Analysis & Opinions - The Boston Globe

Not Just a Game

| February 6, 2012

In Egypt, the soccer riot and its aftermath has a much deeper meaning

LAST NIGHT, there was a football game. A team won. This is, in its most basic narrative, all that happened. And while many will try to give greater meaning to the Super Bowl battle, there will be another one next year and the year after that. It is a monumental game, but it is not existential. And we should be grateful for that.

In Egypt, their football has real meaning. More than 70 deaths after a soccer game in Port Said, and the subsequent rallies and protests, laid bare the dueling tensions between order and independence. Simply put, is a soccer "thug" just a hooligan or a freedom fighter?

Conspiracy theories abound about what actually happened during the game between Al Ahly, Egypt's most famous team, and Al Masry. Al Masry won the game, 3-1, and that didn't sit well with Egypt's "ultras," energetic and sometimes violent soccer fans who invaded the pitch and threatened the winning players. As security forces stood by, spectators stampeded out of the stadium, causing a crush of death.

The tragedy was no surprise to Egyptian soccer players, nor to soccer players around the world. It can be a very violent sport for spectators. Riots are an unfortunate part of its legacy from Europe to Africa to South America. But this wasn't just a game. It was played against the backdrop of a much more pressing debate in Egypt: the end of emergency rule.

The failure of basic public order plays into a narrative that helps Egypt's military rulers. The military continues to hold onto the exceptional powers it enjoyed after former President Hosni Mubarak was removed from office. Meant initially as a placeholder, the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF) essentially became the local police, enforcing emergency law and then fighting democratic protests. Their incapacity to maintain law and order became a self-justification for continuing their powers.

When, finally, SCAF ended emergency law this month after a year of protests and international complaints, they did so with one major caveat: they would give up their powers granted under an emergency law that existed through much of Mubarak's tenure but for one exception: "thuggery."

What SCAF meant by thuggery is anyone's guess, even at the US State Department. Mindful not to get too involved with Egypt's internal affairs, the United States sought clarification of what SCAF meant by "thuggery" and just how it would be applied as Egypt picks a president later this year. "It was just one word," a senior State Department official told me, "but after last week, it was a very important one."

That exception is no coincidence given that "hooligans" are not only sports fans, but also very political. Indeed, in the lead-up to the Arab Spring, signs of fissures in Mubarak's hold on power were best evidenced by soccer fans whose anger over a loss spilled over into street protests in 2009. Egypt was the reigning soccer champion in Africa, and Mubarak had used success on the pitch to build support for his rule. By the time Egypt lost to Algeria in the 2009 World Cup Qualifier, Mubarak had so whipped his country into nationalistic fury that riots broke out in Cairo, Algiers, and even London.

It was an embarrassment for Egypt, and helped to galvanize skeptical "hooligans" to begin the revolution best remembered for the peaceful protests in Tahrir Square. Competing groups of soccer ultras joined together against the one enemy that mattered the most: Mubarak.

This history is well known to SCAF, who are now trying to cast the soccer fans in the most apolitical light possible: They are not freedom fighters but mere rioters. Order above all else.

Many of the protesters, in response, condemned SCAF and the country's interior ministry for its shoddy protections. But the innocence is all gone; these protests are filled with ultras and other bands of young men, not the diverse array of citizens that came together in Tahrir Square.

Still, it's increasingly clear what all Egyptians want most: stability. In Gallup polls, Egyptians' fears for their own personal safety have skyrocketed above all other concerns.

Egypt's future is not just about democracy, but about the basics of public security. If Egypt can't satisfy both simultaneously, then the Spring is lost. The battles on the street now are not about a unified vision of Egypt's future, but about competing visions of Egypt's fate.

The game had meaning.

For more information on this publication: Please contact the Belfer Communications Office
For Academic Citation: Kayyem, Juliette.“Not Just a Game.” The Boston Globe, February 6, 2012.

The Author

Juliette Kayyem