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Soccer: Battleground Against Authoritarianism

The Arab Spring of 2011 resonated across the Middle East and North African societies in unexpected ways. Despite the propensity of the news media and blogosphere to jump on social media as the enabler of the region’s revolutions, many researchers have begun to examine other factors that played a significant role in the uprisings.

In his recent lecture, “Soccer as an Engine of Change and Assertion of Identity,” James Dorsey examined the role of soccer in the Egyptian revolution, concluding that the violent and anarchist nature of Egyptians’ soccer habits make the sport an engine of change.

This view may be due in part to a lack of civil society in Mubarak’s Egypt: “soccer is like the mosque.” The sport is too popular for the government to shut down so autocrats must control it.  The fans, called “ultras” (التراس), are extremely committed. However, these crowds can tend toward anarchism as the soccer stadium dissolves into a battleground for street gangs and autocrats. Significantly, Dorsey argues that the organization and violent culture of the “ultras” enabled the protests in Egypt during the Arab Spring.

While Dorsey’s hypothesis applies specifically to Egypt, Strategic Social analyzed the role of soccer in Tunisia, Morocco, Bahrain and Syria to determine if the sport has played a similar role in these countries’ own uprisings. Though Morocco and Tunisia differ in the degree of political upheaval produced by the Arab Spring, the two nations’ soccer fans appear to fit the Egyptian “ultra” example, as soccer matches became excuses for indiscriminate violence and anarchist behavior, as opposed to political activism against authoritarianism.

In Bahrain, where dissent has mostly been contained to the Shi’a majority, two Shi’a soccer players, Alaa Hubail, the best player on Bahrain’s national team, and his brother Mohammad, spoke out at an athletes’ rally against the royal family.  They found soccer was not untouchable in the island kingdom. When the government crackdown began, the head of the Bahraini Olympic committee made an example of athlete-protesters to cow the population: Security forces arrested Alaa and Mohammad during training and denounced the two as “traitors and spies” on state-run television, demonstrating that the stadium was not a safe haven for dissenters. They were imprisoned, tortured, banned from playing, and Alaa was exiled to Oman. Unlike Dorsey’s Egyptian example where fans use the soccer stadium as a venue for anti-regime activity, it was Bahraini athletes themselves who used their popularity to affect change. Syria presents a similar case, as the regime attempts to silence soccer personality Abdelbasset Sarout and has imprisoned Mosab Balhouse, the national team’s goalie. Like the Bahraini case, soccer players in Syria have become national symbols of the opposition.

Egypt, Morocco and Tunisia seem to fit into their own category of “soccer activism,” where fan groups act as a catalyst for change as the stadium is (was) one of the only arenas of expression outside state control. Alternatively, Bahrain and Syria have taken the increasingly common approach of using immensely popular (soccer) celebrities to advance already-developed movements for social change.

Though soccer plays different roles in each of these countries, the sport maintains potential for social upheaval in societies that value it for both the game and its communal nature. Therefore, it is precisely this societal importance of soccer that makes it an opportunity for change and simultaneously a threat to the status quo.

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