal legal proceedings against militant fans or ultras have opened in Cairo and Istanbul. In Istanbul, a trial began on December 16, 2014 against 35 members of Çarşı, the nationally popular support group of storied club Beşiktaş JK, named after a working class neighbourhood along the Bosphorus, accused of belonging to an armed terrorist organization and seeking to overthrow the government. The trial was postponed until April after a first day of hearings, according to Çarşı lawyers.
In Cairo, courts are hearing a series of cases initiated by the head of the Egyptian capital’s Al Zamalek SC, Mortada Mansour, –a controversial fixture of the Mubarak era and a close associate of general-turned-president Abdel Fattah Al Sisi–, charged the club’s militant support group and considered the UWK as terrorists who sought to assassinate Mansour. Denying the allegations that led to the arrest of scores of the UWK members, the group has dubbed Mr. Mansour as ‘the regime’s dog’. UWK leaders have gone into hiding to evade security forces. A first case on whether to ban the group or not is scheduled to resume on December 29th, lawyers for the UWK said.
In a statement, the Istanbul Bar Association denounced the charges against Çarşı as belonging to the “fantasy world” of prosecutors.[iv] “What they are trying to do here is to dilute the concept of a coup in order to spark fear in people, justify police violence that may occur in the future, and intimidate a nation. The law cannot be manipulated for such purposes. Prosecutors’ right to open a case must be restricted by logic and rules of law,”the statement said.ultras_egypt2
The charging of the fans follows hundreds of ongoing court proceedings against more than 5,000 other Turkish protesters in which prosecutors were also seeking harsh sentences. The cases were being prosecuted by a judiciary that like the police force in the past year has largely been cleansed of alleged supporters of Fethullah Gülen, –a frail, self-exiled 73-year old preacher, head of one of the world’s largest Islamist movements and one time Erdoğan ally–, whom the president accuses of seeking to create a parallel state in Turkey. Mr. Erdoğan alleged days before the trial opened against the Çarşı fans that “Gezi was a coup attempt”.
In a statement in September after the fans had been indicted, Çarşı, which writes the ‘a’ in its name as a circle-A, the symbol of anarchism, emphasized its social engagement beyond soccer. “We have advocated a Turkey without nuclear power, and said donating blood would save lives. There was an earthquake in Van, we went to help. The Foundation for Children with Leukaemia built new shelters, and we led the way. Our friends filled buses after the mining disaster in Soma to see if they could make themselves useful there. We said, ‘Take your dirty hands off our children’ for child workers. We still campaign for our citizens with disabilities. What we have done for animal shelters is also well-known,” the statement said.[v]
adliyeonu
Outlawing Dissent
The legal proceedings in Istanbul and Cairo are part of an effort by the Egyptian and Turkish governments which, despite differences over the Muslim Brotherhood, both see cracking down on militant soccer fans as a pillar of their campaigns to severely restrict, if not to outlaw peaceful protest and dissent. Turkish authorities arrested more than 30 journalists and media workers in December 2014, many of whom were associated with outlets owned or were linked to Mr. Gülen’s movement, as well as police officers and script writers. Afterwards, most of them have been released, but Hidayet Karaca, the head of Gülen-linked Samanyolu Television, and three others were retained in custody. Ekrem Dumanlı, editor-in-chief of the Zaman newspaper, was released, but forbidden to travel abroad before trial. Seven more people whom prosecutors sought remanded in custody, were among those released pending trial, according to media reports.
The trial against Çarşı is part of a government effort to purge dissent from the pitch. This effort began immediately after the Gezi Park protests with the banning of chanting of or display of banners with political slogans and a demand that spectators sign a pledge before entering a stadium that they would refrain from participating in activities during matches which could ‘trigger mass, political or ideological events’. Çarşı’s response to the government efforts was to chant during matches, ‘everywhere is Taksim, everywhere is resistance’.
A video released shortly after the Gezi demonstrations by the prime minister’s Anti-Terrorism Office, when Mr. Erdoğan was still prime minister, warned that protests were a precursor to terrorism.[vi] The 55-second video featuring a young woman demonstrator-turned suicide bomber warned the public that “our youth, who are the guarantors of our future, can start with small demonstrations of resistance that appear to be innocent, and after a short period of time, can engage without a blink in actions that may take the lives of dozens of innocent people”. Throughout the video, the words “before it is too late”were displayed.
Critics of Mr. Erdoğan asserted that the stepped up pressure on opposition forces and activists is intended to strengthen his Adalet ve Kalkınma Partisi’s (Justice and Development Party-AKP) position in the parliamentary elections scheduled for June. Mr. Erdoğan is hoping to win a sufficient majority to be able to change the constitution so that it would grant him executive powers.
Basing his charges on wiretaps, Adem Meral, Istanbul Terrorism and Organized Crime Unit prosecutor, charged that the soccer fans had not been driven to join the protests by environmental concerns and opposition to plans to replace the historic Gezi Park on the city’s iconic Taksim Square with an Ottoman-style shopping mall. Instead, Mr. Meral said in his 38-page indictment: “It is understood that they were trying to overthrow the democratically elected Turkish government and to facilitate this objective, they were attempting to capture the Prime Ministry offices in Ankara and İstanbul”. In line with Mr. Erdoğan’s assertions at the time of Gezi Park protests, the prosecutor asserted that the protests were a foreign conspiracy.
The indictment cited as evidence statements by various defendants in tapped telephone conversations. One defendant allegedly said he was ‘not interested in the construction of the mall or the demolition of trees’, but wanted to ‘topple the government’. Another supposedly suggested that the protests could lead to civil war, adding that ‘we will today occupy the prime ministry’s residence’. Others were said to have suggested attacking the police to fuel public anger.
“Charging these Beşiktaş football club fans as enemies of the state for joining a public protest is a ludicrous travesty. It reveals a great deal about the enormous pressure being exerted on Turkey’s justice system by the government,” Emma Sinclair-Webb, a Turkey researcher at Human Rights Watch, said in a statement.[vii]
In a repetition of the Gezi Park protests when rival fan groups in a rare demonstration of common purpose came together to confront police, fans from İstanbul three major competing clubs gathered together with trade unionists, opposition politicians and activists outside the court house to chant ‘shoulder-to-shoulder against fascism,’ ‘Çarşı is conscience and cannot be judged,’ and ‘Çarşı will never walk alone,’ according to participants in the protest. Fans in Europe expressed solidarity with supporters of Germany’s Borussia Dortmund displaying placards during a recent match that called on Çarşı to ‘never give up,’ urged it ‘to fight for your way’ and demanded ‘freedom to ultras and Turkey’.
As Çarşı was fighting for its existence, their counterparts in Egypt were struggling for access to stadia. A vow is made by Ultras Ahlawy, –the militant support group of Zamalek Cairo and rival of Al Ahli SC–, in order to force their way into stadia where Egyptian premier league games are played, a week after they stormed Cairo’s International Stadium to make their point. It also came as Ultras Nahdawy (Renaissance Ultras) played a key role in months-long student protests on university campuses and in local neighbourhoods of the Egyptian capital against Mr. Al Sisi’s repressive regime, in favour of academic and other freedoms.
Nahdawy, whose name refers to the term used by the Brotherhood to describe its political and economic programme, is the only militant soccer group that openly identifies itself as a political group that is not aligned with a club. The group formed by Ahlawy and UWK members, who sympathized with the Brotherhood that has been brutally suppressed by the Al Sisi regime and outlawed by Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates. Since then, they have distanced themselves from the Brothers. Nahdawy’s leadership consists largely of university students while its rank and file are often still in high school.
“We took the culture of the ultras in the stadiums and tried to copy and paste it into the street,” a Nahdawy member and Ahli supporter told the Los Angeles Review of Books.
Litmus Test
For a regime that has shown little mercy for its opponents, the Sisi government has balanced its tacit backing for the legal proceedings against the UWK with a more skilful approach to Ahlawy –who holds the military and security forces responsible for the death of more than 70 of its members in a politically loaded brawl in 2012 in Port Said. The Egyptian Football Association (EFA) recently postponed a match between Al Ahli and the Port Said’s Al Masri SC, which have not faced off since the worst incident in Egyptian sporting history.[viii]
Rather than confronting the ultras when they stormed the stadium, security forces negotiated their departure as well as their attendance under a temporary lifting of the spectator ban for Ahli’s match against Ivory Coast’s Sewe Sport. The game earned Ahli the African club championship title. Ahlawy unfolded a huge banner during the match that referring to the ban asserted “Football is for Fans”.
In a statement on their Facebook page having 1.1 million followers, Ahlawy said that “the fans have every right to be present in stadiums and cheer on their teams”.[ix] Therefore, Ultras Ahlawy group has decided to be present in the upcoming league games and said that “We will be at Cairo Stadium to support our team even if we remained separated by a fence. We will no longer watch our team on television”.
The security forces’ response to Ahlawy’s insistence on attending matches will serve as a litmus test of whether their decision to negotiate with the fans rather than to confront them before the African match constitutes an exception in a successful bid to ensure that the game would take place. Or does it signal the first softening of Mr. Al Sisi’s policies that have led to sentencing to death of hundreds of Muslim Brothers, to deaths of more than 1,000 protesters, and the incarceration of tens of thousands that were critical of his regime? The security forces’ negotiations with Ahlawy were followed a few weeks later by the resignation of Egypt’s long-time hard line intelligence chief and Al Sisi’s mentor General Mohammed Farid El Tohamy for health reasons. Press reports said that General El Tohamy had recently had a hip operation.[x]
In a bid to exploit the avoidance of confrontation in advance of the African championship, the EFA announced on its website that the interior ministry had agreed to allow a limited number of fans to attend domestic premier league matches for the first time since the Port Said incident.[xi] The EFA accepted 10,000 fans for matches in four stadia –Cairo International Stadium, Cairo June 30 and Arab Contractors Stadium and the Burj Al Arab Stadium in Alexandria. Attendance would be limited to 5,000 fans in other stadia to be identified by the EFA. The ultras have demanded a complete lifting of the ban on spectators.
Brutal police action radicalised the ultras in the waning years of the Mubarak regime and turned stadia into the only battlegrounds on which his opponents persistently confronted his repressive forces physically. The rise of the ultras and other militant fan groups not only in Egypt but also elsewhere in the Middle East and North Africa has repeatedly prompted governments to close stadia to the public since the popular revolts of 2011. In an exception to this rule, Algerian authorities have tacitly agreed to allow fans to vent their pent-up anger and frustration in stadia provided they do not take it from there into the streets.
In Turkey, the government has sought to drive a wedge between militant fans and other supporters by arguing that e-ticketing was a way to combat illegal ticket scalping, to increase tax revenues and to ensure that stadia are safe for families.
There is some substantial logic behind such a policy; Turkish stadia have a long history of violence. A third of Çarşı’s original founders died violently since the group’s founding in the early 1980s. A truce arranged at a gathering of heavily armed rival supporters after a Beşiktaş fan was trampled to death in 1991 by his Galatasaray SK adversaries. The truce reduced, but did not put an end to the violence. Two Leeds United fans in Istanbul for their team’s match against Galatasaray were stabbed to death in 2000 during a soccer riot in Taksim. Stray bullets fired into the air to celebrate Turkish team’s victory killed a third person and wounded four others.
The high stakes battle over e-ticketing goes to the heart of a struggle for Turkey’s soul that erupted with the mass anti-government Gezi Park protests in Istanbul in 2013 that was sparked by Mr. Erdoğan’s increasingly illiberal policies to impose greater control over people’s lives and restrictions on personal and political freedom and unfettered access to information. Fans moreover are irked by the president’s manipulation of due process in what was the most serious match fixing scandal in the history of Turkish soccer, a run-up to his squashing of an investigation into the most serious corruption scandal in his career.
Plummeting stadium attendance as a result of the e-ticket boycott has severely affected ticket sales according to soccer club executives and fans. A match in October in Istanbul’s 82,000-seat Atatürk Olympic Stadium between Beşiktaş and Eskişehirspor Club that would normally have been attended by some 20-30,000 spectators drew only 3,000 fans. Ticket sales for Galatasaray matches are down by two thirds with fans gathering in cafes and homes to watch matches they would have attended in the past.
The boycott prompted the government to suspend the e-ticketing system for a friendly in November between Turkey and Brazil.[xii] As a result, sales spiked with more than 40,000 tickets sold for the match shortly after the suspension.
Options Cut Off
The boycott, the court cases and the battle for stadium access are all elements of a struggle by militant soccer fans in Turkey and Egypt for their existence, in an environment in which some, particularly in Egypt, feel that their options were narrowing with violence one of the few alternatives left. “If anyone dies it’s a victory, if anyone goes to jail it’s a victory. And if we go back to the football stadium it’s the biggest victory for us,” a UWK member told the Los Angeles Review of Books.[xiii]
When groups like the UWK first emerged in Egypt –less than a decade ago–, militant Turkish soccer fans were not on their radar. The Egyptians borrowed substantially from militant fans in Serbia, Italy and Argentina, but would have likely found greater communality with the likes of Çarşı. Communalities notwithstanding, Egyptian and Turkish fans travelled different trajectories in the 25 years between their emergences in the two countries, only to find themselves in very similar circumstances. In many ways, militant Turkish fans are the Egyptian’s more experienced elder brother.
In the last quarter of the 20th century, Turkey returned to pluralistic, democratic government, albeit with a powerful military in the background that was only became subjected to civilian rule in the early 21st century. While Egypt three years after its popular revolt reverted to a military and security force-dominated autocracy, in Turkey, the Gezi Park protests sparked a period of political crisis and increased authoritarianism and government control.
carsi_durusma_161214
In Egypt, the ultras’ battle for freedom in the stadia and in Tahrir Square, their opposition to the military rulers who succeeded Mubarak and also to the elected and then toppled Muslim Brotherhood government of Mohammed Morsi, made them political by definition. The same is true for Çarşı and other Turkish support groups.
The principle shared by Egyptian and Turkish fans of All Cops Are Bastards (ACAB), was however more deeply felt in Egypt where ultras confronted security forces, not only in stadia or in protest squares, but also in popular neighbourhoods of cities where they made life difficult for them as well as their families.
Egyptian and Turkish fan groups though confront similar internal issues. Much like the embattled Brotherhood, they struggle to define themselves. In the Brotherhood’s case, the determination of whether it is a social or political movement, has become a mute issue as a result of its banning in Egypt as a terrorist organization. For the militant fans or ultras in Egypt and Turkey, who refuse to acknowledge that they are as much about politics as they are about soccer, the issue is being used by authoritarian leaders attempt to discredit and criminalize them.
UlAhlNon2013
Twelve militant soccer fans are sentenced to five year-prison in May 2014 by an Egyptian court due to expansion of the military-backed regime’s crackdown on its Islamist and non-Islamist opponents that re-positioned soccer as a major platform of protest. The fans, members of Ultras Ahlawy, the well-organized and street battled-hardened militant support group of storied Cairo club Al Ahli SC, –who played a key role in the popular uprising and protests of the last three years–, were sentenced in absentia for organizing an illegal gathering and vandalism.
The convicted were accused of blocking a road in Cairo to protest the arrest of Ultras Ahlawy members who had clashed with police last October as they attempted to storm Cairo airport’s international terminal.
The verdict came shortly after newly elected president Abdel Fattah El Sisi, the general who toppled Morsi and Egypt’s first and only democratically elected president, defended Egypt’s recently adopted draconian anti-protest law. The law is part of a regional trend visible in Saudi Arabia and Turkey as well as in debates in Jordan that equates protest with terrorism or categorizes it as a precursor to political violence. “We are talking about a country going to waste. People must realize this and support us. Whoever imagines otherwise, only wants to sabotage Egypt and this will not be allowed. This chaos will bring it down, because of this irresponsible protesting,” said Al Sisi, according to Egyptian media reports and warned in advance of the election that he would do “whatever it takes to restore security”.
The verdict against the fans and the crackdowns, which involve greater brutality by security forces than during the Mubarak era, have contributed to Egypt’s various militant fans or ultras groups’ shift from their highly politicized founders to charismatic young men, –who are often un- or under-employed and un-or under-educated, and whose opposition to law enforcement that has made their lives difficult is visceral.
‘All the old people have left. There was a fight within the group. Some were kidnapped and held for three days. We were attacked with knives. People were injured. Their leader is enormously charismatic,’ said a founder of one of more prominent group of ultras.
The former ultra, who keeps close contact with militant fans, said that a recent fall in soccer protests –that is fuelled by a ban on allowing supporters to attend soccer matches in a bid to prevent stadia from again becoming a platform of anti-government agitation– occurred in part due to a pledge by the Minister of Interior Affairs to replace security forces in stadia with private security firms.
‘It’s likely to be the quiet before the storm. I don’t know a single young person who voted in the presidential elections. Even my parents, simple people who are not Islamists, do not believe in what is happening. People will lose faith in the military. They are losing faith in everything,’ he said.
Fuelling potential trouble, Egyptian officials were discussing how to deal with the ultras more systematically. State-owned Al Ahram newspaper, long a mouthpiece for the government, asked: “Will the Ultras be shown the red card after crossing the red line? Are they digging their own grave? Football Ultras of soccer powerhouse Egyptian clubs Ahli and Zamalek have become a dangerous phenomenon… These days the Ultras are a symbol of destruction, attacking the opposition and sometimes their own kind,” the paper said.
The writing was on the wall during the January 2014 referendum on a military-backed constitutional referendum, which seemed to indicate that Al Sisi could count on the support of just fewer than 40 percent of the electorate, enough to allow him to emerge as the candidate with the single largest voting bloc. 38 percent of the electorate cast their vote in the constitutional poll and 98 percent of them approximately voted in favour. This pattern appeared to be repeating itself in the May presidential election that brought retired general Abdel Fattah Al Sisi to power. Al Sisi’s supporters did not include tens of thousands of young men who joined the ranks of the ultras in the last four years of the Mubarak regime since the fans emerged as the foremost civic group that physically resisted against the regime in almost weekly clashes with security forces in stadia during the soccer season.
The power of these alienated young men became evident within months of the overthrow of Mubarak, when members of the UWK, the highly organized radical fan group of crowned Cairo club Zamalek SC, stormed Cairo International Stadium’s soccer pitch in the 90th minute of the first post-revolt game between an Egyptian and a Tunisian team, disrupting the match and destroying goal posts and everything else in their path. The group’s founders realized that they were losing control. ‘These guys know the security forces are waiting for them to make a mistake. That’s why they have refocused their attention on football… I do not know how long that will last. We could face something like Syria. Islamists will lead the next revolution. It will be an Islamic revolution, not a fight for the state,’ the former ultra said.
Conclusion
The key role of soccer fans in in Egypt as well as Turkey in expressing dissent serves as evidence of scholars Paul Aarts and Francesco Cavatorta’s notion developed in their book Debating Civil Society Dynamics in Syria and Iran that the “real protagonists of the Arab Spring did not come from the usual suspects within established and formal civil society but from sectors of society that have been largely under-explored”. They note that the post 9/11 trend in academic literature to view the region through the prism of the resilience of autocratic or authoritarian regimes meant that research focussed on “the mechanisms of state domination and co-optation, ignoring informal and unofficial loci of dissent and activism, presenting therefore a picture of a stability that did not exist”. It also meant that new civil society actors such as the ultras represented new interests and modus operandi which did not necessarily conform to liberal democratic notions of activism. Their emergence reflected political, economic and social changes in the Middle East and North Africa as well as autocratic attempts to adapt to a more globalized, more interdependent world.
Sociologist Asef Bayat anticipated Aarts and Cavatorta’s notion that the revolts in the Middle East and North Africa originated in under-researched sectors of society like soccer fans by developing the concept of ‘social non-movements’ that “interlock activism with the practice of daily life”. These movements feature significant elements of what constitutes a social movement –an organized and sustained claim directed at the authorities, a repertoire of performances, and public representation of their cause– but operate separately. That was certainly true for rival groups of ultras who largely were as hostile to one another as they were towards security forces as the repressive face of the state. They defied however notions of classical social movements like those formulated by political scientist Cyrus Zirakzadeh given that that they lacked a clear idea of the alternative order they were seeking to achieve or the basic means to build it. Instead in line with scholars David Snow, Sarah Soule and Hanspeter Kriesi’s observations in their Blackwell Companion on Social Movements they acted “outside of institutional or organizational channels”. The fans’ protests broke with classical models of protest not only because of their definition of what support for a club entailed but also because they were dictated by the logic and the rhythm of the game.
The role of soccer fans cast as new actors with new interests and modus operandi allows for an innovative application of social movement and asymmetric warfare theory to the understanding of the Middle East and North Africa, its nexus of sports, politics and society and the fans’ role in popular revolts. The world of the ultras is one of ‘transgressive contention’ that challenges an autocrat’s narrow, tightly controlled institutional framework as defined by political scientists Doug McAdam, Sidney Tarrow and Charles Tilly in their seminal work, Dynamics of Contention.
James M. Dorsey, Writer, Journalist, Senior Fellow at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies
Please cite this publication as follows:
Dorsey, J. M. (January, 2015), “Government and Fans Battle in Court and on the Pitch in Egypt and Turkey”, Vol. IV, Issue 1, pp.37-45, Centre for Policy and Research on Turkey (ResearchTurkey), London, Research Turkey. (http://researchturkey.org/?p=7809)

Endnotes

Monday, January 26, 2015

UK search for Jihadi John spotlights recruitment role of soccer


By James M. Dorsey

The United Kingdom’s search for Jihadi John, the masked, British-accented fighter who appears in videos and beheading of foreigners condemned to death by the Islamic State, the jihadist group that controls a swath of Syria and Iraq, has highlighted the significance for militants of soccer as a recruitment and bonding tool. It has also put the spotlight of a small band of Portuguese nationals who have joined the jihadists in recent years.

The British search is focusing, according to The Sunday Times, on five East London amateur players who travelled to Syria to join the Islamic State and have since suggested on social media that at least one of them had intimate knowledge of the executions. The five are seen as potential leads to Jihadi John, who identity is believed to be known to British intelligence.

One of the five players, 28 year-old, Nero Seraiva, tweeted last year on July 11, days before the execution of American journalist James Foley, the first of the Islamic State’s Western hostages to be decapitated: “"Message to America, the Islamic State is making a new movie. Thank u for the actors." The tweet came days before the jihadist group announced Mr. Foley’s execution in a graphic You Tube video entitled A Message to America.

Jihadi John’s latest video threatened last week to execute two Japanese hostages, one of which, Hurana Yukawa, is believed to have been killed over the weekend.

Intelligence sources believe that Mr. Seraiva and his East London associates may be involved in the filming and distribution of videos of Jihadi John and the beheadings. Westerners who met the same gruesome fate as Mr. Foley include American journalist Steven Sotloff, British aid workers Alan Henning and David Haines and US aid worker Peter Kassig who changed his name to Abdul-Rahman Kassig after converting to Islam.

The investigation of Mr. Seraiva’s group is likely to offer insights into the Islamic State’s appeal. The group’s five members are all Portuguese nationals with roots in Portugal’s former African colonies who migrated to Britain for study and work.

Celso Rodrigues da Costa, whose brother Edgar also is in Syria, is believed to have attended open training sessions for Arsenal, but failed to get selected. Mr. Da Costa, born in Portugal to parents from Guinea-Bissau adopted in Syria the name Abu Isa Andaluzi.

Andaluzi or Al Andalus are names adopted by several of the approximately one dozen Portuguese nationals, at least half of whom were resident in Britain, who have joined the Islamic State. The adopted names, Arabic references to the Iberian Peninsula at the time of Muslim rule, reflect a desire to return the region to Islam.

Islamic State demonstrated its understanding of the recruitment and propaganda value of soccer when it last April distributed a video in which Mr. Da Costa appeared as a masked fighter.
The video exploited the physical likeness of Mr. Da Costa to that of French international Lassana Diarra, who played for Arsenal before moving to Lokomotiv Moscow. A caption under the video posting read; “A former soccer player - Arsenal of London - who left everything for jihad.” Another text said: "He... played for Arsenal in London and left soccer, money and the European way of life to follow the path of Allah.”

On camera, Mr. Da Costa said: "My advice to you first of all is that we are in need of all types of help from those who can help in fighting the enemy. Welcome, come and find us and from those who think that they cannot fight they should also come and join us for example because it maybe that they can help us in something else, for example help with medicine, help financially, help with advice, help with any other qualities and any other skills they might have, and give and pass on this knowledge, and we will take whatever is beneficial and that way they will participate in jihad."

Mr. Da Costa and his cohorts were following in the steps of a number of European players from immigrant backgrounds who radicalized. Burak Karan, an up and coming German-Turkish soccer star, was killed during a Syrian military raid on anti-Bashar al Assad rebels near the Turkish border.

Yann Nsaku, a Congolese born convert to Islam and former Portsmouth FC youth centre back, was one of 11 converts arrested in France in 2012 on suspicion of being violent jihadists who were plotting anti-Semitic attacks. Nizar ben Abdelaziz Trabelsi, a Tunisian who played for Germany’s Fortuna Düsseldorf and FC Wuppertal, was arrested and convicted in Belgium a decade ago on charges of illegal arms possession and being a member of a private militia. Mr. Trabelsi was sentenced to ten years in prison.

They all shared with militant Islamist leaders such as Osama Bin Laden and Hamas leader Ismail Haniyeh a deep-seated passion for the sport. Their road towards militancy often involved an action-oriented activity, soccer.

Fabio Pocas, at 22 the youngest of Mr. Seraiva’s group, arrived in London in 2012, hoping to become a professional soccer player. In Lisbon, Mr. Pocas, a converted to Islam, attended the youth academy of Sporting Lisbon, the alma mater of superstars such as Cristiano Ronaldo and Luis Figo.

In London, he helped amateur league UK Football Finder FC (UKFFFC) win several divisional competitions. The Sunday Times quoted UKFFFC football director Ewemade Orobator as saying that Mr. Pocas “came here to play football seriously. In about May 2013 an agent came down and said, 'Work hard over the summer and I will get you a trial (with a professional club).'" Mr. Pocas failed to take up the offer and travelled to Syria instead where he adopted the name Abdurahman Al Andalus.
Mr. Pocas, according to The Sunday Times, has settled in the Syrian town of Manbij near Aleppo where he has taken a Dutch teenager as his bride. "Holy war is the only solution for humanity," he said in a posting on Facebook.


James M. Dorsey is a senior fellow at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies, co-director of the University of Wuerzburg’s Institute for Fan Culture, a syndicated columnist, and the author of The Turbulent World of Middle East Soccer blog and a forthcoming book with the same title.

Friday, January 23, 2015

AFC official ‘happy’ to bar women spectators from stadia

Alex Soosay: happy to bar women from stadia

By James M. Dorsey

The Asian Football Confederation (AFC) has dropped any pretention of standing up for universal standards for equality in sports by endorsing bans on women attending soccer matches in stadia. In doing so, the AFC has confirmed policies adopted by the Asian group as well as world soccer body FIFA that effectively supports autocratic or illiberal democratic regimes in the Middle East and North Africa.

The confirmation came in remarks by AFC general secretary Dato' Alex Soosay to Agence France Press (AFP) that he is “happy” to respect Iranian laws that ban women from watching male soccer matches in stadia. By implication, Mr. Soosay could have also been referring to Saudi Arabia which, like Iran, bans women from stadia, and in contrast to the Islamic republic, refuses to legalize or encourage women’s soccer.

“We’re very broad-minded.  In Australia there’s a big Iranian community and you can’t stop them from coming to the stadium because there’s no restrictions here. Whereas in Iran, there has been some restrictions of women entering the stadium and watching a football match,” Mr. Soosay said.

Mr. Soosay made his remarks after the Iranian football federation warned members of its national team competing in the Asian Cup in Australia not to take selfies with female Australian-Iranian soccer fans the majority of whom do not adhere to the Islamic republic’s strict dress code for women.

“National team players should be aware that they won’t be used as a political tool by those who take pictures with them,” Ali Akbar Mohamedzade, the head of the Islamic Republic of Iran Football Federation moral committee, told Iran’s Shahrvand newspaper.

Mr. Soosay’s remarks appear to be at odds with an increased focus on human and women’s rights by the International Olympic Committee (IOC) and other global sports associations. IOC officials have, in recent months, privately encouraged human rights groups to take Saudi Arabia to task for its failure to allow women to freely compete in all disciplines of the Olympics.

Mr. Soosay’s remarks further contrast starkly with a warning to Iran by the International Volleyball Federation (FIVB) that it would be stripped of its right to host the 2015 Under-19 men’s world volleyball championship if it bans women from attending matches. The FIVB stance is relevant to the AFC given that Iran is widely seen as a frontrunner in the bidding for the right to host 2019 Asian Cup.

A FIVB spokesman said in November that his federation "will not give Iran the right to host any future FIVB directly controlled events such as World Championships, especially under age, until the ban on women attending volleyball matches is lifted.” The FIVB has asked Argentina to stand-by to replace Iran as the host of the tournament. In a statement, FIVB president Ary Graca said that "women throughout the world should be allowed to watch and participate in volleyball on an equal basis."

The FIVB made its decision after talks with Human Rights Watch, which has also met with IOC president Thomas Bach. The meeting with the IOC president marked a new era in the group’s attitude towards human rights. Mr. Bach’s predecessor, Jacques Rogge, refused to meet with human rights groups during his tenure.

Mr. Soosay’s remarks further violate a resolution adopted two years ago by the West Asian Football Federation (WAFF) and endorsed by Iran that called for putting women’s sporting rights on par with those of men.   

The AFC official’s remarks came against the backdrop of recent international outrage at the charging of a British-Iranian law graduate for attempting to enter a stadium to watch a men’s volleyball match. Ghoncheh Ghavami was detained in June. She twice went on hunger strike before being released on bail as she awaits trial.

Mr. Soosay defended his comments by noting that visiting female officials and media attending AFC events in Iran have been allowed into stadiums, provided they covered their hair. “You have to respect that they have to cover themselves. There is a code of attire which has to be respected. If it’s done in Iran there’s no issue at all,” Mr. Soosay said. His remarks related to foreign women who were members of visiting delegations and are subject to different rules from those that apply to women fans.

By endorsing discriminatory Iranian policies, Mr. Soosay effectively reiterated the AFC’s longstanding refusal to insist on adherence by Middle Eastern soccer associations to its principles, rules and regulations. That refusal amounts to effective support for autocratic rule in a soccer crazy region where rulers see the game as a key tool to retain power by exercising absolute control of public space and an institution that evokes deep-seated passions.

The refusal has had over the years far-reaching consequences for the AFC, no more so since 2002 when Qatari national Mohammed Bin Hammam became the group’s president until he was banned for life by FIFA from involvement in professional soccer eleven years later, and under the reign of his Bahraini nemesis and successor, Sheikh Salman Bin Ebrahim Al Khalifa.

The governance of both men reflects the autocratic traits of the societies they hail from. Both men are imperious, ambitious and have worked assiduously to concentrate power in their hands and side line their critics clamouring for reform. Both men, hailing from countries governed by absolute, hereditary leaders, have been accused of being willing to occupy their seats of power at whatever price.

As a result, Mr. Soosay’s remarks fit the mould of AFC governance. Sheikh Salman recently used a proposal to recognize Central Asia as a separate soccer region in Asia to eliminate the post of a woman AFC vice president. That post is currently held by Australian Moya Dodd, a prominent reformer whose views challenge those held by Messrs. Salman and Soosay.


James M. Dorsey is a senior fellow at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies, co-director of the University of Wuerzburg’s Institute for Fan Culture, a syndicated columnist, and the author of The Turbulent World of Middle East Soccer blog and a forthcoming book with the same title.

Thursday, January 22, 2015

Soccer soft power: A double-edged sword


By James M. Dorsey

An avalanche of criticism of FC Bayern Muenchen,  a leading soccer brand and Germany’s most successful club, for playing a commercially driven friendly against Saudi Arabia’s FC Al Hilal amid a crackdown on dissent in the kingdom, the public flogging of a blogger and the putting on trial in a court that deals with terrorism charges of two women for violating a ban on female driving highlights the increasing risk autocratic Gulf states run in employing the sport to polish tarnished images and project soft power.

The avalanche also spotlights mounting discontent among fans and some soccer executives with clubs’ willingness to ignore human rights violations by their host nations.
The criticism of Bayern Muenchen, one of the world’s richest clubs with an annual turnover of $580 million, forced the German club, which was reportedly paid $2.3 million for playing the match, to issue a statement that cloaked an apology in a defence of its decision to ignore the kingdom’s deteriorating, never stellar human rights record.

In response to the criticism, Bayern Muenchen chairman Karl Rummenigge said in a statement that “Bayern Munich condemns all forms of cruel punishment that are not consistent with human rights, as in the current case involving blogger Raif Badawi, a critic of Islam. It would have been better to clearly address this on the occasion of our match in Saudi Arabia. We are a football club and not political policy-makers, but naturally everyone, ourselves included, ultimately bears responsibility for compliance with human rights."

Mr. Badawi, a Saudi blogger, was sentenced to ten years in prison and 1,000 lashes to be publicly administered 50 at a time over a period of 20 weeks for insulting Islam by criticizing the kingdom’s powerful clergy on his website, Free Saudi Liberals, which has since been shut down. Mr. Badawi was first lashed earlier this month. The second lashing was postponed on advice of a prison doctor.

Loujain al-Hathloul and Maysa al-Amoudi were referred at about the same time to a terrorism court for defying the ban on female drivers.

Mr. Rummenigge’s apology did not spare Bayern Muenchen further criticism. Theo Zwanziger, the executive committee member of world soccer body FIFA responsible for overseeing Qatari labour reforms following condemnation of the Gulf state and 2022 World Cup host’s working and living conditions for migrant workers, told the Frankfurter Algemeine Zeitung that "I have known for some time that at Bayern commerce beats ethics and, if in doubt, they will stand on the side of the purse. That's a shame, but it doesn't surprise me."

German Social Democratic Party member of parliament Dagmar Freitag, speaking to the Sueddeutsche Zeitung, added that "sport has a strong voice, but it does not use it at the points where it makes sense and can be helpful. Footballers don't have to be politicians but they should be aware of human rights conditions and could set examples." Ozcan Mutlu, spokesman for the left-wing Greens, added that "there is no honour to have a friendly game in Riyadh when, so to speak, right next to the stadium the blogger Badawi is flogged 1,000 times and has his skin pulled off his back."

Saudi Arabia has twice dabbled in the past year in projecting soft power through German soccer. Second tier German soccer club FSV Frankfurt, a year before the Bayern Muenchen incident, terminated a sponsorship agreement with state-owned airline Saudia because it refused to transport passengers who carry Israeli passports. FSV cancelled the agreement after German media accused the airline of anti-Semitism and Frankfurt municipal officials and prominent German Jews denounced it.

Adding insult to injury, FSV announced the same day of the cancellation a partnership with local club TuS Makkabi Frankfurt, a Jewish club that is historically part of the centrist wing of the Zionist movement. US critics had earlier called for the barring of Saudia from US airports. To be fair, Saudi Arabia recently announced that it would no longer bar Jews from gaining employment in the kingdom.

The Bayern Muenchen incident nevertheless indicates that fans and some international sports executives no longer are willing to turn a blind eye to violations of human rights or what some describe as reputation laundering. The greater sensitivity comes as the International Olympic Committee (IOC) introduced human and labour rights into contracts for future Olympic hosts. FIFA earlier acknowledged that those rights should be part of its hosting criteria. Human rights groups and others like Transparency International are moreover putting sports high on their agenda.

Controversy over Qatar’s restrictive labour regime has put it at the head of the activists’ firing line. Qatari difficulty with reforming the regime that puts workers at the mercy of their employers has raised the spectre that the Gulf state could be deprived of its World Cup hosting rights if it fails to match its lofty words with deeds. Mr. Zwanziger has suggested that a motion to take the tournament away from Qatar could be tabled at a FIFA congress in May if the Gulf state has not taken concrete steps by then.

To be fair, Qatar, unlike other Gulf states, has engaged with its critics and published charters for the rights of workers employed on World Cup-related contracts. Qatar’s difficulty is that the issue of labour rights sparks existential fears in a country whose citizenry accounts for a mere 12 percent of the population and fears that it could lose control of its state, culture and society. Qatar walks a tightrope in balancing the need to respond to international criticism quickly and a domestic situation that demands gradual change.

Bayern Muenchen came under fire not only for its Saudi friendly. Critics also did not take kindly to the fact that the club spent the week before the game in a training camp in Qatar. "Even if Bayern does not determine the politics in Saudi Arabia and Qatar, its presence there legitimises it," a Bayern member tweeted under the Twitter handle @agitpopblog in an open letter to club officials.


James M. Dorsey is a senior fellow at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies, co-director of the University of Wuerzburg’s Institute for Fan Culture, a syndicated columnist, and the author of The Turbulent World of Middle East Soccer blog and a forthcoming book with the same title.

Wednesday, January 21, 2015

Conflicting views of Islam spill onto the soccer pitch


By James M. Dorsey

When Sarah Samir stepped this week on to an Egyptian soccer pitch to referee a men’s match, she joined a small band of Arab women referees staking out their right to be involved in the sport on par with men. The significance of Ms. Samir’s appearance highlighted the battle for the soul of Islam that is being fought on the pitch as much as it is being waged on multiple other fronts. It also spotlighted strategies to counter militant ideologies.

Ms. Samir, the first Egyptian woman referee, arbitrated a third division match between Wadi Degla FC and Talaea El Gaish SC. She did so as a Syrian activist group reported that Islamic State, the jihadist group that controls a swath of Syria and Iraq, executed 13 teenage boys for watching on television an Asian Cup soccer match in Iraq’s Al-Yarmouk district near the city of Mosul. It also followed a warning by the Iranian football federation to members of its national team competing in the tournament in Australia not to take selfies with female Australian Iranian fans, most of whom do not conform to Islamic dress that hides the contours of the body.

The juxtaposition of the three events highlights a long-standing struggle among ulema or Muslim scholars and within the jihadist world about the role and place of soccer in Islam. It is a multi-layered debate with opinions running the gamut from condemnation of the sport as an infidel invention that detracts believers from their religious obligations to clerics who view soccer exclusively as a men’s sport to a jihadist divide between those who see football’s utility as a bonding and recruitment tool and groups that see it as a violation of Islamic law punishable by death.

With Ms. Samir’s appearance on the pitch, Egypt joined a small number of Middle Eastern and North African nations – the United Arab Emirates, Syria, Morocco, Tunisia and Israel – that allows Muslim women to referee soccer matches. Her appointment to referee a match came three weeks after Egyptian general-turned-president Abdel Fattah Al Sisi called for a reform of Islam.

In doing so, Egypt was adhering to a 2012 resolution putting women’s sporting rights on par with that of men of the West Asian Football Federation (WAFF). It did so despite the fact that Egypt is an African country that falls beyond the authority of the WAFF that groups Middle Eastern soccer bodies in Asia.

Responses on social media to Ms. Samir reflected public debate in the Middle East and North Africa that by and large appears in majority to favour women’s sporting rights. NguZsc tweeted: “Sarah Samir is a great thing for our country. We are moving forward.” AhmeD_FelFela congratulated her. Ahmednhad’s praise more likely than not confirmed one of conservative ulema and jihadist objections to women’s soccer and the mixing of genders on the pitch: male celebration of women as women. “Honestly she is fit and beautiful ... Why aren’t all Egyptian referees like her?” Ahmednhad tweeted.

The significance of the breaking of the mould by Ms. Samir and her fellow women referees goes far beyond the soccer pitch. It goes to the core of the ideological struggle within Islam and efforts to counter the appeal of jihadist groups like Islamic State who in the view of Eli Berman, a former member of the Israeli military’s elite Golani brigade-turned-University of California economist, constitute economic clubs whose sustainability depends on their ability to create a mutual aid environment that caters to the spiritual and material needs of their dependent members and brutal repression of women and dissenters.

The killing of the 13 boys who were watching a match between Jordan and Iraq fits the mould. The Syrian activist group, Raqqa is Being Slaughtered Silently, a reference to the Syrian city of Raqqa where Islamic State has based itself, reported that the boys were publicly executed by firing squad in a sports arena. Loudspeakers reportedly announced that their execution was intended as a message to those who violate the strict laws of the Islamic State, which ordered that their bodies be left in the facility for all to see. 'The bodies remained lying in the open and their parents were unable to withdraw them for fear of murder by terrorist organisation,' the activists said.

Promotion of women’s sporting rights, including the fielding of female referees, fits Mr. Berman’s counterterrorism strategy articulated in a book in 2011 entitled New Economics of Terrorism. Mr. Berman argued that what made the difference between viable and non-viable militant groups was not religious fervour but the provision of jobs and social services, including education, health, sports and enforcement of law and order.

In Mr. Berman’s cost-benefit analysis, the cost of hardening targets and defending them against militant attacks is far higher than the cost of weakening militant economic clubs by offering their members alternatives. "Concentrating on capturing or killing every last terrorist (or buying off some warlord to do so) can probably only succeed in the short run, since the underlying conditions of weak governance and/or weak service provision will likely continue to generate new terrorist clubs,” Mr. Berman wrote.

Mr. Berman’s strategy has particular relevance for Middle East and North Africa nations as well as governments and Muslim communities in Europe in the wake of the flow of foreign fighters to Syria and Iraq and the recent attacks in Paris on a satirical magazine and a Jewish supermarket. Many frustrated, disaffected youth in the Middle East and North Africa as well as in Europe feel they are deprived of opportunity and gravitate toward jihadist Islam as their only perceived option,

Mr. Berman’s strategy is one that boldly challenges existing political and social structures that encourage that perception. It holds out the prospect of ensuring that the disaffected gain a stake in their societies rather than feel that opting for radical alternatives is the only way of getting their voices heard and their grievances addressed.


James M. Dorsey is a senior fellow at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies, co-director of the University of Wuerzburg’s Institute for Fan Culture, a syndicated columnist, and the author of The Turbulent World of Middle East Soccer blog and a forthcoming book with the same title.

Monday, January 19, 2015

Oil money is making pro soccer look a little different (JMD quoted in Global Post)

Oil money is making pro soccer look a little different

Five of the 20 richest clubs in Europe are sponsored by a Gulf company.

Real Madrid soccer logoENLARGE
The Real Madrid logo as of May 20, 2014. (Denis Doyle/AFP/Getty Images)
MADRID, Spain — They were all in the photo: the heads of Real Madrid and the National Bank of Abu Dhabi and four Real Madrid stars: Bale, Benzema, Kroos, Carvajal. Posing happily, they were holding a huge credit card, unveiling the fruitful deal by which the Gulf-based financial institution would sponsor the Spanish club.
Only something was missing from the picture. Printed on the massive cardboard mockup was Real Madrid's crest, as the sponsorship deal promised — sans its tiny cross. The Christian symbol has been part of the logo since 1920, when then-king Alfonso XIII granted “Madrid Foot-Ball Club” the title of “Real” (Royal). A crown bearing a cross has topped the club’s logo ever since.
The change wasn’t discussed at the time, in September, and it took the world’s press a couple of months to notice. But once they did — soccer fans went nuts over the news.
Memes spreading around social media replaced the emblem’s Christian crown with dollar symbols or the Muslim crescent. Spanish aficionados hotly debated in cafes and bars the lengths that were being gone to not to offend potential Gulf customers or investors, who’ve recently flooded European soccer with petrodollars.
But it wasn’t the first time Real Madrid let its funders get in on brand decisions. The sports giant already reportedly agreed to modify its logo in 2012 after a deal to establish "Real Madrid Resort Island," a billion-dollar theme park in the United Arab Emirates. The project, consisting of a seashore stadium, a Real Madrid museum, an amusement park and a marina, was soon shelved, but recent agreements seem to have put it back on track, with a new partner and location.
The logo change is just the latest in a series of eyebrow-raising moves by Real Madrid president Florentino Perez, an ambitious, millionaire businessman who also heads a construction company.
Perez previously brought in the state-owned Emirates airline, which was willing to finance a club with $730 million in gross debt that was still netting a profit. The "Fly Emirates" slogan has been featured on team jerseys since 2013 and will stay there at least until 2018. Real Madrid is the world's most valuable sports franchise, according to Forbes, valued at $3.44 billion.
Perez’s flagship project is redeveloping iconic Santiago Bernabeu stadium. Located in a posh neighborhood in Spain's capital, the stadium is named after the president who put the team on the map half a century ago. The $540 million plan is suspended by a preliminary court decision, but Perez hopes to get it started up again in 2015. According to him, such a huge project in a country hit hard by years of economic crisis and strained bank credit has only one way to become a reality: sponsorship.
Last October, Real Madrid and the International Petroleum Investment Company (IPIC), owned by the royal family of Abu Dhabi, signed an agreement by which the stadium would be renamed, keeping only Bernabeu's family name and adding a nod to IPIC.
Perez was recently caught on camera explaining to a Madrid regional government official that the stadium will become “IPIC Bernabeu, Cepsa (IPIC's Spanish subsidiary), or whatever they want.” “They” being of course the IPIC owners.
Contacted by GlobalPost, Real Madrid declined to comment. The National Bank of Abu Dhabi (NBAD) did not return emails seeking comment.
Deals like these aren’t that extraordinary in European soccer as of late. In 2011 the Qatar Foundation became the first-ever sponsor for the rival Barcelona team, supplying it with $40 million. That same year, a Qatari sheikh bought French team Paris Saint-Germain. Britain’s Arsenal and Germany’s Bayern Munich have respectively added Emirates and insurance company Allianz to their stadium names.  
Middle Eastern investors and groups have spent $1.5 billion acquiring stakes in European soccer clubs, according to a report released this month by sports marketing research company Repucom. Five of the 20 richest clubs in Europe are sponsored by a Gulf company.
"Qatar and the Gulf states see sports as a tool to enhance their prestige, enabl[ing] them to punch above their weight international[ly], create non-sport-related business opportunities and boost tourism," writes James M. Dorsey, senior fellow at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies at Nanyang Technological University in Singapore and author of the blog "The Turbulent World of Middle East Soccer."
This show of "soft power" found its best reward in Qatar's successful but controversial bid to host the 2022 World Cup.
Not everyone is enthusiastic about this new trend, though.
The Spanish Catholic conservative association Enraizados (Rooted) has collected 3,500 signatures criticizing the loss of a religious symbol from the crest, which the group interprets as a lack of respect toward "European cultural identity and its Christian roots."
“Removing the cross is as absurd as it would be asking the Turks to renounce the crescent that illustrates their flag when they come to Spain,” said the organization’s president, José Castro.
Other critics, like members of the group Valores del Madridismo (Support for Real Madrid Values), care less about religion and more about opaque decision-making. “Some choices concern the club’s essence, thus cannot be made in a despotic and totalitarian way,” protested its spokesman, journalist Humberto Martínez-Fresneda.
The cross doesn’t actually seem to be an issue for Muslim Real Madrid supporters visiting the stadium. Three different employees at the official merchandising shop didn’t recall any complaint or specific T-shirt printing demand. “Here, no matter which religion, everyone wants the same thing: Cristiano, Cristiano, Cristiano (Ronaldo). It seems only those up in management worry about the cross issue, not the ones coming here. In fact, I think Muslim customers are not even aware the crest contains a cross,” said one.
Outside the stadium, supporters take quick selfies before fleeing from the winter cold back to their cars. Two of them, Hakim and Mohammed, are French Muslims visiting Spain. “I really don’t care about the presence of the cross. That's the way the crest is, so for me there’s no debate,” states Hakim. Mohammed holds a more nuanced view: “I also don't mind, but I wouldn't enter the mosque wearing a Real Madrid T-shirt knowing that it has a cross.”
Touri Jihad, a 26-year-old Moroccan Muslim, is “happy” about the agreement with Abu Dhabi’s bank. “I’d prefer Real Madrid play in my country without the cross. Having said that, my friends in Morocco and I bought the T-shirt the way it is. You can’t just remove the cross,” he says.