Egypt: Bend it like Mubarak

Sadiki sees how football has been reduced into a political game and the game of football into politics of populism.

The real opiate of the masses remains football in the impoverished Arab world and “without football, the multitude are feared by Arab dictators to look for alternative preoccupation perhaps, in politics” [GALLO/GETTY]

Oxford, United Kingdom – Football is fine to a point. When all eyes are on a spherical piece of leather being chased, headed, passed, netted or bended by a Beckham or Owen. But not when ball is not played or politics is turned into a ball. As on Port Said’s Black Wednesday!

First, there was Khartoum. Algerians and Egyptians were mobilised in senseless pride culminating in violence. It suited the politicians of two equally de-legitmised polities. In mid-November 2009, embattled Mubarak and Bouteflika used the machinery of government to whip up public hysteria over a decisive match to qualify for the 2010 World Cup in South Africa.

The real opiate of the masses remains football in the impoverished Arab world. Without football, the multitude are feared by Arab dictators to look for alternative preoccupation perhaps, in politics. That would be a hazardous occupation for the rulers and the ruled.

At the time, Gamal was banking on a win. All was ready for the party of the century. It was to be an epic, may be Pharaoh-ic. The celebrations were to double up as a launch of Gamal’s presidential campaign. Even elder brother Alaa, who shunned politics in preference for big business, all of a sudden turned political. He even displayed eloquence, which Gamal lacked. Actors, singers, preachers, journalists and all kinds of state clients were recruited to defend the national pride injured by the violence of the Algerian hooligans.

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The only pride that was injured was that of Gamal and his father. They reduced football into a political game and the game of football into politics of populism before, during and after Khartoum. Those were the days when fallout from the protests of the 2008 Mahalla Al-Kubra in the Nile Delta were not entirely forgotten, bread shortage was rife and the smell of dissent was in the air, especially after the sham presidential elections of 2008.

The Algerian regime and the corrupt “patrona” (mostly, top brass engaging in business activity) were equally troubled by the legacy they could not erase from the civil war that left 150,000 people dead. All in the name of the supposedly ‘anti-Islamist’ forces who won the first round of the 1991 parliamentary elections.

The regime that could not provide jobs, ensure proper “truth and reconciliation”, and diversify its rentier economy or benefit from oil rent magically could find money to airlift thousands of fans to Khartoum, the neutral ground for the battlefield and war that was to be staged after the qualifier that was won by Algeria. The fans of two fellow Arab League members, formerly comrades-in-arms in the 1973 war and in the 1950s, Nasser and even the Muslim Brotherhood, were amongst the suppliers of weapons to the Algerian anti-French resistance.

Over one match that was not to get either the World Cup trophy, Arab insulted, bashed and disowned Arab. Rituals of flag burning were exchanged. The gods of politics were preached. Prayers of nationalism were marked with endless singing of the national anthems. That was a point when football ended and politics began. What was bizarre was the endless pool of intelligent and talented people who were credulously recruited for a cause that had nothing to do with either the rationality of politics, or the sportsmanship of football.

The football of politics

What happened in Port Said is not alien to the world of football. Sheffield, Johannesburg, Guatemala, Kathmandu, Brussels and Moscow all have horror stories to tell about football and death. In 1974, 49 people were trampled to death in Cairo Stadium – more than today, if one considers Egypt had at the time less than half of the current population of 80 million.

Why would 70 or 80 people die over a match off football? This time there is no trophy.

There are two theses – may be more.

Thesis one:

Perhaps, there is a “trophy” and there is a game, except it is not “football”. It is the only game in town brought about the winds of the Arab Spring and the revolutionary youth of Tahrir Square: dignity, bread and freedom – the game of democracy, as Western transitologists would call it.  

The “trophy” of power – may be as a zero-sum game – is what is coveted. The Muslim Brotherhood have not won this trophy. But they have come closest through a majority of seats through free elections to claiming the trophy of power.

One thing in Egypt, that is, its prowess in the process of what is going to be an arduously complex and protracted transition is both its blessing and its curse: its multi-layered and pluralist society.

I elaborate.

Tunisia is a “breeze” to run, manage and rule. There are 10 million homogeneous people with a decent level of education. The who’s who of Tunisia do not number 1,000. Seriously. The Islamists or anyone else who wins power can have a field day, running the country. The North and the Sahel are quite “ruly”. The hinterland, where equivalent disturbances erupt intermittently such as in the phosphates basin, were happening around the same time as the Mahalla protests in Egypt. But the impoverished south and centre in Tunisia “boycott” the makhzan – the centre. They survive by dint of withdrawal of participation – absence. Only in times of protests over bread riots or livelihood.

In the foreseeable future, this will continue in Tunisia, with the state expecting low-key protests, but nothing serious.

Egypt is a different kettle of fish. Not even a parliamentary majority can guarantee singularity. Egypt is blessed with hundreds of elites, sets of socio-political networks, plural forms of political Islam, political and apolitical, media outlets, high cadres with massive training and experience in international organisations, business elites, a massive film production, sects, Sufi orders, two religions, regions, and powerful military and police bureaucracies, and last not least, and huge expatriate community all over the world.

The contests will be fierce, plural and continuous in a context of freedom and entirely lax security situation, owing to a quasi-withdrawal of all controls by formerly intrusive apparatuses that penetrated all aspects of society. Egypt’s pluralism which potentially is its bulwark against the return to singularity is thus its blessing.

The total sum of this pluralist mass is its fragmentary voices, forces and discourses. Today, there is political motion, contention, contestation and gestation tending more towards centrifugal, rather than centripetal definition.

Right now, this is normal in the midst of a revolutionary moment – especially one that is not engendered through intellectual or ideological fervour. As if the Arab revolutions are seeking the “thinking” and “knowing” substance so far still missing. 

In 1974, 49 people were trampled to death in Cairo Stadium [AFP]

Thesis two:

It is normal and can be expected that people in Egypt, as in Libya and Tunisia, are emboldened by the success of their revolutions. Expectations are high and in all three countries, with the qualified exception of Tunisia, there is a lack of a set of shared values and goals.

Dignity, bread and freedom translate in polyphony and all kind of competing aims.

In Egypt, the centrestage that was Tahrir Square is now the “launching pad” of all kinds of sites of “struggle” – regardless of their legitimacy or lack thereof. Contests and counter-contests abound. There is always a chicken-egg dynamic: what comes first? Elections, constitution or president? What to do with SCAF? The elections to be boycotted or not? The election results to be respected or rejected? Are the Muslim Brotherhood friend/foe of the revolution or of SCAF?

Plato would be proud of the republic dynamic. Political animals are legion. The liberals, the leftists, the students, the supporters of the “officers of April 8” currently in detention, young lawyers, protesters from the “Our Egypt…” all have competing, even if partly overlapping agendas. There is the foloul – the remnants of the ancien regime, obvious losers of the revolution. There is an anti-Muslim Brotherhood element in this, mixed with anti-SCAF sentiments, all tied to an overall absence of shared vision or objectives and a constitution, the framing of which will be accompanied by heightened contestation.

Even withdrawal from the public sphere is politics by default. Take the police and the security forces’ laxity; it speaks tonnes about inability to cope with the massive changes since February 2011. It is understandable why charges of complicity in the violence of the past week and especially, emerging incidents of organised crime against banks, including HSBC in the 5th Mugamma in Cairo this week. Citizen groups, still frustrated at the lack of response by the caretaker government, are taking the law into their own hands – several road blocks have been recently staged accompanied by all kinds of demands. Parliament itself came under siege two days ago.

There is nothing imaginative in pointing the finger at SCAF as benefiting from the chaos: it instigates it to hang on to power. Nothing is straightforward. However, SCAF is not to be blameless in the Port Said violence. Standing as an incompetent “protector” or “caretaker” of the revolution hurts more than helps the embattled SCAF. The revolution has confirmed one thing: the army is not fit to govern – neither in Egypt nor in Syria or Yemen.

Bending the rules of the political game is vital when asserting people’s sovereignty. All nations with great revolutions had to undergo this. But to bend all politics as if it were a ball – before reaching the stage of defining new rules for the political game – should not jeopardise the life of the baby (revolution) in the process of seeking to throw out the bathing water.

Dr Larbi Sadiki is a Senior Lecturer in Middle East Politics at the University of Exeter, and author of Arab Democratisation: Elections without Democracy (Oxford University Press, 2009), The Search for Arab Democracy: Discourses and Counter-Discourses (Columbia University Press, 2004) and forthcoming Hamas and the Political Process (2012).

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial policy.