“Football Revolution”: The False Promise of Secular Nationalism

“When future historians write about the transformation of the Middle East, they will likely wax lyrical about this moment, which has already come to be known as the “football revolution”, writes Franlkin Foer in How Soccer Explains the World. Foer isn’t talking about the recent upheavals in the Middle East nor is he referring to the Egyptian football fans who clashed violently with the armed forces in the streets of Cairo in February 2011, he is writing about a revolution led by female football fans in Iran in 1997.

Although football has been a great national obsession in Iran since 1920s and the reign of Reza Shah Pehalvi. However, after the 1979 Islamic revolution in Iran, female football fans were banned from attending matches at the Azadi stadium firstly because football had come to symbolize modernization and the Western culture, and secondly in order to maintain gender segregation in conformity with Islamic rules. The Iranian football team’s 1997 victory over Australia in the World Cup qualifying round in Melbourne was a turning point for the youth in Iran. Men and women from wealthy as well as poor neighborhoods sang and danced in the streets to celebrate the victory with a sense of national pride that transcended social and political divides. Three days later, when the team returned, thousands of women stormed the gates of Azadi stadium to welcome to the team at the government held celebrations and the police decided to stand back to avoid any major incidents.

“The football revolution holds the key to the future of the Middle East”, writes Foer, “this future could be discerned in the waving of the pre-Islamic national flag, the graffiti that praised the “noble people of Iran,” and the celebrants’ shouting of the name of Reza Pehalvi, the exiled son of the late shah – the roots of a nationalist uprising against Islam”. To him the only hope for bringing democracy to the Middle East lies in the people rising up against theocratic governments. However, in the one year since the Egyptian uprising it is clear that the reality of secular nationalism expressed in collective love for the game is more complicated than Foer imagines.

Hazem El Mestikawy, an Egyptian football expert, says that since the ban on Egyptian political parties after July 1952 revolution, allegiance to football clubs became the outlet for political expression. The two most popular Egyptian football club Ahly and Zamalek became political parties as their fans clashed with the police in stadiums under the dictatorship. Although arch rivals, the hardcore fans (known as Ultras) of both clubs came together in Tahrir Square in early 2011 where they clashed violently with the armed forces. For the Egyptian people it was a time to rise above sectarian divides and unite against the dictatorial rule of Hosni Mubarak.

Since the January 25 movement, Islamic parties have taken the political lead and sectarianism is on the rise. Even the football fans have resumed their rivalry which has resulted in violent riots the most brutal of which was in Port Said last week where at least 74 people have died. Although some claim that the riots were started or at least encouraged by security forces who want to justify maintaining their rule over the people, it is somewhat naive to look towards a “football revolution” as the force to bring in secular nationalism to counter Islamic rule as Foer hopes. The egyptians rose up against a secular dictatorship and not against Islamic parties. Even now the Egyptians continue to clash with security forces and with each other, and a year after the uprising it remains unclear if the revolution has delivered on it’s promise.

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