Important contribution which will enrich the growing literature on football in North African and Middle Eastern Societies

Mahfoud Amara
Qatar University

Carl Rommel
Egypt’s Football Revolution: Emotion, Masculinity, and Uneasy Politics
278 sidor, hardcover, ill
Austin, TX: University of Texas Press 2021
ISBN 978-1-4773-2317-5

Carl Rommel’s book about the Egypt Football Revolution starts with the February 3, 2006, tragedy of the Al-Salem 98 ferry, which sank causing the death of more than a thousand passengers. The accident and what followed set the scene of the book on football and Egypt’s (and the Egyptian) tragedy. The country, in addition of being fanatic about football (at least up to 2011), has been the centre of cinema and TV drama productions in the Arab World. This happened during the week that Egypt was preparing for its quarter final of the 2006 African Cup of Nations, held in Cairo. The death toll caused by the accident did not change the plan and protocol of President Hosni Mubarak and his entourage attending both the training session of the national team in the morning, and the match in the evening. The show must go on, as the accident was maktoub, as it is usually described, a product of “fate” which was meant to happen at that time, and the people who perished in the accident were “martyrs”. What mattered the most was that Egyptian football dominated the football scene in Africa at that time, which the state-controlled media, and private media close to the regime, led by the then National Democratic Party, would depict as the legacy of President Hosni Mubarak’s rule of Egypt.

Egypt’s victory in the 2006 African Cup of Nations was the beginning of a series of triumphs, repeated in 2008 and 2010. This is also true at club level, with Al-Ahly Football Club, the club of Al-Chaab (the people), winning the African Champions League in 2005 and 2008. What happened in the football arena was a result of what Rommel describes as “an extensive hype” boosted by exploding Egyptian media coverage thanks to Egypt’s media city and Nilesat, the biggest provider of TV and Radio Satellite Channels in the Arab region. The celebrity status of Egyptian football stars reached well beyond the football pitch. Football players became close to the inner circles of business and politics as well as pop culture (music, TV, cinema). The game became a primary concern of political circles, represented by the dominant ruling party and its close military and business elites. The author examines “the football’s political and emotional effects” in mid-2000 and up to the 2011 revolution. Football was the place for celebration but also for the building up of popular contestation, which actively contributed to the toppling of President Mubarak, and the end of his son’s ambition, Gamel Mubarak, to inherit the presidential office, following the model of Bachar’s regime in Syria. The book traces the rise and fall story of Egyptian football and with it the political symbol of Mubarak’s regime.

In 2015, another massacre took place during a match between Zamalek and ENPPI, resulting in 22 deaths of Zamelk’s “Ultra White Knights”.

The book is divided into mainly three parts. The first part focuses on the period between 2006 and 2011, named the “Egyptian football bubble”. The bubble is used by the author as a metaphor to make sense of how football, and the National Team successive victories in the African Cup of Nations, encapsulated national politics. The euphoria around football somehow closed off Egypt from the rest of the world and boosted the confidence of President Mubarak’s clan. The second part of the book examines the phenomenon of Ultras groups, which became visible from 2007 onwards, gaining attention in academic and journalistic writings for their politicization, organization, capacity to mobilize notable numbers of youth, as well as active involvement in the 2011 anti-regime protestation movement. They were in the first line of confrontation with security forces in Tahrir Square, challenging also how football was instrumentalized as merely “spectacle to please the masses”. For Ultras, football is another way of “constructing subjectivity and masculinity” as Egyptian Man, and respectable citizenship, in opposition to that of President Mubarak and his son’s image, as portrayed in pop culture.

The influence of Ultras in public debates took a severe hit with the Port Said massacre on February 1, 2012, where 72 of the Al-Ahly Football Club’s “Ultras Ahly” died in the violent clash with Al-Masry fans. The aftermath of the massacre and illustration and graffiti around the “martyrs” of Port Said is well captured by photographer Jonathan Rashad. In 2015, another massacre took place during a match between Zamalek and ENPPI, resulting in 22 deaths of Zamelk’s “Ultra White Knights”. The Egyptian Football Federation decided to ban fans from attending football matches for 6 years, and more importantly the Cairo Court for Urgent Affairs issued a verdict banning the activities of all hardcore football fan groups known as Ultras across the country and declaring them “terrorist organizations”. The decision aimed to alienate and to demonize Ultras football groups, and further to challenge the revolution narrative, which presented them as heroes and role models.

Part three focuses on the non-ultras (regular) fans who disengaged from domestic football and even from the National Team, following the end of its dominance of African football and its defeat in the decisive qualifying games for the 2010 FIFA World Cup against Algeria. Both regimes, Hosni Mubarak’s in Egypt, preparing the inheritance of the presidency to remain within Mubarak’s family, and that of Abdelaziz Bouteflika preparing for his life presidency of Algeria, the qualification to the World Cup was somehow a matter of life and death. Both systems mobilized all the states resources for the final match on 18 November in Oum Derman, in Sudan, after a perfect draw following the playoffs in Blida and in Cairo. For the president of Sudan Omar al-Bashir, who was under a warrant for arrest by the International Criminal Court for crimes against humanity, organizing the match between the rival teams was a golden opportunity to break off his isolation from the international scene. The match finished 1–0 for Algeria and secured the qualification for the Algerian National Team to the 2010 FIFA World Cup after 24 years of absence and two decades of political violence.

Football ultras lit their flares, petrol bombs, and shot firecrackers while fighting the riot-police on Mohamed Mahmoud Street, November 21, 2011

From 2011 to 2016, Egyptian fans lost interest in football. Football and politics was perceived, at least in the eyes of the author’s Egyptian friends, as divisive and even anti-nationalist. It was time to reflect on how football had been during the pre-revolution “bubble” and what it became during and after the post-revolution violence. Following the retirement of the football generation who dominated African Football under Coach Hassan Shehata, the fans became discontented with the National Team. This despite the emergence of international football star Mohamed (Mo) Salah, who represents more a celebrity in the commodified sense of the term (as branded by the Premier League and sponsors), different from local authentic football heroes such as Mohammed Abu Trika, Mohamed Barakat, Amr Zaki, Mahmoud Abdel Razek, to name but a few. The recent performance of the Egyptian national team in the 2022 African Cup of Nations may help in reconciling the fans with football and the national team. Interestingly, this is happening when President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi is preparing for his eventual re-election for a second term. There is an interesting strategy in place to reposition the president on the football scene following the qualification of Egypt for the 2018 FIFA World Cup and the hosting of the 2019 African Cup of Nations. It coincided with the return of Egypt to the African Union and the lifting of its suspension following the Egyptian military overthrowing the elected president, Mohamed Mursi. It is like “history repeating itself”.

Carl Rommel’s book intended to explore the overlaps between football “as an effective emotional pastime” on the one hand and “the experiences and the discourses of politics, siyassa” on the other hand. The author argues that politics took a variety of different shapes but always connoted a feeling of “discomfort and unease”. The intermingling of football and politics resulted in the loss of control over football and its meaning among the majority of Egyptian people. The same could be argued about the meaning of politics and regime change in post-Arab spring.

The author’s lived experiences in Egypt and extensive ethnographic insights through the lenses of football offer a rich narrative about the political and social dynamics of Egypt.

To conclude, the book is an interesting addition which undoubtedly will enrich the growing literature and multidisciplinary studies on sport, football in particular, in North African and Middle Eastern Societies. It is a must read for both academics and students in social sciences, and those interested in anthropology. The author’s lived experiences in Egypt and extensive ethnographic insights through the lenses of football offer a rich narrative about the political and social dynamics of Egypt. The chapters in the book informed by the anthropology of “emotions” (i.e. politics of emotion and emotional politics), examine the notion of “affective football” and construction of masculinity in Egyptian football (and hence in politics). The book also tells of the rise and fall of Egyptian football and with it the fall of President Hosni Mubarak’s regime. Rommel describes the decreasing influence (or control) of the Ultra supporters movement who cultivated a subculture of “emotional style” of football fandom that subverted the symbols and “desired” emotional style of Egyptians pre-2011 revolution, as celebrated in pop-culture (cinema, TV, and music).

The concept of “emotion” as a central theme of the book might be criticized as reproducing the orientalist understanding of politics (and everything else) in the region as centred around emotion, humiliation and trauma and not rational political calculation. The reverse or counter-revolution in most countries affected by the uprisings is an example of well-orchestrated tactics by (old-new) dominant circles to regain control over the spheres of politics, media, and society. As the book is centred around dominant masculinity, another dimension to consider is that of gender and how invisible female football supporters experienced the significance of football in Egyptian society pre- and post-revolution. An interesting aspect which the book alludes to, and needs further exploration, is the dimension of religion in Egyptian football. In other words, the over-visibility of religious symbolism and signs of piety in the Egyptian National Team, represented by players practicing the sujud (prostration) of Muslim salat (prayer) after scoring a goal. One needs to remember that Christianity is the second biggest religion in Egypt and around 15% of Egyptians (10 million) follow the Christian faith as members of the Coptic Orthodox Church. This creates a sense of dilemma for the Christian minority with regards to their association with the Egyptian National Team. This dilemma is well expressed by Osama Diab, an Egyptian-British journalist and blogger, in an article in the Guardian

This will soon result in a situation where only practicing Muslims identify strongly with the team. Secular Muslims and religious minorities will feel indifferent at best. The team currently doesn’t have a Christian player, in a country where at least 10% of the population are Christians. Hany Ramzy, one of the best defenders in the history of Egyptian football, was a Coptic Christian. However, the next time this happens, the Christian player will feel like an outcast if religious players, like Ahmed Fathy, force everyone to kneel after scoring a goal.

This sheds light onto another interesting research venue, which is the relation between football, religion and political Islam in Egypt, which is yet to be explored.

Copyright © Mahfoud Amara 2022

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