Battles for the control of stadiums and other public spaces in Turkey and Egypt have pitched militant soccer fans against authoritarian leaders determined to limit supporters’ ability to challenge their authority.
As a result, a struggle that comes on the back of years of confrontation in the stadiums and mass, watershed anti-government protests that in 2011 toppled Egyptian president Hosni Mubarak and in 2013 rocked Turkey and reinforced President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s autocratic instincts, has moved beyond stadiums.
In Egypt, general-turned-president Abdel Fattah Al-Sisi inaugurated a new office of the Interior Ministry at the Police Academy in New Cairo, east of the Egyptian capital, as part of the relocation of the ministry away from Cairo’s downtown area where it has long been a target of protests. The police academy joined the prosecutor-general, state security, and judicial bodies in an effort to deprive protesters of symbols at a time of mounting discontent.
“The security situation is connected to the targeting of these institutions by a number of protesters centred in downtown Cairo. They seek to spread chaos throughout the country, especially after the demonstrations became unfortunately chaotic themselves. And they’re attempting to break the aura of authority around state institutions by putting them under siege, covering their walls with graffiti of vulgar images and language degrading to those who work there… The security challenges the country is going through have forced the ministry to accelerate its construction plans,” General Ahmad Al-Badry, the former head of the Police Academy, told Al Monitor during the inauguration.
General Badry’s acknowledgement of the street power of the fans followed an unprecedented bid in February by Al-Sisi, who heads one of the most repressive governments in recent Egyptian history, to reach out to his opponents.
In his government’s initial recognition of the power of the fans, Al-Sisi phoned in to a television programme on the fourth anniversary of a politically-loaded brawl at a stadium in the Suez Canal city of Port Said in which 72 militant supporters of storied Cairo club Al-Ahly SC were killed, to invite them to appoint ten of their members to independently investigate the incident.
It was the first time Al-Sisi reached out to his opponents, many of whom have been killed by the Interior Ministry’s security forces, forced underground or into exile, or are lingering in prisons where they risk abuse and torture.
Ultras Ahlawy, the militant fan group that played a key role in the 2011 toppling of Mubarak and many of the anti-government protests since, declined the invitation saying it could not be both the accuser and the judge at the same time but kept the door to a dialogue open.
Politicians use the side door
Despite stadiums in Egypt being closed to the public for much of the past five years and Sisi’s initial gesture having failed to co-opt the fans, his effort contrasted starkly with Erdoğan’s haughty refusal to even go through the motions of engagement with a social force that has significant street power and has demonstrated its ability to wield it.
The contrasting approaches of Messrs Al-Sisi and Erdoğan, who are at odds over the Egyptian’s military 2013 coup that removed from office Mohammed Morsi, the country’s first and only democratically elected president, and the brutal suppression of the Muslim Brotherhood, follow failed attempts in both countries to use the courts to ban militant fan groups as terrorist organisations.
While Al-Sisi has opted to keep stadiums closed to the public in his bid to control public space and prevent sports arenas from become key venues of protest, Erdoğan, a former semi-professional player, has sought full control by banning political slogans and chants during matches, with limited success, and introducing an electronic system widely viewed as an attempt to identify dissident fans. The system sparked a massive boycott and drop in stadium attendance. Erdoğan has further tried to counter the fans by creating pro-government soccer support groups.
Erdoğan’s failure to force the fans into line contrasts with his success in largely muzzling Turkey’s press and curtailing academic and other freedoms of expression.
Last month Erdoğan’s attempt to load the opening of legendary Istanbul soccer club Beşiktaş JK’s renovated Vodafone Arena stadium with pro-government political symbolism, intended to cater to the president’s megalomaniac sense of glory, was interrupted by fans who clashed with police after they were banned from attending the ceremony.
The Beşiktaş opening resembled the stadium’s closure in 2013, when it was still called Inönü Stadium. Though officially shut for renovations, the event was nevertheless politicised: Çarşı—the name of Beşiktaş’s anti-authoritarian fan network—played a key role in the anti-government Gezi Park protests that year.
This year, police used tear gas and water cannons to disperse thousands of Beşiktaş fans gathered as their team played its first match in the new stadium. Those fans that made it into the stadium defied the ban on chanting political slogans by resurrecting the Gezi Park chants, “C’mon spray us with tear gas” and “We are Mustafa Kemal’s soldiers”, a reference to Mustafa Kemal Atatürk, who carved modern Turkey out of the ruins of the Ottoman empire and is the father of militant Turkish secularism.
A battle on and off the field
Erdoğan’s efforts to manipulate soccer to his benefit has been aided by nationalist sentiment fuelled by the cancellation of international and domestic sporting events in the wake of a spate of jihadist and Kurdish-separatist attacks in major Turkish cities.
The attacks persuaded the European Table Tennis Union (ETTU) to move the European Olympic Singles Qualification Tournament out of Turkey and has prompted some major Turkish soccer tournaments and matches to be postponed. The attacks also prompted Lukas Podolski, the German star striker of another major Turkish club, Galatasary SK, to announce that he would be leaving Turkey.
As a result, Erdoğan, a purveyor of conspiracy theories in which dark forces—including Zionists, Germany, Britain, and a mastermind presumed to be the United States—continuously conspire against Turkey, has inspired the country’s pro-government media to extend the plot to soccer.
“Chaos over football: the gang of treachery wants to destabilise Turkey” read a headline in Fotomac in February, a day after a protester snatched a red card from a referee in the Black Sea town of Trabzon in protest against what he considered to be biased judgements.
“According to an allegation, there is a secret gang working behind the scenes of Turkish football. It has been stated that this gang pressed a button in order to drag the country into chaos by pulling masses to the streets via football. It has been learned that the secret gang, which had failed to drag Turkey into chaos during the Gezi Park protests, now has chosen Trabzonspor as a target, and it provokes the fans of this team by using referee mistakes as a pretext,” the newspaper reported, referring to Trabzon’s major soccer club.
Fans remain resolute
Despite significant differences in the political environment in Egypt and Turkey, fans in both countries fail to be intimidated and exploit every opportunity to make their demands heard, particularly as they relate to access to and control of stadiums.
Fans in Egypt set the stage for intermittent but growing anti-government protests last month when they forced their way into a stadium in protest against the ban on supporters attending football matches.
At the Borg Al-Arab stadium in the Mediterranean city of Alexandria, Ultras Ahlawy stormed the pitch during an African Championship match, the first major soccer-related incident since 20 fans were killed in Cairo last year in a clash with security forces. Police fired tear gas during the Alexandria incident, wounding 29 people.
The incident occurred amid growing criticism of Sisi and protests against his handing over to Saudi Arabia of two islands in the Red Sea earlier this month during a visit to Cairo by Saudi King Salman. The protesters, although far smaller in number than those that toppled Mubarak, adapted the slogans of the 2011 popular revolt: calls of “Bread, freedom—the islands are Egyptian!” replaced the 2011 revolt’s “Bread, freedom and justice”.
The incident and mounting spontaneous protests in neighbourhoods against security force brutality have persuaded Sisi to keep the country’s stadiums closed to the public out of fear that they could become rallying points for the opposition.
The continued closure of the stadiums—like Erdoğan’s flailing attempts to exert political control of soccer and its public space—bears the potential of continued confrontation because it incentivises fans to play their part in broader protests against the government on issues they empathise with.
“As the smell of pepper gas reaches inside, fans chant the legendary slogan: take off your helmets, drop your batons,” tweeted a Beşiktaş Çarşı fan after last month’s clash with police around the opening of the new stadium. His was a sarcastic invitation by the fans to take on the police on a level playing field.
It’s a challenge security forces in Turkey and Egypt won’t embrace. Overwhelming force and brutality has however proven ineffective in government efforts to suppress them and their refusal to simply surrender control of public space.
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, and the author of The Turbulent World of Middle East Soccer blog. He has also just published a book with the same title.