Egyptian soccer hooligans and political regime change
Comment: "The current events in Egypt make me think of what happened in Romania in November and December 1989. Time will show if Hosni Mubarak will suffer the same fate as Nicolae Ceausescu – violently removed as head of state and killed? The similarities are there, but there is one important difference," writes Andreas Selliaas in this comment piece.
Denmark started the Romanian revolution! It is difficult to put a date on political regime change. Narrow minded as I am, I believe that the Romanian revolution started on 15 November 1989 when Romania beat Denmark 3-1 in a qualifying match for the Italy World Cup, thus qualifying for the World Cup at the expense of Denmark.
In Romania, political rallies were not allowed, but the celebration of important sporting events was. The celebration of Romania's surprising and long awaited qualification (20 years since the last) led many to the streets where they stayed until 22 December when Ceausescu held his disastrous speech upon his return from Iran.
He was overthrown and killed on 25 December 1989. Of course, the football match was just a trigger, but still an important event.
The ultras model
Several of the reports from Egypt say that the Egyptian football fans or football hooligans are central to the revolt against Mubarak and his regime. It is especially the followers of Al-Ahly who are highlighted in this context. They are known for their fierce commitment - in the literal sense - and have organised themselves after the model of the Italian Ultras.
They say that they are not politically motivated. This is a truth with modifications. History shows that the club's origin was politically motivated and that not only the supporters, but the whole club still has political commitments.
The struggle against colonial power
For more than 100 years, the Egyptian football club Al-Ahly has been used for political protest in Egypt. The club was established in 1907 as part of the struggle against the British colonial power. Al-Ahly translates into "the national" and the national was in opposition to the colonial powers.
Since its start, Al-Ahly has been the club in Egypt with the most politically engaged supporters. The club has also allowed their players to highlight political issues on the playing field. In 2008, for example, Al-Ahly allowed star player Mohamed Aboutrika ("the smiling assassin") to play with a t-shirt that said "Sympathize with Gaza".
More Eastern Europe
It is not only the analogy to Ceausescu’s fate that brings the mind to an Eastern European analogy. Also incidents in other parts of in Eastern Europe in the 1980s and up until now has parallels with what is happening in Egypt (and other parts of the Middle East) today.
Football played and still plays an important role in the political Eastern Europe. Here are some examples:
In February 2008, Serbian football hooligans were central when the U.S. embassy in Belgrade was set on fire. The violent riots occurred after Kosovo declared its independence on 17 February and several Western countries recognized the independence. Football hooligans have had a central place in the political landscape in Serbia before and after Communist Yugoslavia disintegrated in 1991.
Before Yugoslavia fell victim to civil war and broke down, there was strong rivalry between Partisan Belgrade and Red Star Belgrade. Partisan was the army team and Red Star was the police team. The nationalist forces in Serbia supported Red Star since the army and Partisan were seen as representatives of the communist regime and the communist regime stood in the way of Serbian glory and dominion.
At the end of the 1980s, Slobodan Milosevic allied with the nationalists in and around Red Star, both to ensure that they would not oppose him, but also because he would use them in the fight for a free Serbia. Their slogan was "Serbia, not Yugoslavia."
One of the most prominent figures in the football environment was Arkan (Željko Ražnatović). The Serb with the Turkish nickname (!) managed to unite the various fractions of Red Star and got them to stand together against Serbia's enemies. He streamlined the supporters’ organisation, disciplined members and gave them a political mission. Red Star supporters should be known as the Heroes (Delije - also a Turkish name), while the paramilitary army that Arkan put together from the most tenacious fighters in this environment was called the Tigers.
Between 1991 and 1995 the Tigers were responsible for the most brutal human rights violations in the war-torn Yugoslavia. The Tigers have more than 2000 lives on their conscience.
For his efforts in the war, Arkan became a folk hero in Serbia. But he was also rich. And he wanted to spend his money on his own football club. After being rejected to buy Red Star he took over the Kosovo club FC Prishtina in 1994 - and cleared it of Albanians.
But he had greater ambitions and in 1996 he bought the Belgrade club Obilić who then played in Yugoslavia's lower divisions. One of the reasons for the acquisition of Obilić was obviously the name of the club.
Prince Obilić fought in Kosovo in 1389 when Serbia lost to the Turks. In this battle Obilić managed to kill Sultan Murad - a small victory in the lost battle of Kosovo. Arkan identified with Obilić and tied the Tigers to the club. He switched to yellow jerseys and made the tiger a symbol for the club.
After Arkan’s takeover the club quickly did very well. Two strategies led to this success. He bought the best available players and threatened opponents and referees if they opposed his team. The latter strategy did not work with referees and opponents when Obilić in 1998/99 attempted to qualify for the group stage of the Champions League.
There are strong indications that the Red Star and Obilić-rioters were behind the attack on the U.S. embassy in 2008.
We also see a link between football and political movements in other parts of Europe. When Hungary in 2006 marked the 50th anniversary of the uprising in 1956, riots were organised by football hooligans linked to ultra-nationalist parties.
When the then Hungarian Prime Minister Ferenc Gyurcsány in a secret recording admitted to having lied in the election campaign it immediately led to riots in several Hungarian cities. Football troublemakers from the Hungarian club Ferencváros headed riots and got support from the extreme right and anti-Semitic Hungarian Justice and Life Party and the Movement for a Better Hungary.
In Russia, the youth organization Nashi has been linked to various soccer hooligans in various football clubs, including the Spartak Moscow fan club Gladiator. Nashi, who headquarters in St. Petersburg and is a strong supporter of Vladimir Putin, has used football supporters as bodyguards and as instigators in connection with peaceful street demonstrations.
One of the aims has been to ensure that it is NOT an Orange Revolution in Russia as we saw in Ukraine in 2004/2005. Ultranationalist Vladimir Zhirinovsky also used football hooligans from Dynamo Moscow. Many of these elements were heavily involved in the riots that ravaged Russia last fall after a football fan from the Caucasus was killed. This has also caused great concern for Russia's World Cup in 2018.
Football as a threat in Arab states
In Arab countries, Islam and football are two channels where disgruntled people can show their emotions, and it can be dangerous when anger against authoritarian regimes is channelled in these arenas.
Authorities in different Arab countries have understood this. Both the Algerian and Libyan authorities have cancelled all football matches to avoid that football contributes to the riots. The match between Egypt and the U.S. to be played this February has been cancelled because of the riots in Egypt.
In January last year, Egypt won the Africa Cup of Nations for the 7th time. It may be to Mubarak’s advantage that the riots did not start in the rapture of having won this tournament. This could have made the riots far more violent and the chances of Mubarak miscalculating the situation would have been greater. Mubarak can also hope that the Italian ultras model is not as dangerous as Arkan’s Serbia-model? These are the important points on which Ceausescu’s fate may differ from Mubarak’s?
This article first appeared on Andreas Selliaas' blog 'Sportens Uutholdelige Letthet' on 1 February 2011. Follow Andreas' blog (in Norwegian) on sportensuutholdeligeletthet.blogspot.com