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In the Middle East, politics is played on the football pitch

The football stadium serves as a theatre of politics in countries in the region beset by power struggles

The Middle East has European colonialism to thank for two sources of its current turmoil: the first is the political map that defines the region's nation-states; the second is its favourite pastime, football. The geometric lines arbitrarily drawn across the old Ottoman Empire by the British and French created countries sometimes ruled by minorities, a system looking decidedly fragile amid the political earthquake shaking Syria, Iraq, Jordan and Lebanon. And then there's football, an increasingly important social indicator and wild card in the region's turbulent domestic politics.

In Israel, the notoriously racist fans of Beitar Jerusalem, a club founded by the youth movement of what is today the Likud Party, and the only team in Israel's top tier to have never fielded an Arab player, are currently in open rebellion at the owner's decision to sign two Chechen players. Beitar's coach, Eli Cohen, tried to soothe fans' rage by telling them "there's a difference, and it makes a difference, between a European Muslim and an Arab Muslim".

Even many Israelis were shocked last year when Beitar fans marched through a Jerusalem shopping mall chanting "Death to the Arabs" and attacking random Arab passersby. The authorities have good reason to feel alarmed: just four months from now, Israel will host the European Under 21 tournament, but a campaign supported by some of Europe's star players is demanding a change of venue in protest at Israel's treatment of Palestinians. Just as activists once targeted South African rugby as a psychologically powerful lever against apartheid, so have campaigners for Palestinian rights begun to target Israel's participation in European football.

Israel wasn't always part of football's "Europe", of course; it may have been part of the Oslo "peace dividend" that saw Israel, in 1994, finally admitted to Uefa. It had been part of Fifa's Asian region, facing the likes of Iran in World Cup and regional tournaments, but had fallen foul of boycotts by Arab countries and was cast into the wilderness in 1974.

And while Israeli commentators point out that the anti-Arab racism of the Beitar fans is echoed, albeit more politely, in the Israeli political mainstream, it could be a major problem in Uefa. The activist campaign to move the tournament certainly gave the Israeli authorities an excuse to rein in the excesses of the Beitar Jerusalem fans. But as their Egyptian counterparts well know, football fans are not easily tamed.

The football stadium invariably serves as a theatre of politics in countries beset by power struggles: football fandom is its own identity politics, framed by an "us versus them" mentality. Shared suffering builds solidarity, and in repressive societies where directly challenging authority is dangerous, football serves as a ritual substitute: you can't hold rallies, but you can channel your political rage in singing and chanting in the stands. You can't call the president corrupt, but the ref? A ritual of resistance can be acted out for 90 minutes inside a contained stadium, even if outside it, the same fans must obey the rules of a power structure they despise.

Football's ability to channel and contain the rage of young men has served as a pressure-release valve for many dictatorships. The problem, however, is that fan culture can sometimes be turned into a weapon challenging the status quo. Barcelona's Camp Nou stadium, for example, was for decades the one "liberated space" in which Catalans could openly challenge the Franco dictatorship, flying flags and chanting slogans inside the ground that none would dare do a kilometre away. In moments of crisis, the stadium can become an organising platform, a space in which citizens find strength in numbers and the courage to confront the powers-that-be. No wonder, then, that when Algeria's authorities faced an outbreak of food riots in January of 2011, their first reaction was to freeze the football league programme.

James Dorsey, the analyst whose Turbulent World of Middle East Soccer blog is essential reading on this topic, writes of a tacit understanding between the regime and the fans that allows them to express grievances and chant against President Abdulaziz Bouteflika inside the stadiums, but not on the streets.

Thus the dilemma facing the government in Egypt, where football ultras have been at the epicentre of revolutionary events, leading the 2011 charge to seize Tahrir Square from the riot police, then using their well honed street-warfare skills to hold onto it.

But the ultras are driven by their own grievances and grudges, which don't always coincide with the revolutionary agenda. They often initiate clashes with police to settle old scores and indulge a nihilistic anti-politics in the name of "revolution". The recent mayhem on the streets of Port Said was driven by the conviction of fans involved in the violence last February that left 74 mostly rival fans dead, and the widely held belief that the authorities enabled the massacre to punish Al Ahly ultras from Cairo for their role in the revolution.

This weekend, the Egyptian authorities will take a huge gamble by restarting a league programme suspended after the Port Said tragedy. But matches will be played behind closed doors - a scenario that has enraged the fans.

Football fan culture can both promote and retard the goals of a revolution, but it can't substitute for democracy. While the ultras may have played a role in the events that brought down Hosni Mubarak, their continued centrality to shaping events in Egypt is a sharp reminder that democracy there is in its fragile infancy.

 

Tony Karon is an analyst based in New York

On Twitter: @TonyKaron

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