Off the Pitch and On, Egyptians Yearn for Lasting Reforms

By James M. Dorsey

This Middle East Insight can be downloaded here Insight 10 Dorsey

Soccer goes a long way to explain the military’s popular support in football-crazy Egypt, which last month forced President Hosni Mubarak to resign after 30 years in office. Now, as the public’s thirst for greater transparency and liberalization of politics and the economy increases, it’s only a matter of time that similar reforms are demanded of the country’s military-dominated soccer establishment.

In Egypt, soccer is a means of garnering public support for the military, which helped oust Mr Mubarak and has promised to lead the country to democracy within six months. At least half of the Egyptian Premier League’s 16 teams are owned by the military, the police, government ministries or provincial authorities. Military-owned construction companies built 22 of Egypt’s soccer stadiums.

The revolt that brought Mr Mubarak down has temporarily put a damper on the return of the military’s investment. But like the political reforms being demanded, it’s also ushering in some accountability.

Egypt’s soccer management officials, many of whom have close ties to the military, are on the defensive as fans focus their people power on nonperforming managers and executives who supported the ousted president while they were in the streets demanding his departure.

Fans demonstrated last week outside the headquarters of Ittihad as-Skandariyya, the Alexandria team that is trailing in the premier league, forcing the chairman and three members of the board to resign. A fourth board member was found stabbed in his home (though it is not clear the stabbing was related to the protests). Fans are also demanding the resignations of Egyptian national coach Hassan Shehata and two prominent members of the board of the Cairo club Al Zamalek SC, who have close ties to the military but publicly supported the ousted president while their supporters were in Tahrir Square demanding his departure.

Egyptian prosecutors have heard the public’s message, and have expanded their military-endorsed anti-corruption campaign to the realm of soccer. State prosecutor Abdul Majid Mahmoud is investigating the affairs of many, including Egyptian Football Association (EFA) president Samir Zaher, National Sport Council Chairman Hassan Mohamed Ezzat Sakr, whose portfolio includes soccer, and Egyptian national team goalkeeper coach Ahmed Soliman, according to soccer officials and analysts. Some sources close to the prosecutor also say that Mr Mahmoud is close to filing formal charges.

As soccer historian Yasser Thabat notes: “the prosecutor is expected to indict” Zaher and other officials in the near future.Egyptian newspaper Al Dostor, meanwhile, recently quoted officials confirming military police had seized documents that prominent soccer official Hassan Hamdy and Osama Saraya, the editor-in-chief of government-owned Al Ahram newspaper, had allegedly attempted to smuggle out of the editor’s office. Prosecutors are investigating the documents to verify employees’ suspicion that they contained evidence of corruption.

Professional league matches have remained suspended since late January to prevent the pitch from becoming a rallying point for anti-government demonstrations. The military has yet to approve a more than week-old EFA request to lift the suspension, but hopes are high.

Even if the military lifts the ban on professional matches, though, fans may not immediately rush back to the stadium. With good reason, Egyptian soccer fans seem these days more focused on the fate of their country than that of their team. Increasingly, fans fear that popular vigilance is needed to ensure that the military lives up to its promises on all fronts, including on the pitch.

While all of this may not serve the military’s economic and political interests, it could well be in the best interest of Egyptian soccer both as a sport and as a business. The combination of fan pressure, changes in management and reduced income could force restructuring of Egyptian soccer, allowing it to function more as a business than as a politically convenient national pastime. That in turn would allow the Premier League as well as the clubs to start creating value through branding, broadcast rights and merchandising.

There is no better way to ensure the game’s future independence from political paymasters.

James M Dorsey is a Visiting Senior Research Fellow at the Middle East Institute, a freelance journalist, and the author of the blog, The Turbulent World of Middle East Soccer. The views expressed herein are his own.

This piece was also published in The National

Middle East Insight: Egypt on the Brink: The Arab World at a Tipping Point?

By Michael C. Hudson

Hosni Mubarak is still President of Egypt but his days in power are numbered.  There will be no Mubarak dynasty either.  The authoritarian order in Egypt and throughout the Arab world has been profoundly shaken.  The ousting of Ben Ali in Tunisia, a remarkable event in itself, now appears to have been the trigger for a far broader upheaval that is shaking regimes across the region.   Since Muhammad Bouazizi set himself alight in Tunisia on December 17, self-immolations have taken place in Egypt, Algeria, Mauritania, Saudi Arabia and Yemen.  Unprecedented demonstrations have since spread to Algeria, Jordan, and Yemen.   Remember too that all this was taking place against the backdrop of a tense regional environment: the dangerous paralysis in the Palestinian-Israeli peace process, a simmering crisis in Lebanon, continuing uncertainties over Iraq, and the Iranian nuclear issue. 


Egypt as a catalyst?

Egypt, with a population of over 80 million, is not only the largest country by far in the Arab world, it is also strategically and centrally situated astride Africa and Asia, and has exerted profound political, cultural and social influence in the modernization of the whole region since the late eighteenth century.   During the rule of the charismatic Gamal Abdel Nasser from 1952 to 1970 Egypt dominated the Arab world.  To be sure, under his successors Anwar Sadat and Hosni Mubarak, who aligned Egypt with the U.S., Egypt’s influence in regional affairs waned; but by virtue of its size and history this country commands a privileged place in the Arab imagination.  Thus, it has served as a model of authoritarianism for the region and were it to dissolve into chaos or, preferably, a liberal democratic system similar to today’s Turkey the demonstration effect could be significant.   That is why Arab ruling elites from the Atlantic to the Gulf must be losing sleep these days. 


Political scientists who until recently were pronouncing Arab authoritarianism as too deeply rooted to fail are now discovering so many reasons why Mubarak is facing the most serious challenge of his long career.  There is the economic argument: despite decent aggregate growth, unemployment and a rising cost of living are fueling popular protest.  There is the administrative argument: corruption and bureaucratic mismanagement have gotten out of hand.  There is the social argument: Egypt’s youth are alienated, the educational system is in decay, families and marriages are under stress.  But above all there is the political argument: the president and his ruling party have become increasingly authoritarian over time.  The respected Egyptian political scientist Mustapha Kamel Al-Sayyid, in a lecture at the Middle East Institute in Singapore a month before the crisis exploded, described the blatantly un-free parliamentary elections staged by the Mubarak regime, which brought its authoritarian habits to a new low.  “Stagnation will continue if things remain as they are,” he said,  “but they may not remain as they are because people’s reactions show that they do not accept it.”  If the people have taken to the streets to demonstrate that they do not accept authoritarianism in Tunisia and Egypt, why should they not do the same thing in other authoritarian Arab countries?


A “model” for other Arab countries?

Many of the conditions that help explain the eruptions in Tunisia and Egypt are present in other Arab countries.  In the non-oil rich states like Morocco, Algeria, Jordan and Yemen we see the same volatile social cocktail: a youth bulge, vast unemployment, inadequate education, and gross economic inequality.   Little wonder that their rulers are belatedly trying to ease conditions that will take years to remedy.  Jordan is offering subsidies; Yemen (where tax evasion is endemic!) is cutting taxes.  Too little, too late? 


Will the Arab oil-rich states be immune?  Perhaps so if the present upheaval is seen as being driven exclusively by economic deprivation.  But there are two other powerful political factors fomenting popular anger:  entrenched authoritarianism and subservience to America’s strategic agenda for the Middle East—especially its tacit support for Israel’s oppression of the Palestinians.  Petro-rulers as different from each other as Mu’ammar al-Qadhafi in Libya and King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia have condemned the popular upheavals, with Qadhafi voicing support for the disgraced Ben Ali in Tunisia and Abdullah excoriating the protesters on the streets of Egypt as infiltrators, who “in the name of freedom of expression, have infiltrated into the brotherly people of Egypt, to destabilize its security and stability and they have been exploited to spew out their hatred in destruction, intimidation, burning, looting and inciting a malicious sedition.”  Might it be said, quoting Shakespeare, that “they doth protest too much?”   Is it time to reexamine the proposition often expressed by Western observers that the oil-rich authoritarian monarchies are the ideal model for the Arab world, because they are rooted in a traditional (i.e., patriarchal tribal) culture and seem to convey an image of Islamic legitimacy?   


Where are the Islamists? 

And speaking of Islam, where are the Islamists in the recent upheavals in Tunisia and Egypt?   There is scant indication that Islamist organizations played a major role.   Yet to believe the conservative U.S. media one would understand that what we are seeing is an Islamist terrorist conspiracy.  And virtually every Arab regime has fanned this alleged threat in order to win U.S. military, financial and political support.  But this is an oversimplification of the complex realities of Arab society and political culture.  In Egypt the Muslim Brotherhood has been so slow to get on board the upheaval that it risks its own credibility.  As for Al-Qa’ida, it is nowhere to be seen.  The fact is that the protest movement is driven less by the slogan “Islam is the solution” than by a popular revulsion at authoritarianism, corruption, poor governance, and subservience to U.S. strategic priorities (of which Israel is at the top).   Certainly the Muslim Brotherhood will emerge as a main player along with others in any new Egyptian political order, but don’t expect the Arabs to welcome an Iranian or Taliban-style regime.


Dilemma for the U.S. and Israel       

The Obama administration’s confused and timid reaction reflects all too clearly the dilemma it faces.  Egypt is a lynchpin of the American security architecture for the greater Middle East.   Egypt helps guarantee Israel’s interests.  Omar Suleiman played a key role in helping Israel seal off Gaza in their common effort to dislodge the Hamas government there.  Successive administrations have poured money into Egypt to secure its regime and reinforce its client status.   A radical Islamic takeover in Egypt would constitute the worst possible scenario for Washington and Tel Aviv. But for Israel even the evolution of a new Egypt along Turkish lines would be anathema.  Once again, the U.S. is caught between its professed ideals of promoting democracy and freedom and its perceived interest in a Middle East whose publics (and their anti-American, anti-Israeli opinions) are sidelined from political participation by friendly authoritarian rulers.  So far the protesters in Egypt are not targeting America, and Washington has a moment of opportunity to do the right thing and get behind the transition.  But its response so far is weak and hypocritical.   If it comes down on the side of the old status quo its real adversaries in the region—Iran and the radical movements—will benefit. 


Whither Egypt?  Whither the Arab World?

The revolution in Egypt has begun.  Mubarak is on his way out.  Gen. Omar Suleiman, pillar of the intelligence establishment and reliable friend of Washington, looks to be the man in charge of a transitional regime.  But transitional toward what?  Doubtless the U.S. government, Israel, and the pro-American authoritarian regimes in the Arab world are desperately hoping that he will keep Egypt from falling into the hands of the popular opposition, let alone the Islamist currents.   The higher ranks of the Egyptian military must share this orientation, given its historically lucrative ties with the Pentagon.  But the middle and lower ranks may be another matter entirely.  After all, it was middle-rank officers of Islamist sympathies who assassinated President Anwar Sadat in 1981.  And it is hard to believe that the multiple strands of Egypt’s new “people power” are ready to accept Omar Suleiman as an agent of genuine change, even though some of them have viewed him as definitely preferable to a Mubarak dynasty. 


Egypt is at a turning point.  If it turns toward a continuation of military-dominated leadership supported by the business elite we will not have seen the end of turmoil.  Popular forces, including the Muslim Brotherhood, cannot continue to be excluded from meaningful participation.  One must hope that the transitional government will do the right thing and open up the political arena for full participation and an early (and this time free) election.  The Muslim Brothers didn’t make this revolution but they will need to be part of the new order—an order that also includes centrists, leftists, and liberals. Perhaps Dr. Muhammad El Baradei will emerge as the revolution’s representative.  A genuinely representative Egyptian government will reject the slavish pro-American, pro-Israeli clientelism of its predecessor.  That need not mean that Egypt will become a spearhead for anti-Western, anti-Israeli projects.  On the contrary, a genuinely legitimate Egyptian government could set a prominent example for non-authoritarian, participatory government throughout the region and play a decisive role in leading the Middle East out of its present dysfunctional condition. 


Michael C. Hudson of Georgetown University and the National University of Singapore is Director of the Middle East Institute. The views expressed in this article are his own.




Rethinking Objectives in Afghanistan

The United States invaded Afghanistan to defeat al Qaeda. It should stay that way.


The sense of unknown was pervasive during the CIA’s nightly al Qaeda threat briefings in the first years after 9/11. Was a second catastrophe in progress? Were its perpetrators deployed? Might they use chemical, biological, or nuclear material? Our knowledge of al Qaeda grew quickly in 2002 and afterward, but we knew that our window into the group was nowhere near good enough to assure policymakers, legislators, and the American people that we in the agency, where I served from as deputy director of the Counterterrorist Center from 2003 to 2005, could prevent another strike. The United States entered Afghanistan to resolve this threat, to hunt those who had orchestrated the 9/11 murders, and to disrupt, then dismantle, the network that would organize future plots. The Bonn diplomatic process that resulted in the creation of Hamid Karzai’s government in Kabul supported this goal of uprooting and eviscerating al Qaeda. We would help Afghanistan choose legitimate, competent leaders who would not allow terrorist safe havens on Afghan soil. But there was not going to be any nation-building effort, and certainly not on the scale of the Marshall Plan in postwar Europe. U.S. troops weren’t fighting in the hills of Tora Bora as a result of civil unrest and Taliban atrocities: After all, we chose not to intervene in Afghanistan before the attacks, despite rampant human rights abuses and seemingly interminable chaos. We simply wanted to stop attacks at home. Now, nine years later, the link between terrorism and the war is obscure. Americans now wonder why their sons are still fighting and dying for the Karzai government, with its periodic criticism of coalition operations and reputation for corruption, including during elections this year. Yet we are still there, perhaps because we have incurred such a cost by intervening in Afghanistan that we cannot bear to consider disinvesting. Perhaps because our national reputation is at stake: Cut out now and we will be perceived as shortsighted (remember the Somalia and Lebanon withdrawals during the 1990s), not a characteristic of great powers. This is not to say we should be cautious about setting withdrawal timetables; instead, our question might be how we maintain a counterterrorism capability rather than whether we have the capability to oversee a return to some sort of Afghan normalcy. We shouldn’t delink these problems, though, for brutal but inescapable national security reasons: If our initial intervention stemmed from the attacks, should not follow-on decisions, such as whether to speak to the Taliban about reconciliation, relate directly to the al Qaeda fight? If we want to destroy al Qaeda, does our current strategy of isolating the Taliban — which has a far greater penetration of Afghan society and provincial life that we or the Kabul government ever will — make sense? It does if we want to build a civil society; it doesn’t if we want local Taliban leaders to limit an al Qaeda presence because it might interfere with their goal of creating an Afghan emirate. Over the long term, the Taliban, a Pashtun movement with limited aims, will not threaten U.S. national security interests; al Qaeda, if it resuscitates, just might. More pointedly, a deal with Taliban elements might help us pursue al Qaeda and limit our investment in Afghanistan, but it will result in human rights abuses and, possibly, a new civil war. We might remember that these problems, however disturbing from a Western perspective, were not sufficient cause for us to intervene in Afghanistan before the 9/11 attacks. We went in for national security interests, not to extend good governance. If we believe that we now owe more to the country, after nine years of intervention, we should be clear about the implications: We won’t be able to create a civil society; this expanded goal is not a part of a counterterrorism strategy; and our investment in blood and money will have to be far greater than it is today. We underinvested nine years ago; we are paying the price now. If we return to linking these two issues — al Qaeda and our intervention in Afghanistan — we would have to accept a painful reality that no force presence is likely to change. No power, from the British to the Russians to any Afghan government, has exercised control over the country’s ethnically diverse provinces. Coalition power has proved equally limited: When insurgents, in this case the Taliban, benefit from local support, even the most heavily armed and technologically adept foreign forces in history — U.S. soldiers and Marines — face an uphill battle in uprooting them. Assuming both sides are willing to cut a deal instead, there remains, then, the question of whether the Taliban would have the capability to police the country — and whether Taliban leaders, themselves Islamist ideologues, would acquiesce to the presence of foreign fighters who intend to attack the United States. Taliban leaders obviously harbored Osama bin Laden and friends in the past, but it’s not clear how deep their commitment was — they are local tribal leaders, after all, not global jihadists. To prevent an al Qaeda resurgence, the conversation, long term, might center on how we maintain an intelligence-collection capability to detect terrorist training and how we strike quickly when we find any information suggesting that training is taking place. The fight against al Qaeda is in Pakistan, not Afghanistan. Without foreign occupiers for al Qaeda and its allies to fight in Afghanistan, our job in Pakistan might become narrower, and more achievable. It is a safe bet that Pakistani authorities do not much care whether tribes along Pakistan’s border with Afghanistan cross into Afghanistan to fight against coalition forces that are viewed negatively throughout Pakistan. But if we eliminate the cause for cross-border activity by bringing in Taliban elements, U.S.-Pakistan tensions will diminish — we won’t need help policing resupply routes through hostile tribal areas, for example, and we won’t need to run cross-border military operations. Conversely, Pakistan might have more motivation to help when it sees a government in Kabul that allows the Pakistani Army to believe that its long-term goal of strategic depth — a comfortable flank in Afghanistan that helps keep the focus on India — isn’t being undermined. Far from believing that we are an ally in this campaign, Pakistan now sees us as an unreliable, sometimes duplicitous, partner. Our support for an Indian seat on the U.N. Security Council is a good strategic move, but in the short term it will help cement Pakistanis’ view that we will abandon them eventually in favor of a far more attractive strategic partnership with their rival in New Delhi. It’s an equally safe bet that Pakistani officials, including in the security apparatus, are deeply concerned about the Pakistani Taliban and its allies as they attack Pakistani civilians outside the tribal areas and threaten to expand the extremist presence into cities such as Peshawar and Karachi. If we can eliminate the allure of cross-border operations for jihadists in Pakistan’s tribal belt, we might be able to more effectively accomplish what the British — and the Pakistanis — have done in the past: pit one Pakistani tribe against another, with a focus on isolating those that harbor al Qaeda elements. Rough politics, maybe. But we’re not going to eliminate al Qaeda by Hellfire missile alone, and the Pakistani security forces have spent nine years showing us they’re not going to do it either, especially not for us. The only remaining lever is those who own the territory — the tribes — and they don’t operate by our rules. We should go into any of these policy evolutions with our eyes wide open. A return of the Taliban in Kabul might well result in a renewed civil war as the Northern Alliance that joined us to oust the Taliban grows nervous that we will allow the return of their enemy, and rearms. Let’s not sidestep the potential human rights implications either: Abuses will escalate, sharply. But we fought the Taliban because they harbored terrorists, not because they failed to provide a healthy civil society. For the future, nation-building will remain a mirage in Afghanistan, with nine years of futility as proof. But destroying al Qaeda is a reachable goal, and a far more salient one for the United States. We’ve now turned these priorities around. Philip Mudd is a senior global advisor at Oxford Analytica. He served as deputy director of the CIA’s Counterterrorist Center from 2002 to 2005 and then the first-ever deputy director of the FBI’s National Security Branch. Mudd resigned from government service in early 2010 from his position as the bureau’s senior intelligence advisor.

(Foreign Policy, 17 November 2010)


The MEI does not necessarily endorse contents, or policies of the internet resources it extracts.