Middle East protests: ultras settle scores, Islamists seek to score points

The anti-Amer­i­can protests spread­ing across the Mid­dle East and North Africa may be fuelled by an obscure anti-Mus­lim Amer­i­can film but are real­ly about domes­tic score set­tling and polit­i­cal maneu­ver­ing.

At the bot­tom line, the mes­sage from this week’s riots that killed US ambas­sador Christo­pher Stephens and 13 oth­ers in Beng­hazi, wrecked the US con­sulate in Libya’s sec­ond city and sparked attacks on US mis­sions in Cairo and else­where is that the tran­si­tion from autoc­ra­cy to more open soci­eties in post-revolt Mid­dle East­ern and North African nations remains an unfin­ished, con­vo­lut­ed process. It is a mes­sage that is being expressed by pro­test­ers whose back­ground varies from coun­try to coun­try and in Egypt include mil­i­tant, high­ly politi­cized, well orga­nized and street bat­tled-hard­ened soc­cer fans or ultras. 

Tran­si­tion is like­ly to remain volatile until post-auto­crat­ic gov­ern­ments deliv­er on the demands of pro­test­ers, includ­ing social jus­tice and reform of the for­mer regime’s repres­sive machin­ery that in the last 21 months have top­pled four Arab lead­ers and plunged Syr­ia into civ­il war. It also will stay con­vo­lutes until pop­u­la­tions who have only known total­i­tar­i­an­ism become more tol­er­ant and thick skinned as they adapt to emerg­ing more open, plu­ral­is­tic soci­eties that embrace the prin­ci­ple of live and let live and free­dom of expression. 

Jour­nal­ist Issan­dr El Amrani not­ed in The Nation­al this week that his­tor­i­cal­ly Islamists and auto­crat­ic gov­ern­ments have used per­ceived insults against Islam as a mobi­liza­tion tool. The dif­fer­ence between this week’s cri­sis or the 2005 Dan­ish car­toon cri­sis that was foment­ed by the gov­ern­ments of Egypt and Sau­di Ara­bia and the 1988 death fat­wa against Salman Rushdie issued by Iran­ian Aya­tol­lah Ruhol­lah Khome­ni or the Egypt­ian Mus­lim Brotherhood’s cam­paign in 2000 against Syr­i­an nov­el­ist Hay­der Hay­der is the Inter­net that puts obscure or local expres­sions of big­otry on the glob­al map. 

Few doubt that the dev­as­tat­ing attack on the US con­sulate in Beng­hazi was pre-planned and that the manip­u­la­tion of emo­tions over a film that would have best been ignored allowed mil­i­tant Islamists bent on reveng­ing the death of an Al Qae­da leader, Sheikh al-Libi, to exe­cute their plan in a coun­try that is strug­gling to build insti­tu­tions, dis­arm a mul­ti­tude of armed groups and build uni­fied mil­i­tary and law enforce­ment forces. In Egypt, the ini­tial dri­ver of the protests appears to be Al Qae­da leader Ayman Zawahiri’s broth­er Mohammed who heads a small group of Salafists that saw an oppor­tu­ni­ty to com­mem­o­rate in its own way the anniver­sary of the 9/11 attacks and score points against the Mus­lim Broth­er­hood which has large­ly out maneu­vered the country’s more rad­i­cal Islamists. 

Nonethe­less, the Islamists have put post-revolt gov­ern­ments on the spot forc­ing them to walk a tightrope between con­demn­ing the vio­lence as well as the insult of the Prophet Mohammed. In Egypt, the emo­tions evoked and the cen­tral role of the ultras, one of the country’s largest and best orga­nized civic groups, forced Pres­i­dent Mohammed Morsi’s Mus­lim Broth­er­hood to call for a demon­stra­tion of its own against the US film that it may not be able to control. 

Amid mount­ing ten­sion this month between ultras, secu­ri­ty forces and the gov­ern­ment over the fail­ure to mete out jus­tice for the 74 soc­cer fans killed in a polit­i­cal­ly loaded brawl in Feb­ru­ary in Port Said, the ban­ning of fans from soc­cer match­es and cor­rup­tion in Egypt­ian soc­cer, this week’s anti-Amer­i­can protests offered the ultras the per­fect oppor­tu­ni­ty to make good on their promise of renewed street agi­ta­tion. Ten­sion start­ed build­ing when ultras last week first stormed the train­ing ground of crowned Cairo club Al Ahly SC and a day lat­er the offices of the Egypt­ian Foot­ball Asso­ci­a­tion (EFA). The protests won the ultras the sup­port of the Broth­er­hood which now hopes to keep a lid on the brew­ing con­flict by attempt­ing to take con­trol of the anti-Amer­i­can protests. 

As far back as Feb­ru­ary, the ultras assert­ed that their issues were “big­ger than foot­ball. We want to set­tle the score with rem­nants of the for­mer regime.” In a state­ment last week they warned that “we remained silent for sev­en months, dur­ing which we were com­mit­ted to peace­ful ways to ask for the rights of 74 mar­tyrs who died in the world’s worst foot­ball tragedy. Now, after sev­en months, we call on every­body to revolt against the foot­ball sys­tem before action is resumed. We also call on fel­low Ultras groups to reunite and sup­port us in our demands.” 

That sup­port is being man­i­fest­ed on the streets around the US embassy in Cairo where the anger sparked by the US film offered the ultras a renewed oppor­tu­ni­ty to set­tle scores with the police and the secu­ri­ty forces – Egypt’s most despised insti­tu­tions that are wide­ly seen as the bru­tal enforcers of oust­ed Pres­i­dent Hos­ni Mubarak’s repres­sive regime. Those scores are deep seat­ed dat­ing back to four years of reg­u­lar clash­es with police and secu­ri­ty forces in the sta­di­ums as well as the mem­o­ry of police bru­tal­i­ty in the poor­er neigh­bor­hoods of Egypt­ian cities, the clash­es dur­ing the 18 days of protest last year that top­pled Mr. Mubarak and the vicious street bat­tles since then that killed scores and wound­ed thousands. 

To the ultras, defeat­ing the police is reaf­fir­ma­tion of their dig­ni­ty. It amounts to defeat­ing the rem­nants of the Mubarak regime and what soci­ol­o­gist Sal­wa Ismail describes as ensur­ing that the “fear and the cul­ture of fear that con­tin­u­ous mon­i­tor­ing, sur­veil­lance, humil­i­a­tion and abuse have cre­at­ed” defeat­ed with the top­pling of Mr. Mubarak is maintained 

To ordi­nary Egyp­tians, the state in the words of Lon­don School of Eco­nom­ics and Polit­i­cal Sci­ence his­to­ri­an John Cal­craft was in auto­crat­ic Mid­dle East­ern and North African regimes “in the deten­tion cells, in the cor­rupt police sta­tions, in the beat­ings, in the blood of the peo­ple, in the pop­u­lar quar­ters.” What the ultras in front of the US embassy and before that on Tahrir Square and in the sta­di­ums were per­form­ing is con­tin­ued “rejec­tion of fear and the cul­ture of fear” in a bid to ensure that the demands that led to the top­pling of auto­crat­ic lead­ers are achieved says Mr. Calcraft . 

It was also learn­ing the lessons – both in the run-up to Mr. Mubarak’s down­fall and in the post-Mubarak tran­si­tion peri­od — of the fail­ures of rev­o­lu­tion­ar­ies like promi­nent Syr­ia poet Ado­nis and Yasin Al-Hafiz in the hey­day of Arab nation­al­ism whose Marx­ist think­ing was at the core of the Syr­i­an Baath Party’s ide­ol­o­gy but was ren­dered impo­tent by autoc­ra­cies that stymied crit­i­cal, inde­pen­dent thinking. 

“We aspire as rev­o­lu­tion­ary Arabs, to lay the foun­da­tions for a new era for the Arabs. We know that insti­tu­tion­al­iz­ing a new era requires from the very begin­ning a total break with the past. We also know that the start­ing point of this found­ing break is crit­i­cism, the crit­i­cism of all that is inher­it­ed, preva­lent and com­mon. The role of crit­i­cism is not lim­it­ed to expos­ing and lay­ing bare what­ev­er pre­vents the cre­ation of a new era but involves its destruc­tion,” Ado­nis wrote. 

Al-Hafiz argued that “a cri­tique of all aspects of exist­ing Arab soci­ety and its tra­di­tions as well as a strict sci­en­tif­ic, sec­u­lar cri­tique and deep, pen­e­trat­ing analy­sis is a fun­da­men­tal oblig­a­tion of the Arab rev­o­lu­tion­ary social­ist van­guard …Explor­ing the tra­di­tion­al frames of Arab soci­ety, will accel­er­ate the cre­ation of a com­plete­ly mod­ern Arab soci­ety. With­out such an explo­sion, the chances for a sys­tem­at­ic, speedy and rev­o­lu­tion­ary devel­op­ment of the tra­di­tion­al intel­lec­tu­al and social struc­tures of the Arab peo­ple will be ques­tion­able if not impossible.” 

The chal­lenge for post-revolt gov­ern­ments in the Mid­dle East and North Africa is har­ness­ing the rev­o­lu­tion­ary ener­gy released by people’s real­iza­tion that there is pow­er in num­bers and chan­nel­ing it from street into plu­ral­is­tic pol­i­tics of polit­i­cal orga­ni­za­tions and inter­est groups. Build­ing con­fi­dence in post-revolt insti­tu­tions and deliv­er­ing on pro­test­ers’ orig­i­nal demands is the key. A first step in Egypt would be long over­due reform of the police and secu­ri­ty forces. 

About The Author:
James M. Dorsey is a senior fel­low at the S. Rajarat­nam School of Inter­na­tion­al Stud­ies at Nanyang Tech­no­log­i­cal Uni­ver­si­ty in Sin­ga­pore and the author of the blog, The Tur­bu­lent World of Mid­dle East Soc­cer.

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