An interview with James M. Dorsey, Senior Fellow at S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies of Nanyang Technological University in Singapore and co-director of the Institute of Fan Culture in Würzburg/Germany. He is also an award-winning journalist, working among others on the Middle East since the mid 1970s. His monograph Turbulent World of Middle East Soccer was published with Hurst Publishers in 2014 .
In this interview, Dorsey discusses the fundamental developments in the Middle East over the recent years arguing that despite the repressive reactions of the governments towards political dissent, a radical shift in status quo is underway. He describes the economic and social factors which continue to nourish discontent in various countries in the Middle East, and explains, focusing on the case of Eygpt, why football has played such a central role in the protests.
You have recently argued that the current protests in Lebanon and elsewhere in the region seem to defy the impression that the brutal suppression of civic protest in the Middle East has been successful. Can tell us more about the protests that are going on at the moment and to what extent they are challenging the current governments?
Let me paint a larger picture first. I think there is a broad sort of sense that – post popular revolts of 2011 – the effort for change has been defeated; that the Middle East is a bloody ugly mess and nothing has changed. And I think that is fundamentally wrong. The Middle East is in transition.
Firstly, you might not like the Islamic State and various other forces that have originated, but the fact is the Islamic State is an agent of change. It may not be the change one wants regarding democracy,
greater freedom etc, but it is a fundamental challenge to the status quo. Secondly, where ever this goes, it will take a long time. The status quo is no longer a sustainable paradigm.
What that means is that on the one hand, transition as an answer to protest, anger and frustration, had been closed off and public space has vanished, obviously resulting in more militant, more radical, more mobile responses. The assumption then again was that some people had been cowed, either because of the situation in their own countries, or because they look at the situation in Syria, in Iraq or Yemen and feel they would rather have a degree of security and stability, than the chaos that they see around them. However, what we are seeing in certain groups in Iraq, and also to a lesser degree in Egypt, is that this is not really the case.
When things get to a point where it is no longer sustainable, when the garbage is piling up on the streets [like in Lebanon], suddenly the people are back on the streets. Secondly, what you see – certainly in the case of Lebanon and Iraq – is that these kind of protests cross ethnic and sectarian boundaries. Everybody smells the same stuff in Beirut. So, that is what I think the bigger picture is. In a sense, one could argue that the Islamic State on one extreme and peaceful protest in Beirut, Bagdad or Basra on the other extreme, are flipsides of the same coin, depending on what margins and public space there is. The fundamental point it is that the Middle East is in transition.
So, are you arguing that the authoritarian regimes are currently breaking up and that
there is space for different kinds of contestation or are saying that in a way we have overlooked the potential that there was before?
I am saying a bit of both. There is a tendency that people have written off peaceful protest. But, I think it is more that – on a whole range of different levels, from country to country, but also differing from sub-region to sub-region – the traditional paradigm is breaking down. Whether that is a government which cannot get its waste management together or whether it is a government that cannot provide electricity or water, or it is a social contract, like in Saudi Arabia or Kuwait, which is frayed because of the economics of it, this paradigm is on the defensive. You have a mix of popular responses to that, exploiting whatever opportunities or margins there are. For example in Lebanon, there is now a margin to take to the streets. In Iraq, you have both that margin, but also many Sunni are opting for the Islamic State, not because they necessarily like their particular interpretation of Shari’ah, but because they are not being offered an alternative. This is the least of the bad alternatives that there are. The responses like the Egyptian one, call it counter-revolution or whatever, are also failing. So, that is the magnet field in which they are operating in.
In a way, you are saying that however harsh the responses might currently be, the underlying critique of the current governments or regimes is so strong that it reemerges in specific moments again and again, is that right?
Yes, or to phrase is differently: The simple return to the status quo is no longer an option. No matter how defensive the various regimes are, it could very well prove to be Saudi Arabia’s Vietnam. And the final chapter of the Lebanese stories is by far not written. What you essentially have is a paradigm of authoritarian rule and a paradigm of exclusionary rule, rather than inclusionary rule of a very passive public, and a growing inability to produce the kind of drive to keep a social contract which is no longer sustainable, to deliver the minimum of public services and goods. This has over the last four years produced a situation which is fluid and in which the push for change occurs in multiple ways depending on opportunities, circumstances etc. These many ways are unpredictable in the same way as we cannot predict a popular revolt.
Is it possible to see a similar pattern in these different countries that this exclusionary kind of politics and the failure to provide public services triggers popular critique of the governments?
It differs from country to country. Obviously, Egypt is not supplying the public services and goods, neither is Iraq, Syria, Lebanon; Jordan is struggling, but it also has the refugee influx. In the Gulf, certainly in Kuwait, in Saudi Arabia, in the UA the social contract, in terms of maintaining of the social welfare state is fraying: the introduction of taxes, charges for services etc. Saudi Arabia is definitely exclusionary in terms of its minorities. While the UA is at a cultural level very inclusive, you have Synagogues, Hindu Temples, you have churches etc. and yet, the social contract is fraying. There is a lot of grumbling. While there is on the one hand pride in the military performance, on the other, conscription is only a year old and now there are soldiers dying in a war that was not part of the bargain. There are democratic issues that play a role. In Kuwait, one of the shocks of the last mosque bombing was that the Bidoon were very heavily involved. So, it is not that one glove fits all. It differs from country to country. But, the underlying more general issues are sort of the same even if the way they are articulated and the way they emerge in different countries may be different.
Would you say that the Arab Spring, as we call it, had a triggering effect on the general questioning of the status quo or are there broader underlying issues?
I think it is broader than that. In 2001 and 2002, the King in Saudi Arabia at the time had already started tinkering with the welfare state. Saudi Arabia is almost unique in this. If you look at the per capita income, at the GDP per capita income, in Saudi Arabia: In 1985, it was 17,000 $. On the 11 September 2001, it was $ 6,700. This means it had dropped by more than 100% in an oil-rich country. The Saudis were struggling. They were having two and three jobs, if they could find jobs, trying to make ends meet. At the time of the self-immolation of Bouazizi  in Tunisia in 2010, you had mass protest in Jeddah (Saudi Arabia) over another mishandling of flooding issues. You had huge clashes in Amman (Jordan) in which 250 people were injured during a soccer match. This is November 2010. This was brewing and it all sort of came together with the revolts.
And I think the argument you are making is that it is still brewing today, that there is still a transition going on, is that right?
Absolutely. If we take a step back, whatever you think of George W. Bush, there is actually one very wise thing that he said in 2001 after 9/11 that many people have forgotten, and I am paraphrasing now, but he essentially said, the United States or the West was equally guilty in terms of the 9/11 attacks because of its support for undemocratic regimes. That is where his democracy initiative came from, which was totally mishandled. But, it was the recognition that stability wasn’t working. So, in that period of time, officials, analysts etc. were waiting for the Arab street to act, but the Arab street never responded on their timetable. So, if you were an analyst in those times saying it is bubbling, you were dismissed. But, fact is that these things bubble and they can bubble for a long time and there may or may not be the spark that brings them to explode, but that doesn’t mean it is not there.
Do you think that the current protests could increase so strongly that there would be another great wave of contestation like the Arab Spring? Or do you think people are more careful? I think you mention that in a recent analysis of the current situation in Lebanon.
Algerians are also more careful now, because they still remember the war. I don’t think you can predict it. First of all, it is too early. In other words, if Lebanon succeeds, i.e. they force the government out or force change, obviously people will take heart from this. But, if they don’t succeed, that will be less encouraging. You could also argue – but this is pure speculation – that the paradigm of brutal response to peaceful protest – in the form that you have in Bahrain – is a model that works for a period of time, but look at Syria. So, whether or not a regime may respond differently, because it looks at Syria and doesn’t want to end up that way: the jury is out. So, I don’t want to predict anything. But, what you can say is that the discontent is there. It comes to the surface whenever there is an opportunity and something that sparks it. The region is in change and the paradigm is shifting, without a moral judgment whether it is going in the right or wrong direction. But, fundamentally, there is no way back to status quo.
So, does this means that there is a potential that the governments also change their strategies towards these kinds of protest?
First of all, there is also another level of change. The chances of Syria ever becoming a nation-state again are minimal. I would also place no bet on Iraq, neither on Yemen. So, that is a whole different dynamic we have now. The last four years have shown that the willingness of certain regimes to retain power at whatever price is quite remarkable, whether that is the Saudis or Bashar [Al-Assad] or Ali Abdullah. It is a degree of unprecedented willingness. Bahrain, is a success story in those terms. I would say it is a failure, but they are managing to keep the lid on. However, it is a question how long that will last. Syria is an obvious total failure. So, there are no clear answers.
I think a figure which you recently cited, underlines quite well what you have been explaining so far that the discontent and protest continue to bubble. According to these figures from Democracy Index, 807 anti-government protests were staged by militant football fans and students in Egypt between October of last year and June this year, despite the repressive regime of Abdel Fattah Al Sisi.
That is true. But, you also had in Egypt is a popular revolt – miscalculated in lots of different ways – which, however, succeeded in indirectly forcing the resignation of the president. This lead to a lot of aspirations and expectations, which, however, were dashed in the following. So, while you have some young people that have become apathetic, disillusioned, grown-in-age etc, there is a whole segment of the youth that hasn’t given up.
Egypt draws on almost a century of tradition and history [of a student movement]. In other words, the traditional understanding of the 1919 revolution is that it was the students who staged their revolt that lead to independence in 1922. What that establishes is that students have played a very important role throughout various periods of history in Egypt. And if you look at who those students were in 1919, they were football fans. The place where they met, what was their breeding ground, was the founding of [the football club] Al Ahly SC under the auspices of the Wafd Party. If you fast forward to around the 1970s, where the Brotherhood had gone through basically 25 years of oppression until Sadat started to use them against the Left, the Brotherhood was almost withered away and it was the student movement that blew new life into it. The older generation, especially the spiritual guides, engaged with the students travelling the country crisscross.
Today, you see the same thing happening. The backbone of the student movement are football fans, who are also students, who are pushing, radicalizing. They are sort of caught between the repression which they are dealing with and not really wanting to cross the line towards the jihadists. Some of them are like one young man who I spent some time with. He is a 22 year-old man, very smart, very knowledgeable. He is a member of the Brotherhood. He is from either of the student groups. He is steeped in Islamic history, in the history of the student movement and the history of football fans in Egypt. He moves around Cairo in a protective envelop, because he has been sentenced twice in absentia; once to life in prison. That is what we are talking about. So, in that sense, there is this special history and tradition in Egypt.
Is there an awareness of this history of the centrality of students and football in transformation and revolution among students and football fans today?
Yes, this young man was not the only one I spent time with. They do have that history. There is also an awareness of this in the leadership. Whether all football fans know that, I would question that. The student movement partly does. There is also a whole apathetic community.
It is possible to locate the football fan groups in dichotomies of right-left, religious-secular, or does football totally conflate these differences?
All grass-roots movements, certainly those that lead to public protests and even more those that get to the point that there is a change in leader, face the problem of how to then make the transition into more classic politics. They are not prepared for that. But on top of that, the militant football fans, the politicized football fans, very deliberately define themselves as apolitical. It is very deliberate, very strategic. This has to do with the fact that if they define themselves as political, they become much more vulnerable. Also, they transcend or reach a common denominator, which is a passion for the sport, for the club and a very specific power analysis of the sport, in which the management relies on the regime and the players are mercenaries who are only there for the money. So, fans – particularly militant fans – are the only really true supporters of the game, which gives some sort of rights, e.g. the right to the stadium, right to the space, and a dislike of authority in particular. Once you transcend those parameters, the views run the gamut from right to left. So, that of course, as a group if you get into that, you will fall apart. Which is also why, in the case of summer of 2013 you saw football fans on all squares and sites. On the other hand, Islamists among them are a strong group. I am not saying they are a majority, but they are very prominent group in what is a conservative society.
That is a very interesting point. So, you are saying that the militant, the most politicized, football fans actually deliberately see themselves as apolitical…
Absolutely. If we think back to the 24 January 2011, two major groups in Cairo issued almost identical statements on facebook, which were reasonably quoted. This was the day before Police Day, the first mass-protest. The statement said, ‘We are not part of this. We are not involved in politics. However, individual members are free to join to do what they want’. Privately, the word was, ‘Look, this is what we have been preparing for, go for it’. But, the official statement was, ‘We are not part of this and what our members do is their personal business’.
What I am wondering is whether it would be right to say that nevertheless these fan groups help frame discontent in political terms, or would that be wrong?
No, I wouldn’t articulate it in that way. They are more of a reflection of discontent. Firstly, because of the centrality of football in Egyptian life. Secondly, because there were not many ways in which you could express yourself. If we look at the two decades before that, there were big demonstrations on Palestine, but much of that was actually just as much about Palestine as it was about Egypt. Besides this, they have a very emotional value, a very strong bond to the game and the club, and a very specific analysis of the power structures and also a very clearly defined way of expressing their support in the stadium, which automatically brought them in conflict with the security forces of the regime. That is what made them popular. They derived that popularity from the degree of passion for a club that millions of others supported as well as from the fact that they were the only group – leaving the Bedouin aside – the only urban group that consistently and on a regular basis physically confronted the regime on issues that as a matter of principle a lot of people agree on. I think it is more that than that they were framing or shaping anything.
In that sense, they were in opposition to the state through the position they were in and it triggered from there, rather than that they had a certain politically framed position towards the state or regime.
Exactly. The security forces were a problem for everybody. They were corrupt, brutal, and that on a daily basis in popular neighbourhoods. So, for a lot of the less educated, unemployed, here there was this group that was battling it out and standing its ground in the stadium and they too were football fans. This was the release valve. For a lot of these people, it was not so much about the state etc. It was about the security forces.
Is this limited to Ultras or does it go beyond just them? Obviously, it triggered something…
No, this is specific to the Ultras. I would argue – and you can see that from what people tweeted on Tahrir Square – that the Ultras played a very key role in breaking what people called the ‘barrier of fear’. For example, the fact the Ultras were there standing their ground, people who left felt bad, and other people stayed because they thought, ‘if the Ultras stay why should we be running’. So, there were lots of different dynamics. They also played a role in the build-up, in the marches towards Tahrir. On the 25th, the Ultras played a great role in breaking down those barriers. They made use of their experience. They were fearless. They were willing to put their lives on the line.
Does this fearlessness have something to do with them as football fans? Is there something characteristic about being a football fan or belonging to club that brings this with it?
I think it has to do with the tribal nature, the real emotional depth of the bond to the club. I mean, football is an aggressive sport. It is about conquering the other half of the field. You have groups in Europe where one of the problems is that these militant football fan groups make appointments somewhere in the woods to ‘fight it out’. If you assume that this is just lower class youth, you are wrong. They are groups of doctors, professors, lawyers who fight it out with each other. So, there is a lot of identity politics involved. If you put sports into popular culture, football is the most popular expression of popular culture. There is nothing that competes with it: no other sport, not arts, painting, theatre, literature etc. Roughly 5% of the world’s population is in one way or another professionally involved in football.
In this context, where something is bubbling, such emotional attachment to a club can have a mobilizing effect…
Sure. Again if we look at Egypt, for the greater part of the past four year stadia have been closed. There are moves to criminalize them, as it has been in Turkey too, by the way. Two things have happened: Groups have emerged that define themselves as Ultras and are formed by football fans, but are no longer associated with the club and no longer describe themselves as apolitical, but define themselves as explicitly political. That is one development and on the other hand, although the number is still small to my knowledge, there are people who cross the line and join the jihadists.
It looks as if in places in which direct open political critique is suppressed very harshly, sport and football become spaces where this discontent erupts in certain moments, as you said like in confrontation with the security forces.
It depends on the circumstances, if the stadia get closed or the games suspended it gets more difficult. I think a better way of approaching it – and that sets the Middle East and Africa apart from other places in the world – that football particularly has played an important role in the development of the region, consistently for more than a century. What I mean with that is in terms of nation formation and nation building, regime formation and regime survival as well as decline; whether it is the 1920s, the anti-colonial struggle in Algeria was on the football pitch, or Al Ahly in Egypt. If you look at the history of football clubs in the region and the introduction of the sport, and this includes Turkey and Israel, almost all major clubs were founded with a political motivation. This might have been anti-colonial v. monarchical, may have been ideological, as various expressions of Zionism, it may have been identity. That is the history of most of these clubs. So, in other words the sport was political from day one and was a political vehicle for fans but also for others. There is probably – certainly prior to the revolts – nothing that evokes that kind of passion (except for religion) than football.
So, although football is entirely entangled with politics from the beginning, you are saying that the critical element within football now comes from the emotional tie to the club and football itself, rather than an ideological persuasion. Is that right?
What I am saying is that it always was a venue. And depending on whether or not the venue was available, football would play a role. In a sense, you can argue that the stadia in the last for years of the Mubarak regime were a grunt school, like the first few years of basic training when you join the military. In other words, that is why they were the most street-battle hard group on Tahrir. None of the other people had ever been in this situation before. So, in an environment in which you don’t have multiple options, and multiple public spaces then football – assuming it is played in public – becomes one of the very few.
Thank you very much for this interview.
 For his book, see http://www.hurstpublishers.com/book/the-turbulent-world-of-middle-east-soccer/ and his blog, see http://mideastsoccer.blogspot.com.tr/
 Tarek al-Tayeb Mohamed Bouazizi (29 March 1984 – 4 January 2011) was a Tunisian street vendor who set himself on fire on 17 December 2010 after his cart had been confiscated by the municipal authorities. His self-immolation triggered demonstrations and protests throughout Tunisia leading to the Tunisian Revolution and the Arab Spring.