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Wednesday, March 27, 2013

Turkey gears up to give Gulf states a run for their money



By James M. Dorsey

The Gulf states dominate headlines with Qatar’s controversial hosting of a World Cup and the high profile acquisition of European soccer teams, but they may be meeting their match in an emerging competition for being the Middle East and North Africa’s prime sports, transportation and economic hub.

Turkey may not have the Gulf’s financial muscle, but on virtually every other front it brings assets to the table that smaller oil-rich states lack: geographic and demographic depth; a soccer-crazy population that fills stadium; storied, internationally accomplished and recognized clubs; a respectable international track record in a variety of other sports, including basketball and volleyball; ethnic, cultural and ex-colonial links across a swath of land stretching from China to the Atlantic coast of Africa; a functioning democracy with all its warts that many see as a model for the Muslim world; a highly developed educational sector; one of the world’s largest standing armies; and a state-of-the-art industrial base that drives on indigenous labor.

Turkey ranks number 18 on the list of the world’s largest economies ahead of Saudi Arabia at number 20, the United Arab Emirates at 30 and Qatar at 51 despite the fact that many Gulf states have a nominally higher GDP.

A look at Turkey’s sporting ambitions as well as the expansion of its national airline, Turkish Airlines, and its plans for a third Istanbul airport tell the story. Turkish sports minister Suat Kilic hinted this week at his country’s ambition, telling World Football Insider that Turkey’s hosting this summer of the FIFA Under-20 World Cup, the biggest sporting event to be held in Turkey to date, would be a platform to “showcase Turkey’s capabilities” to host the 2020 Olympic Games.

To be sure, its not all smooth sailing for Turkey. Its premier soccer has been wracked by a major match-fixing scandal exasperated by a power struggle among Islamists and financial crisis as a result of over spending. And European soccer body UEFA’s opposition to Turkey’s simultaneous bid for the Olympics and the 2020 UEFA European Football Championship (Euro 2020) prompted it to spread that year’s tournament over a multitude of European nations. Qatar, the UAE and China moreover have easier access to capital compared to Turkey

But putting such concerns aside, the future looks promising. Beyond bringing a greater number of key assets to the table, Turkey, the literal dividing line in Eurasia, and the Gulf compete on a level playing field in exploiting geography to create an air transportation hub at the meeting point of Europe, Asia and Africa: like Qatar and the UAE, Istanbul is at flying equidistance from Sao Paolo and Sydney with easy access to Africa and Central Asia.

Turkish Airlines flies to 200 destinations and to more countries than any other carrier in the world as opposed to Emirates’ 120 and Qatar Airways’ 115 destinations. Turkey’s plans for a new, six runway airport, the world’s largest in terms of passenger capacity, capture its global ambitions. Turkey is currently entertaining bids at the very moment that Qatar is about to open its long-touted new air hub. The new airport would also surpass Dubai, which currently claims the honor.

Both Turkey and the Gulf states populate a volatile region that has embarked on what is likely to be a decade of messy and at times violent and bloody change. At this point, Turkey is closer than the Gulf to the turmoil with its long border with Syria and close cross-border links as well as its proximity to Lebanon that increasingly is teetering on the brink.

But contrary to the autocratic Gulf, which so far has largely been able to ring-fence itself against the wave of popular uprisings sweeping the Middle East and North Africa, few predict upheaval in Turkey, a traditionally politically instable country that is witnessing a decade of stability and near unprecedented rule by one party that has gone from one electoral victory to another.

Turkey’s position as the regional powerhouse could be further boosted by a potential agreement with the Kurdish Workers’ Party (PKK) that would grant the country’s estimated 20 million Kurds greater rights and end almost 30 years of conflict that has left tens of thousands of people dead as well as last week’s restoration of diplomatic relations with Israel.

Reconciliation with Israel potentially paves the way to closer cooperation on Syria and cooperation in developing significant energy resources in the Eastern Mediterranean. It also holds out hope for crisis-ridden Cyprus and progress in resolving the decades-old inter-communal dispute on the island by opening the door to the unthinkable: energy cooperation between Turkey and the Greek-Cypriot dominated government in Nicosia.

Turkey expects its sporting ambitions to be boosted by the ongoing visit of a 14-member committee of the International Olympic Committee (IOC) to evaluate Istanbul’s bid as well as by world soccer body FIFA secretary general Jerome Valcke for the U-20 World Cup draw. The tournament in late June and early July involves 52 matches in seven host cities and will immediately follow the 24-nation Mediterranean Games. The IOC last year rejected Qatar’s bid for the 2020 Olympics.

“International sports authorities will think that if Turkey is capable of hosting two great sporting events at the same time, it’s capable of host the Olympics,” sports minister Kilic told World Football Insider.

Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan, a soccer fan and former player, makes no bones about Turkey’s strategy that includes sports. “The whole world must know that Turkey has big ambitions, based on national will and a strong State,” he told Turkish diplomats almost a decade ago.

James M. Dorsey is a senior fellow at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies, co-director of the University of Würzburg’s Institute for Fan Culture, visiting scholar at the University of Würzburg’s Institute of Sport Science, and the author of The Turbulent World of Middle East Soccer blog.

Tuesday, March 19, 2013

Qatar broaches sensitive demography through soccer



By James M. Dorsey

Qatar's soccer league, in a break with a reluctance among Gulf states to give their largely expatriate majorities a sense of belonging, is next month organizing the region's first cup for foreign workers' teams.

The cup, involving up to 24 teams formed by foreign workers primarily from Asia who account for the bulk of Qatar's 1.5 million expatriates, is part of an effort to improve working and living conditions as well as a bid to fend off international trade union demands to meet global labor standards.

Meeting those standards would involve abolishing the widely criticied sponsorship system common to various Gulf states that effectively gives employees full control of their employees; allowing the creation of independent trade unions; and adopting the principle of collective bargaining – changes Qatar until now has shown no inclination to entertain.

The cup further fits into Qatar's sports strategy that aims to make sports part of the country's national identity and constitutes a key pillar of its cultural and public diplomacy as well as its global projection of soft power as part of its foreign, defense and security policy.

International trade unions have threatened Qatar with a boycott of its hosting of the 2022 World Cup if it failed to adopt international labor standards. Human rights groups are meanwhile documenting individual cases of workers that they consider to be violations and in some case are intervening to improve their conditions. The government's tacit cooperation like the soccer cup and moves to improve worker safety and security as well as living conditions constitute small but not insignificant steps forward.  

The International Trade Union Confederation (ITUC) charges that Qatar’s steps so far that also include drafting a charter of rights expected to be announced at the end of this month and a review of the much criticized recruitment system that often exposes workers to extortionary fees fall short of its promise to fully comply with international labor standards and are being implemented unilaterally rather than in consultation.

ITUC General Secretary Sharan Burrow last month said she was "disappointed to hear that the Qatar 2022 Supreme Committee has publicly asserted that it has 'sought out concrete suggestions on best practice'. The ITUC, representing the worlds working people, has not been consulted nor seen the draft charter. The UN, IMF, World Bank and the G20 all see fit to discuss labour issues with the ITUC, and consult with worker representatives in formal and informal dialogues.  Yet Qatar's Supreme Committee appears to ignore these accepted protocols in their failure to discuss the workers charter with the ITUC.”

While forward-looking Qataris acknowledge the need to improve workers' conditions as well as their country’s unsustainable demographic dilemma, the breaking point at this point in ongoing discussions with the ITUC is likely to be the demands for independent unions and collective bargaining.

A recent survey by the Permanent Population Committee (PPC) concluded that more than 80 percent of Qataris worry about the country’s dependence on foreign labor expected to increase with the import of more workers needed to complete $150 billion worth of infrastructure projects in advance of the World Cup.

The government this week said that it would establish an independent committee to protect the rights of private sector workers that would help them in disputes with their employers and offer legal aid in cases of work-related injuries or deaths. It said the 50-member committee would be populated by employers and employees, seven of which would be appointed as board members. The committee’s status would fall short of that of an independent union that could engage in collective bargaining.

The unions charged last month that the number of construction site injuries in Qatar was increasing and that workers in Doha’s Sports City stadium were eight times more likely to die in a fatal accident than construction workers in Britain. “They are reckoning that more than 1,000 workers were injured in falls last year; that’s very serious. The problem in Qatar is that the workers don’t have rights to be involved in any prevention measures, they don’t have training, they don’t have the equipment,” said Fiona Murie of the Building and Wood Workers’ International (BWI).

The ITUC said earlier that it would put a promise made last year by Qatar Labor Minister Sultan bin Hassan that his government would not penalize workers who formed their own unions to the test later this year. Critics caution that Mr. Bin Hassan’s oral pledge was not legally binding.

Progressive Qataris acknowledge privately that their country's demography is unsustainable with less than 300,000 nationals in an increasing foreign population that is currently estimated at 1.7 million. That demography has until now persuaded Qataris and other Gulf nationals to ensure that foreigners are continuously reminded that they are only temporary residents for the duration of their contract.

Those reminders included a reluctance of sports clubs to attract non-nationals as fans. Soccer stadiums in the region with the exception of Saudi Arabia are as a result largely empty. Qataris further admit that stadium attendance is also low because they perceive their country's clubs that are often owned by members of the royal family as the 'sheikh's clubs.' The foreign workers’ cuo, while not intended to reverse that policy constitutes a potential chink in its armor.

To increase stadium audiences and increase the local population's involvement with clubs, Qatar is looking at the possibility of transferring ownership to publicly held companies. The foreign workers’ cup is viewed by many as a first step towards creating a fan base for Qatari clubs among the country’s a non-Qatari population – an initiative long shied by clubs across the region because that could be a first step towards a greater attachment to their host countries.

Qatar University sociologist Kaltham Al Al-Ghanim recentlu called on the country’s sports clubs to set up branches in the Industrial Zone where many of foreign workers are housed “to channel their energy to productive avenues and hunt for sporting talent.” Ms. Al-Ghanim cautioned that if foreign workers were allowed to “live on the social fringes, the danger is they would take to illegal activities and emerge as a threat to social security.” She said the need to engage them socially was enhanced by the fact that many of them were unmarried or in Qatar without their families.

James M. Dorsey is a senior fellow at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies, co-director of the Institute for Fan Culture and a visiting scholar at the Institute of Sport Science at the University of Würzburg, and the author of The Turbulent World of Middle East Soccer blog.

Friday, March 15, 2013

Egyptian crackdown on soccer fans likely to unite militants


Members of the Black Bloc, a secretive group of black-clad soccer fans 

By James M. Dorsey

Egypt’s judiciary and security forces appear posed to crack down on militant, highly politicised and street battle-hardened soccer fans in a bid to exploit internal differences among them.

The crackdown however could boomerang by uniting rather than further dividing the fans in their opposition to the security forces, Egypt’s most hated institution because of its role in enforcing the repression of the regime of ousted president Hosni Mubarak.

The security forces and the judiciary hope to capitalize on cracks among the fans, one of Egypt’s largest civic groups, that have emerged beyond their traditional rivalries over who was responsible for the death last year of 74 supporters of crowned Cairo club Al Ahli SC in a politically loaded brawl in the Suez Canal city of Port Said and how to respond to recent sentences handed down by a court against those responsible.

The crackdown would likely reinforce the conviction of all fans that security forces allowed the brawl to happen, if they did not instigate it, in an attempt that got out of hand to punish them for their key role in the popular uprising that toppled Mr. Mubarak and their opposition to the military rulers that succeeded him.
President Mohammed Morsi, who last summer replaced the military as Egypt’s first freely elected leader, would risk another round of vicious street battles that in the past two years have cost the lives of more than 900 people and injured thousands by initiating the crackdown without embarking at the same time on far-reaching reform of the security sector.

The likelihood of resistance to the crackdown is heightened by the leaking this week of a report that concluded that security forces shot to kill protesters with the full knowledge of Mr. Mubarak during the uprising two years ago that forced him out of office; continued police brutality that highlights Mr. Morsi’s failure to reform the 1.7 million-strong police and security forces; discontent over the fact that of the nine security officials involved in the Port Said trial only two were convicted; and a six-week old revolt in the Suez Canal city that feels it has been made the scapegoat in Egypt’s worst sporting incident.

Al Ahli fans celebrated the sentencing to death in January of 21 supporters of Port Said’s Al Masri SC believing that they conspired with the security forces while Port Said charged that it was paying the price for a police action. The pereception of being made a scapegoate reinforced a pattern in the mind of Port Said resident of years of neglect of thei city by the central government in Cairo. The judiciary and the security forces also hope to benefit from divisions within Ultras Ahlawy, the Al Ahli support group, on whether the court verdict satisfied their demand for justice.

The ultras have nevertheless vowed to target the security forces until all of those responsible have been brought to justice. They torched last Saturday a police officers’ club and the offices of the Egyptian Football Association (EFA) after the court announced the acquittal of 28 of the 73 defendants, including the seven security officials.

Militants in both Cairo and Port Said saw the acquittal as reaffirmation of the failure of Mr. Morsi and his military predecessors to hold any security officers accountable for the deaths of protesters in the past two years. The two convicted officers in the Port Said case were the first to be sentenced. The perception that the government is shielding the security forces is enhanced by the leaked report that among other things charged that police two years ago used snipers on rooftops overlooking Cairo's Tahrir Square to shoot into the huge crowd demanding Mr. Mubarak's’departure.

The report that summarizes the conclusions of a fact-finding mission initiated by Mr. Morsi could influence the upcoming retrial of Mr. Mubarak, former Interior Minister Habib el-Adly, and six top police commanders on charges of responsibility for the deaths of hundreds of protesters during the protests that toppled the Egyptian leader two years ago.

Messrs. Mubarak and el-Adly were convicted and sentenced to life in jail last June for failing to stop the killings, but the two successfully appealed their convictions. The six commanders- including the head of security in Cairo and the commander of the riot police - were acquitted. The prosecution appealed that verdict and a new trial of the eight is scheduled to start next month.

The judiciary and security forces appeared to be testing the waters with the arrest this week in the Nile Delta province of Menoufia of 38 alleged members of the Black Bloc, a secretive group of black-clad soccer fans founded to protect protesters from attacks by the security forces and supporters of Mr. Morsi’s Muslim Brotherhood. The fans are accused of attempting to set fire to a provincial court house and insulting police officers, lawyers said.

The crackdown in the absence of security sector reform would harden the battle lines between the militant soccer fans and the police that have been drawn in four years of regular confrontation in the stadiums under Mr. Mubarak and in street battles since then. For many ultras as well as many Egyptians, the security forces have come to symbolize state repression that controlled and made their lives difficult not only on the pitch but in their daily lives. A recent human rights report charged that the security forces were a law unto themselves and that abuse and torture continued to be their standard practice.

Police brutality in Port Said earlier this year left scores of people dead and persuaded Mr. Morsi to last week replace security forces in the city with military troops. Sources close to Mr. Morsi argue that the president is seeking to gradually reform law enforcement but has been hampered by the need to restore law and order and protect government offices amid mounting protests in recent weeks sparked by the Port Said verdicts as well as growing criticism of his haughty style of government and charges that he is proving to be no less authoritarian than his predecessor.

Meanwhile, a series of recent strikes and walk-outs by police and security forces, some of which demanded the resignation of the interior minister, have on the one hand increased fear of a further breakdown of law and order, but on the other hand opened a door for security sector reform. The protests indicate significant support for change within the police and the security forces that were until now widely seen as implacably beholden to the former regime as well as opposed to Mr. Morsi’s brotherhood whom they suspect of trying to islamicize their ranks.

James M. Dorsey is a senior fellow at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies, co-director of the Institute of Fan Culture of the University of Würzburg, and the author of The Turbulent World of Middle East Soccer blog.

Thursday, March 14, 2013

International sanctions: Iran feels the psychological impact



By James M. Dorsey

Struggling to maintain its place in Asia’s top tier, Iranian soccer is a reflection of a country laboring under the burden of a repressive political regime and not only the economic but increasingly also the psychological effect of international isolation and punishing sanctions.

The psychological wear and tear is universally visible. Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, a soccer fan who has unsuccessfully tried to tie football to his waning political bandwagon in part because of his encouragement of political interference in the game and his failure to invest in grassroots development and modernization, last October chided the national team for lowering its ambitions.

“If you think that you are only good enough for Asia, then that is what you will be and will remain. It is my firm opinion that Iran belongs to the world class elite as we have the talents and skills to be there,” Mr. Ahmadinejad said.

The politics of soccer were further highlighted last month when a court sentenced three businessmen and a banker linked to Mr. Ahmadinejad to death in a $2.8 billion fraud case involving the acquisition of soccer clubs and steel factories as well as the establishment of a private bank. The case was widely viewed as part of a power struggle in advance of presidential elections in June in which Mr. Ahmadinejad constitutionally cannot stand for a third term but is trying to ensure that one of his allies wins the poll.

"My experience as the national team manager of Iran was that football plays a major role in the political, social and even economic direction that the nation takes and the people who decide the direction of the country are constantly using the game for their political agenda. There are pluses and minuses to it all. The government’s financial resources support the game but it becomes politically manipulated. It becomes too dependent on the political system and the money and it starts operating as a political business,” said former Iranian national coach Afshin Ghotbi in a recent interview with Al Jazeera.

A recent visit to Iran at the invitation of an institute affiliated with the foreign ministry illustrated the psychological toll of the country’s isolation and sanctions imposed on it by the international community in a bid to force it to concede to international supervision of its nuclear program. The toll expressed itself in the regime’s pervasiveness, its fear-inspired penchant for control, a preference among officials for monologue rather than dialogue, and a dread of foreigners reminiscent of the former Soviet Union and North Korea.

The impact was on full display at an international conference on geopolitics in the Gulf in the southern Iranian city of Bandar Abbas that abuts the strategic Strait of Hormuz through which much of the world's oil and gas flows. Invited foreign participants encountered a self-righteous bunker mentality and a bazaar merchant's penchant for deception and half-truths. In a break with a culture that prides itself on its diplomatic, artistic and gastronomic sophistication, officials and clerics, embarked on diatribes of at times crude propaganda.

Speakers continuously played up Iran's role as a regional power, the strategic geography of Shiite Muslims in oil and water-rich parts of the Gulf, the discrimination suffered by Shiites in countries like Saudi Arabia and Bahrain and the alleged subservience to the United States of wealthy Gulf states who blame Iran for stirrings of unrest within their own borders. 

Foreign ministry officials and think tank figures associated with the ministry used their role as moderators to rudely cut foreign speakers short so that they could embark on a drumbeat of lengthy, highly politicized and ideological speeches. The degree of control became further obvious when several foreign participants who ventured into town on a shopping spree were intercepted by security officials allegedly for their own protection.

Foreigners are not the only ones to run afoul of the regime’s suspicions and bunker mentality. A recent crackdown on journalists is having a chilling effect. Iranian sports journalists refused to meet with a visiting foreign scholar saying they feared being hauled in by the security service.

Ahmad Shaheed, the United Nations’ monitor for human rights in Iran, warned in a report this week that the crackdown was intended to stymie potential protests linked to the upcoming election. Iran brutally suppressed protests in the wake of its 2009 presidential election.

Mr. Shaheed as well as Iranians said 17 journalists had been arrested in January in addition to some 50 who were already behind bars. "They have been charged with communicating with international news organizations or communicating with human rights organizations, both of which should be protected under law rather than being penalized," Mr. Shaheed said.

Mr. Shaheed’s report that was denounced by Iranian officials who have refused to let him visit Iran also highlighted violations of the rights of women and ethnic and religious minorities. The regime nevertheless appears to be trying to soften its crackdown with a more liberal attitude towards women’s’ public appearance. 

In a country known for enforcing strict dress codes, including a head dress that completely covers the hair, women in the streets of Tehran and Bandar Abbas appear fashionably albeit conservatively dressed with scarves that only partially cover their heads and faces to which they had applied make-up. “It’s the regime’s way of giving people some breathing room,” said one Iranian observer.

To be sure, repression as the result of fear appears to be part of the regime’s DNA. Marlene Assmann, a former soccer player and filmmaker, who documented in 2006 the first ever visit to Iran by a foreign women’s football team, recalls the team being effectively banned from interacting with their Iranian counterparts. Iranian players who featured in her film were barred from playing for up to two years. “It was very difficult, we couldn't leave our hotel,” she says.

The regime’s fear of ethnic unrest is not without reason. Stadiums in which Traktor Sazi Tabriz FC or the Red Wolves of Azerbaijan, a team owned by a state-run company, play are regularly the venue for protests demanding greater rights for Iran’s Azeri minority. At a recent clash in Teheran’s Azadi stadium with the capital’s storied Persepolis FC, Traktor Sazi supporters unfurled a banner saying in English: “South Azerbaijan isn’t Iran,” a reference to Iran’s northern province of Azerbaijan that borders to the north on the former Soviet republic of Azerbaijan.

Says a young Iranian soccer fan: “Its bubbling at the surface. Who knows if or when something will erupt.”

James M. Dorsey is a senior fellow at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies, co-director of the Institute of Fan Culture of the University of Würzburg, and the author of The Turbulent World of Middle East Soccer blog.

Saturday, March 9, 2013

Rioting ultras and striking police officers may ease security reform


Ultras set Cairo police club on fire

By James M. Dorsey

The fall-out of last year’s death of 72 soccer fans in a politically-loaded stadium brawl has brought the need
for reform of Egypt’s Mubarak-era law enforcement and judiciary to a head with football supporters in Egyptian cities protesting the verdict in the trial of those accused of responsibility for the incident and security officials striking against being made a scapegoat in the country’s political crisis.

Protests sparked by this weekend’s confirmation of the death sentences of 21 Port Said soccer supporters, conviction of only two out of nine police officers accused of responsibility for the worst incident in Egyptian sport history, and aquittal of 28 of the in total 73 defendants reflect intensified public anger rooted in widespread distrust of the security forces as well as the judiciary’s failure to hold accountable officers and officials responsible for the death of more than 900 protesters since former president Hosni Mubarak was toppled two years ago.

The problems with law enforcement and the judiciary are compounded by the fact that Port Said-related demonstrations that are now in their second months have persuaded security forces to stage their own protests. Rank and file officers are speaking out publicly for the first time with walk-outs across the country and refusals to engage in crowd control.

Egypt’s 1.7 million-strong police and security forces, widely viewed as the repressive arm of Mr. Mubarak’s regime and largely unrepentant and unreformed since his departure, feel caught between the rock of President Mohamed Morsi’s insistence on cracking down on protests and the hard place of the public denouncing their brutality.

Reminiscent of scenes during the uprising two years ago in which the military refrained from cracking down on protesters demanding Mr. Mubarak’s ouster, striking police in Egypt’s second city Alexandria put up banners saying “We don't want politics" and "Police and the people are one hand."

The reminiscence of the military’s role in the 2011 uprising is however a double-edged sword. Protesters in Port Said welcomed the withdrawal of the security forces but criticized the military for not going beyond abstinence to protect them from the police in weeks of clashes that have cost scores of lives.

"Who cares about the police withdrawal? Our demands haven't been met. The army isn't protecting us. Have they done anything to meet our demands?" said Ibrahim El-Masri, a former Al-Masri player and spokesperson for the families of those sentenced to sentences.

The complexity of law enforcement’s dilemma and the difficulty of reforming its institutions is that they have operated for much of the past three decades without oversight employing a rank and file that had little education or training. In addition, there is little love lost between Mr. Morsi’s Muslim Brotherhood and the security forces who often targeted the group in the days that it was clandestine or existed in a legal nether land. Striking policemen say they are also opposed to what they see as attempts by Mr. Morsi to infuse political Islam into their ranks.

The strikes and walk-outs in 10 of Egypt’s 29 provinces, some of which demanded the resignation of the interior minister, nevertheless open the door to security sector reform. They indicate significant support for change in institutions that were widely seen as implacably beholden to the former regime.

Sources close to Mr. Morsi argue that the president is seeking to reform law enforcement gradually but has been hampered by the need to restore law and order and protect government offices amid mounting protests.

Rival militant, highly politicized and street battle hardened soccer fans in Port Said as well as Cairo agree on little but that last year’s brawl was not spontaneous. Supporters of Al Masri as well as crowned Cairo club Al Ahli which counted 70 dead among their ranks in last year’s incident believe it was an effort that got out of hand to teach a less to fans who had played a key role in the toppling of Mr. Mubarak and were in the forefront of opposition to the military that led Egypt to elections last year that brought Mr. Morsi to power as well as the current demonstrations against the Morsi government.

As a result, this weekend’s failure to convict all nine officers coupled with the absence as of this writing of a justification of the court’s verdict has reaffirmed perceptions that law enforcement and the judiciary are political and constitute laws unto themselves.

At the same time, the verdict has sparked separate internal discussions among Al Masri and Al Ahli supporters on how best to respond .

Al Ahli fans feel on the one hand that justice has been served with the confirmation of the death sentences but one significant part of the group wants to maintain their attacks on the interior ministry, which controls the security forces, until officers are held fully accountable. That sentiment is fueled by the supporters’ years of confrontation with security forces in the stadiums and their perception of law enforcement as their arch enemy and the symbol of the former regime’s repression.

Ultras Ahlawy, the Al Ahli support group, denied reports on Saturday that they were responsible for fires in the offices of the Egyptian Footbaal Association (EFA) and Al Watan newspaper after it reported that they had met with the Muslim Brotherhood in advance of this weekend’s verdict. The ultras, who by and large, do not shirk taking responsibility for their actions, have attacked in past months media organisations they view as hostile. The ultras did admit however storming and setting on fire Saturday a police officers club near the Al Ahli grounds.

For their part, some Al Masri fans as well as segments of the 650,000-strong population of Port Said – a
Suez Canal city that feels it has been made a scapegoat in the trial – are placated by Mr. Morsi’s decision this week to pull the police out of the city and replace it with military troops. Soliders sided with demonstrators in Port Said in recent weeks. Some Al Masri supporters agitated however for forcing a closure of the Suez Canal, a key source of the cash-strapped Morsi government’s revenues. The military has warned that attacking the canal would cross a red line.

James M. Dorsey is a senior fellow at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies, co-director of the Institute of Fan Culture of the University of Würzburg, and the author of The Turbulent World of Middle East Soccer blog.

Persian Gulf Futures (on Global Brief)


Persian Gulf Futures

FEATURES | March 5, 2013     

Persian Gulf FuturesShaky monarchies, strategic pressures, and threats to energy and shipping

The failure to date by oil- and gas-rich Persian Gulf states to respond seriously to the demands for governance reforms sweeping the Middle East and North Africa poses, alongside potential hostilities with Iran, the most immediate threat to the security of the region’s energy production and international shipping. It raises the question of when – rather than if – revolts that have already driven the autocratic leaders of Tunisia, Egypt, Libya and Yemen from office, pushed Syria into civil war, and are simmering in Jordan and Algeria, will disrupt domestic politics in the Gulf and, consequently, oil and gas production in the region. With US and other policy-makers focussed on terrorist threats and region-wide trends, rather than intra-state, domestic threats – not least because they realize that they have little influence in shaping the Gulf states’ internal policies – we now face the spectre of the international community being caught off guard and unprepared for significant turmoil and far-reaching change in the region.
The lack of focus on potential change has allowed Gulf leaders to perpetuate the myth that Arab monarchies are more immune to popular uprisings than their republican counterparts. The region’s oil- and gas-rich unelected, neo-patriarchal royals pride themselves on having so far largely contained widespread discontent bubbling at the surface with a combination of financial handouts, artificial job creation – particularly in the security sector – and social investment. The exceptions are the two monarchies – Jordan and Morocco – that have not been blessed with energy riches. They have instead resorted to elections and a modicum of reform (on which the jury is still out) in a bid to avert mass protests.
It is, however, only a question of time before politically unreformed monarchies like Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, the UAE, Oman, Jordan and even Kuwait, in charge of increasingly liberalized economies, move into the front lines of the region’s convoluted transition from autocracy to more open societies and political systems. The indications thus far are that, with the exception of Jordan, these monarchies will resist rather than embrace change. In doing so, they are likely to fuel rather than calm tensions, and put current levels of oil and gas production at risk. That risk is amplified by the rulers’ encouragement of sectarian tensions through the identification of their Shiite populations with predominantly Shiite Iran in a bid to rally people against a perceived common enemy, and to ensure support from an international community worried about Tehran’s nuclear ambitions.
To be sure, the situations in Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, the UAE, Oman, Jordan and Kuwait differ substantially. Yet, individually and taken together, they feed the worst fear of monarchs and their Western backers – to wit, that a successful popular revolt in one monarchy will open the door to serious challenges to autocratic royal rule in the rest of the region’s mostly energy-rich monarchies. Underlying the differing circumstances is a deeply felt sense of social, economic and political disenfranchisement that Gulf citizens share with those in the larger Arab world who have succeeded in ridding themselves of the yoke of autocratic rule. This discontent cannot be exclusively addressed by increased employment in the police and security forces, handouts and social investment. Warns Saudi journalist Abdul Rahman Al Rashed: “[O]il-producing countries have greater responsibilities, for they have no excuse when one of their citizens has no job, or when a citizen is sick but cannot get treatment, or when a citizen lacks insurance or does not feel safe in his home. It is the government’s duty to provide citizens with these services. When officials are upset [about] being criticized, they forget that it is their job to serve the people and the budget is how a government expresses its plans to serve the people.”
The facts on the ground contradict the notion that Middle Eastern and North African revolts threaten republics more than monarchies. Indeed, that notion would be true only if monarchs were able to lever the one real asset that they have: a remaining degree of legitimacy that comes from truly addressing real, practical concerns, rather than hiding behind security forces and repressing political expression. This is in contrast to the republican leaders in the region, who have so far been deposed in part because they lost all legitimacy, and protesters were unwilling to give them a last chance.
At this point, the writing is on the wall. Bahrain is a revolt calling for regime change in waiting. The country has arguably passed the point of no return in the protesters’ call for regime change. Saudi Arabia is headed for a similar fate in oil-rich, largely Shiite Eastern Province, the country’s most vital economic region. (Social media analysis shows that deep-seated criticism of the Saudi royal family goes far beyond the Shiite minority.) Kuwait is hanging in the balance, with the position of the emir increasingly dependent on whether he can credibly demonstrate his sincerity in wanting to root out corruption. Jordan, for its part, has said that it acknowledges the need for substantive reform, but has yet to say what concrete reforms will be put into place.
Riyadh has sought to fend off popular protest with a US $130 billion programme to shore up public services (including housing) and create employment – particularly in the security sector. In a commentary in Arab News, columnist Khaled al-Dakheel warned that economic reform and addressing social needs should “be followed by other steps of reform dealing with political issues, such as elections, representation, the separation of powers, activation of the Allegiance Commission, freedom of expression, the independence of the judiciary, and equality before the law. The necessity of political and constitutional reform [stems from] the fact that the positive impact in people’s economic reforms, especially financial, is usually temporary because of the variable nature of their economic and social circumstances.” Al-Dakheel laid out a programme for political and constitutional reform in a country that identifies the Koran as its constitution. The programme called for overhaul of the country’s bloated bureaucracy; longevity and tenure for long-serving officials – many of whom are members of the royal family – to be based on merit; expansion of the powers of the country’s toothless Shoura or Advisory Council in order to gradually transform it into an elected legislature; tackling issues of unemployment, foreign workers’ rights and corruption; and diversification of the Saudi national economy.
The cautionary warnings notwithstanding, in December of last year, Saudi authorities arrested prominent novelist Turki al-Hamad for criticizing Islamists and calling for reform in a series of tweets. Al-Hamad charged that the Islamists “have distracted us with nonsense [such] that we forgot the important issues.” He effectively called for reform of Islam, tweeting: “Our Prophet has come to rectify the faith of Abraham, and now is a time when we need someone to rectify the faith of Mohammed.”
Activist and website designer Raif Badawi was arrested in June 2012. He is on trial for violating Islamic values, breaking Sharia law, blasphemy, and mocking religious symbols on the Internet. Badawi allegedly insulted Islam by allowing debate on his website – Free Saudi Liberals – about the difference between popular and political Islam.
Similarly, the UAE ushered in 2013 with an announcement that it had arrested 10 people on suspicion of being members of the Muslim Brotherhood. In late December of last year, the UAE said that it had arrested a group of Emiratis and Saudis on charges of belonging to a terrorist group. And in July of last year, Abu Dhabi said that it was questioning an unspecified number of people for having formed “a group aimed at damaging the security of the state[,]” “rejecting the constitution and the founding principles of power in the Emirates[,]” and having links with foreign organizations.
Even Qatar, widely viewed as the most progressive state in the region, is cracking down. In November 2011, a Qatari poet, Muhammad Ibn al-Dheeb al-Ajami, was sentenced to life in prison in what legal and human rights activists said was a “grossly unfair trial that flagrantly violates the right to free expression” on charges of “inciting the overthrow of the ruling regime.” Al-Ajami’s crime appeared to be a poem that he wrote, as well as his earlier recitation of poems that included passages disparaging senior members of Qatar’s ruling family. The poem was entitled “Tunisian Jasmine.” It celebrated the overthrow of Tunisian president Zine El Abidine Ben Ali.
A draft media law approved by the Qatari cabinet would prohibit publishing or broadcasting information that would “throw relations between the state and the Arab and friendly states into confusion” or “abuse the regime or offend the ruling family or cause serious harm to the national or higher interests of the state.” Violators would face stiff financial penalties of up to one million Qatari riyals (US $275,000).
Of course, the Gulf states’ unwillingness to separate domestic Shiite concerns from the interests of Iran is a misreading of a reality in which Shiites view themselves, first and foremost, as nationals of the states of which they are citizens. That fact was more than evident in the 1980-1988 Iran-Iraq war, in which Iraqi Shiites were the ones that fought Saddam Hussein’s war against Iran. Shiites occupy a strategic geography in the Middle East, where the region’s energy and water resources are concentrated. Addressing their justified grievances – including an end to job and religious discrimination – is a key pillar in ensuring energy security and the safety of international shipping. The same is true for Jordan, where preoccupation with security and counter-terrorism – including the discovery of a major terrorist plot in the fall of 2012 – threatens to undermine the equally important emphasis on reform.
Leading up to the January parliamentary elections, Jordan saw protests in a number of cities demanding that King Abdullah step down. The King responded with a series of discussion papers urging citizens to be politically more involved in the electoral process, and also to judge candidates on their merits, rather than on their tribal and family affiliations. However, the general refusal by the Gulf states and Jordan to address head-on genuine popular concerns, and to treat Shiites as full citizens rather than as a fifth wheel, highlights the underlying strategic dilemma of the US and the international community: the concurrent need to ensure energy security and safe shipping in the short- and medium-term based on the status quo in the Gulf, the need to be prepared for likely disruptions of the flow of oil and gas as a result of domestic and regional developments, and the need to anticipate longer-term significant political change in the region. This basic strategic dilemma makes the linkage between Iran’s dispute with the West and Israel over its nuclear programme and domestic stability in the Persian Gulf even more intractable than it already is. And the dilemma is sharpened for most Gulf states by uncertainty about how committed the US will be to ensuring regional security as it becomes ever less dependent, in the coming years, on Gulf energy and emerges as the world’s largest oil exporter.
Gulf rulers perceive the Iranian dynamic – the nuclear question, and also Iran’s growing strategic footprint in the region – primarily as a threat to domestic stability, and only secondarily as a threat to energy production and international shipping. These threats have the potential of becoming self-fulfilling as a result of the rulers’ refusal to accept certain realities on the ground. Gulf opposition to perceived Iranian nuclear ambitions is, for instance, tempered by concerns about the possible domestic fallout of military action against Tehran. In response, Gulf states have responded to Shiite unrest with force, and to Iran’s nuclear posture by opting for international and regional security arrangements, as well as through massive arms purchases. Both approaches have thus far aggravated rather than alleviated the threats.
The ability of the US to act as the region’s defensive umbrella by emphasizing defence and deterrence could further be affected by an eruption of popular discontent in the Gulf. Gulf leaders are proving increasingly reluctant to reinforce perceptions that they are out of touch with public sentiment, and therefore dependent on the US in order to maintain their grip on power. This is all the more true given that the US will have to balance its interests in the Gulf with those in the wider Middle East and the Muslim world – especially because unrest in Saudi Arabia, Islam’s heartland, will resonate more than events in other Middle Eastern countries and across the Arab and non-Arab Muslim world. The most obvious way of compensating for political vulnerabilities would be the expansion of the Gulf’s security umbrella to include other interested parties, such as China and India. However, these parties are, in terms of military capabilities and focus, years away from being able to contribute significantly.
For its part, Iran is not oblivious to opportunities created by domestic Gulf policies. Tehran has sought to pressurize Gulf states into adopting a neutral stance in respect of its dispute with the West and Israel, as well as a more conciliatory attitude to their Shiite populations. Iran’s war games in April 2010 highlighted the threat that the country could pose to international shipping in case of an Israeli and/or US military attempt to take out Iranian nuclear facilities. During the games in the Gulf and the Strait of Hormuz, the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) swarmed, seized and destroyed hypothetical enemy vessels. Moreover, Iran has made clear that, in case of real conflict, it could target tankers with coastal anti-ship Silkworm missiles, patrol boats and short-range aircraft launched from nearby bases, or fast in-shore attack craft packed with explosives.
The assumption that Iranian verbal threats to shipping in the Gulf and the Strait of Hormuz as a response to a possible Israeli and/or US attack may be little more than bluster because of Tehran’s interest in keeping sea lanes open for its own exports is questionable. US and European sanctions have already reduced Iranian oil exports by about two thirds, and could force further cutbacks. Iran’s vested interest in keeping shipping lanes open has therefore been considerably diminished. By the same token, the effect of an Iranian attempt to shut down shipping lanes is to some extent counterbalanced by the building of new pipelines and the conversion and expansion of existing ones in the Gulf that circumvent the Strait of Hormuz. More serious, however, may be the likelihood of Iranian retaliation against Gulf oil and gas facilities using both its conventional military and cyber capabilities.
The risk of military conflict with Iran (and with it the risk to international shipping, as well as the fear of Tehran exploiting Gulf discontent) turns on the fact that efforts to achieve a negotiated solution to the nuclear issue are undercut by deep-seated prejudices on both sides. Iran is convinced that the strategic goal of US Iranian policy is regime change. It views past offers to reward Iran for agreeing to comply with international demands as efforts to portray it as weak, and as having caved to pressure, rather than as an incentive to reduce its international isolation. For its part, the US believes that Iran is not serious about negotiations, and also that it has Iran increasingly cornered. Washington further assumes that the US can succeed with a big stick and limited carrot policy, and that Iran will ultimately only succumb if it has no choice.
Washington’s analysis could prove correct. The question is whether the Americans’ purposes could be achieved in a more equitable way – that is, one that would allow Iran to save face, help put US-Iranian relations on a more healthy long-term footing, avert the potential fallout of relying primarily on a stick, reduce the cost to ordinary Iranians, and remove at an early stage the threat to energy security and international shipping. The proof will be in the pudding if and when the threat of a US (and/or Israeli) attack becomes imminent. At that very last one-minute-to-twelve moment, Iran is likely to concede.
Governed by middle-aged revolutionaries with vested interests that have been accumulated in the more than three decades since the overthrow of the Shah, Iranian leaders effectively maintain, at best, a revolutionary façade with their provocative hostility toward Israel and their anti-American and anti-Western rhetoric. Traditionally a nation of traders, Iranian leaders, when faced with the real and imminent threat of losing their grip on power or accepting humiliation, will most likely opt for the latter.
Whether the American stick will truly remove the threat to Gulf energy production and international shipping is debatable. Military action would deepen anti-Western resentment among Iran’s elite. Popular sentiment would be split between those who share that resentment and those who see opportunity to exploit the regime’s weakness. This could make potential change messier and ultimately more dangerous. Alternatively, an international effort to resolve the nuclear issue such that Iran is allowed to save face – rather than one aimed at weakening Tehran – could avert the prospect of Iran turning into a cornered cat that jumps in unexpected ways. This could potentially ease and usher in a process of change.
Resolving the nuclear dispute with Iran and addressing popular concerns in the Gulf are two sides of the same coin. Evolutionary transition in the Gulf is feasible, provided rulers address political, and not only economic and social concerns. A first step would be a more inclusive approach by Gulf rulers toward all segments of the population, and a liberalization rather than a crackdown on freedom of expression. Simultaneously, the US would have to adopt a policy that convinces Iran with deeds that it is serious about achieving a negotiated solution – rather than regime change.
Of course, changing policies among Gulf states and in Washington will not be easy. The alternative, however, is less palatable. It would involve a festering of popular discontent in the Gulf to the point that the region’s rulers lose all legitimacy, and are confronted with demands for their demise. Popular agitation for change would intensify, as would violence fuelled by Iranian exploitation of opportunities. Forceful governmental repression would soon follow, and the cycle would resume, with escalating consequences. The bitter pill that Gulf rulers and Western leaders would have to swallow now in order to avert escalation is likely to be a lot less painful than the consequences of failing to grab the bull by its horns.
bioline
James M. Dorsey is a former New York Times foreign correspondent and author of the blog, The Turbulent World of Middle East Soccer.

Wednesday, March 6, 2013

Civil war in Syria: The Spillover Threat



By James M. Dorsey

Water tankers line the unpaved road outside a pre-fab United Nations meeting room in Za’atari, the Syrian refugee camp in a desert just south of the Jordanian-Syrian border that is home to 110,000 escapees from the brutal war between Bashar al-Assad and his opponents or just about a quarter of the total number of Syrians in the country. Inside the meeting room, different perspectives on resource conservation and entitlement spill into the open.

A young Jordanian aid worker complains that Syrians despite years of drought have little concept of water conservation, a sensitive issue in one of the world’s more water-starved nations that has seen its population grow by an approximate eight percent as a result of the refugee crisis. Jordanian and United Nations estimates suggest that Jordan’s Syrian population could increase to 600,000 by April and up to a million by the end of the year.

In response to the Jordanian’s plea for greater care, a Syrian soccer coach counters that his section of the camp had been without water for the last two days. UN officials advised him that they were struggling to cope with the expansion of the sprawling camp as a result of the arrival of up to 3,000 new refugees a day. “What’s the problem,” the coach says, pointing his finger in the direction of where the water tankers are. “Just bring more water.”

Underlying the exchange, is a more fundamental perspective that promises to shape post-Assad attitudes in Syria as well as attitudes of the embattled leader’s eventual successors to their neighbors and the international community. The Syrian soccer coach’s sense of entitlement echoed among players in nearby Jordanian towns, reflects the refugees’ belief that they have been abandoned and betrayed by Jordan, the Arab world and the international community and are paying for it with their blood. ”This is not just a struggle for freedom in Syria, it’s a struggle for freedom for the Arabs,” said a Syrian striker void of any sense of gratitude to his hosts. “We would rather die than be humiliated. Putting us in the middle of the desert is a humiliation,” adds the coach.

The concern about the potential fall-out of mounting claims on limted resources coupled with increasingly regular clashes between refugees and security forces in Za’atari and growing worry that militant Islamists are emerging as a dominant resistance force has prompted a review of Jordan’s policy that could increasingly rope it into the conflict. Convinced that the Assad regime is trying to destabiize Jordan by targetting the Dera’a region in southern Syria and forcing its residents to flee across the border, Jordanian officials are looking for ways to help Syrian civilians stay on their side of the border. At the same time, they are preparing for a potential opening of the flood gates should rebel forces gain control of crossing points on the Syrian-Jordanian border.

Senior officials in King Abdullah’s court pour over detailed maps seeking to figure out ways of establishing a safe zone inside Syria similar to that created by Turkey on its border 30 kilometers inside Syria. The zone serves as a safe haven for refugees fleeing Aleppo and other confrontation points in the north of the country. That is a more difficult undertaking in southern Syria with Damascus, widely viewed as the not to distant focal point of a make-or-break battle between the rebels and Assad’s forces, much closer to the southern than the northern border. As a result, Jordan has quietly started allowing arms funded by Saudi Arabia and others to reach the rebels through its territory in a bid to strengthen rebel forces in Damascus and the south in the hope that they will contribute to stemming the exodus as well as in an attempt to redress the balance between Islamist militants and moderates within the armed resistance.

The potential for rising social tension is enhanced by the pain of austerity measures promised by the government to maintain the support of the International Monetary Fund for Jordan’s economic reforms amid an 80 percent drop in trade with Syria, reduced income from transit trade to Europe and the Gulf, increased shipping costs for Jordanian exports and stepped up budgetary pressure as a result of more people benefitting from subsidized pricing of bread, electricity and gas and greater stress on education and health care. Already schools, are forced to revert to a double shift system abaionndoned a decade ago while officials predict power blackouts in the near future.

The potential for increased social tension in Jordan is fuelled by a sense among both officials and the public that Jordan as the host of the largest number of refugees in the region is paying the price for what they see as reckless Saudi and Qatari for the more militant opposition forces. Some Gulf states moreover have yet to live up to their pledges to help Jordan fund the cost of the refugee crisis.

Back in Za’atari, the Syrian coach alongside UN agencies and international and Jordanian NGOs including the Asian Football Development Project, employ soccer to reduce tensions, focus energies, empower conservative women from rural Syria and forge a sense of community in a makeshift town that ranks among the country’s top four urban centers and has already witnessed hundreds of thousands of dollars in damage as a result of vandalism. With frusttration prompting refugees to bite the hand that feeds them and irritation mounting among Jordanians as King Abdullah seeks to manage external threats and domestic discontent, Jordanian planning mnister Jafar Abed Hassan voices a concern among officials and the public alike: “We’ve passed the breaking point. I don’t see who is going to provide answers.”

James M. Dorsey is a senior fellow at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies, co-director of the Institute of Fan Culture of the University of Würzburg, and the author of The Turbulent World of Middle East Soccer blog. A version of this article appeared on RSIS Commentaries

Monday, March 4, 2013

Soccer protests highlight Egyptian president Morsi’s fragile ties to the military


Port Said protesters help an injured solider (Source: Al Ahram)

By James M. Dorsey

A series of soccer protests in the past week in anticipation of a March 9 ruling in the politically loaded case of last year’s brawl in a Port Said stadium in which 74 fans died has focussed attention on the unaltered practices of the country’s Mubarak-era security forces as well as President Mohammed Morsi’s fragile relationship with the powerful military.

In a telltale statement on Facebook on Sunday, military spokesman Colonel Ahmed Ali denied reports that troops had clashed with police units in the Suez Canal city of Port Said on a day on which a demonstrator and a security officer were killed and more than 400 people injured in five week-old protests. Soccer protests in Cairo meanwhile blocked the road to the city’s international airport forcing visiting US Secretary of State John Kerry to delay his departure by two hours.

Colonel Ali said military units in Port Said where the protests expanded two weeks ago into a broad based civil disobedience campaign were guarding government buildings and installations and seeking to end clashes between the police and security forces.

Mr. Morsi declared emergency rule a month ago in Port Said and two other Suez Canal and Red Sea cities, Suez and Ismailia, and ordered the military to restore calm following protests in which security force killed more than 30 people in Port Said. Mr. Morsi’s decision was prompted by the inability of the interior ministry’s police and security forces, Egypt’s most reviled institutions because of their role as implementers of the repression of the regime of ousted president Hosni Mubarak, to restore law and order in Port Said.

In a repetition of events during the 18-day popular uprising in early 2011 that forced Mr. Mubarak to resign after 30 years in office, the military agreed to protect installations, including the crucial Suez Canal but refrained from cracking down on protesters who believe that their city has been made a scapegoat for failed government policy and has been historically marginalized. In fact, troops at times joined protesters defying the curfew in the city, prompting rumors that the military may seize power in a bid to restore a modicum of political stability.

The protests in Port Said as well as Cairo were sparked by an intial court sentencing to death on January 26 of 21 supporters of Port Said’s Al Masri sports club on charges of resposnibility for the death of the fans in last year’s brawl. The Cairo court is scheduled to pronounce judgement on March 9 in the case of another 52 defendants, who include nine mid-level security officials.

The court’s failure to pronounce judgement in its first round on the security officials fueled perceptions that police and security forces continue to be above the law. Opposotion forces, soccer fans and protesters have long demanded that those responsible for the death of more than 800 people since demonstrations erupted in January 2011 against Mr. Mubarak be held accountable. A human rights report charged earlier this year that security forces continue to arbitrarily arrest and torture people.

Rival militant, highly politicized, street-battle hardened soccer fans in Port Said and Cairo agree that last year’s deadly brawl in which 74 supporters of crowned Cairo club Al Ahli SC died at the end of a match against Al Masri was not spontaneous. Both groups as well as a broad swath of public opinion are convinced that the brawl was an effort that got out of hand to cut down to size the militants who had played a key role in the protests that toppled Mr. Mubarak and subsequent opposition to the military that led Egypt to last year’s election that brought Mr. Morsi to office.

Al Ahli supporters welcomed the sentencing of the Al Masri fans but demanded that those responsible for the brawl in the military and the security forces, including the former head of the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF), General Mohamed Hussein Tantawi, also be held accountable. Soccer fan protests in Port Said against the verdict struck a deep cord in a city of 750,000 that has long felt that it has been marganilized despite its role as a frontier town in the decades of conflict with Israel and its contribution to the Egyptian economy.

Port Said residents last month in response to a call by the Green Eagles, the militant Al Masri fan group, attempted to make notarized statements at government offices demanding that confidence in the Morsi government be withdrawn. Officials refused to notarize the statements.

The strikes and protests in Port Said located at the tip of the strategic Suez Canal have rattled the Morsi government and are inspiring its opponents to adopt the city’s civil disobedience tactics. In doing so, they threaten to empower opposition forces that have been struggling to channel public anger at Mr. Morsi’s haughty style of government and his rushing through of a controversial constitution. Opposition forces have already said they would boycot parliamentary elections scheduled for April.

James M. Dorsey is a senior fellow at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies, co-director of the University of Wuerzburg’s Institute for Fan Culture, and the author of The Turbulent World of Middle East Soccer blog.