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Football violence in North Africa is not all about the game

Oussama Romdhani

Published: Updated:

Earlier this week, the start of a trial of more than 150 young Moroccans accused of involvement in football-related disturbances was unprecedented. It brought to the stand the largest number of individuals ever implicated in the same case of football violence in Morocco. The trial served as a reminder that football games in North Africa have become a problem that is larger than football itself.

The Rabat defendants had been arrested during the street riots which occurred on April 11th, after a game between Raja Casablanca and FAR Rabat. Fans vandalized cars, buses, tramways, public and private property. Such incidents have become common occurrence in all countries of the region.

In Tunisia, the northern city of Bizerta was shaken, two weeks ago, by city-wide disturbances after the national football body, FTF, ruled to exclude the local football team, the CAB Bizerte, from the championship finals. Egypt is still reeling from its worst sports disaster last year, when 79 Al-Ahly fans were killed in a violent melee in Port Said stadium. Thousands of Al Ahly fans rioted in protest. One year after, riots erupted in Port Said, after 21 Al Masry supporters were sentenced to death. Two police officers and 20 civilians were killed as a result of the ensuing riots.

Chronic mayhem

And these disturbances are not isolated cases. Statistics in Tunisia show that violence has marred more than 200 sports events in 2011. The football pitch was invaded 26 times. Referees were assaulted 21 times. And security officers were victims of violence in 20 times.

Algerian official statistics show that, during the last five years, football-related violence has caused the death of 7 fans and injured more than 2,700 persons, including more than 1,500 policemen.

The crisis of football violence in North Africa is essentially a crisis of youth.

Oussama Romdhani

Because of the security risks involved, open attendance by football fans is not a given anymore in Tunisia, Libya and Egypt. Last month, Libya was finally authorized by African and international football regulating-bodies to start holding international football events on its soil. Egyptian sports fans are still barred from attending domestic and international games.

Countries of the region are devoting most of their efforts to the short-term security challenge, by reviewing organizational measures, restricting entrance to stadiums, installing cameras in football arenas, and enacting anti-hooliganism laws. Some are even trying to get inspiration from the successful international experience of countries such as the UK.

But it is not certain how successful these “solutions” will be. Some may even be counterproductive. James Dorsey, author of the Turbulent World of Middle East Soccer Blog, thinks the Egyptian ban on fan attendance “is likely to backfire and spark renewed incidents” in the country. But law-enforcing agencies think it is better to be safe than sorry.

Other experts think a new diagnosis is probably needed before prescribing a “treatment” for the football violence woes.

Social roots

The crisis of football violence in North Africa is essentially a crisis of youth. A study by Moroccan researcher Abderrahim Bourkia, has shown that most individuals who commit violence around football games are young people aged between 13 and 24. Like the no-less-than 30% of North Africans in the 15 to 24 age-bracket, many are likely to be unemployed. Some are workers but others are also middle class. A survey conducted in Morocco by Abderrahim Rharib showed in fact that 60% of the potentially violent young fans belonged to the middle classes.

Rejecting old value-systems and resenting the social pressures to which they feel subjected, radical fans “find in stadiums a big space of expression where laws vanish and where they can do as they wish,” says Moroccan sports law specialist Moncef El Yazghi. Very few venues beside stadiums have offered young people an equal opportunity to be inhibition-free.

De-inhibition is unfortunately helped by alcohol and drugs. Research conducted in Morocco by Abdarrahim Rhabib shows that 25% of football radical fans consume alcohol, 23% smoke hashish and 9% do hard drugs.

According to media reports, the majority of the defendants, earlier this week in Rabat, were born in the 90’s. Many of them were charged with violent assault, robbery, destruction of public property, but also with consumption of alcohol and drugs.


‘Ultras’

The world of radical fans is essentially that of the “Ultras”. Toronto-based journalist Ali Mustafa describes the latter as “groups of avid, typically young football fans united by a very strong sense of loyalty to their club”. Their relentless display of support in stadiums is “meant to inspire a unique sense of belonging among the participants involved, awe spectators, as well as intimidate supporters of the opposing side.”

“Ultras” are fanatical in their allegiance to their teams. They are willing to devote time, money and effort to prepare for their weekly display of ardent support. Because of deep loyalty to fellow- members, “Ultras” groups have traditionally attracted young people who found in them a form of safe refuge. No similar rapport exists between them and family members or with official institutions. Sociologist Soumia Noumane Guessous says: “we are dealing here with young people with no sense of direction. They tend to identify with groups with high sense of solidarity, such as those of religious extremists and fanatical sports fans. They may even be co-opted by gangs.”

The “Ultras” phenomenon emerged in North Africa in the mid-nineties. Radical fan groups are now everywhere in the Maghreb. Egyptian “Ultras”, especially those around Al Ahli, often make headline news. A recent report by Algeria’s national security directorate found it of “particular concern” the football related violence is now taking a “collective” and “organized” forms.

By all accounts, “Ultras” are well-organized. They boast thousands of members. They use social media to rehearse their activities in advance (and to heap insults upon rival fans). Group names reflect what Dorsey calls “a culture of confrontation—against opposing teams, against the state, and against expressions of weakness in society at large.” By the names they give themselves, extreme supporters of football teams mean to tell the world that “Ultras” groups are not for wimps. They refer to themselves as “armies”, “militias”, “gladiators”, “tigers” and even “fedayeen”. They implicitly were saying that they did not recognize the monopoly of the state on violence. And trouble could not be far behind.

Relationship with the police

Early on, the relationship between extreme football fans and the police was tense and often confrontational.

Even in the pre-revolutionary days of Tunisia and Egypt, tensions ran deep between the police and football fans. Some supporters used to hoist banners saying “Kill the Cops!” or “All Cops Are Bastards!”. The police, with all its riot gear and crowd-control tactics, could not keep a tight grip on radical football fans anymore. “Arab Spring” historians note that once fear of the police died in the hearts of young people, full-scale rebellion could not be far-off.

After the Arab Spring uprisings, fans seemed even more emboldened. At the same time, the security apparatus of countries such as Tunisia and Egypt was utterly unsettled by the ongoing process of transformation on the levels of doctrine and operational tactics.

The relationship between football fans and the police has changed in Algeria and Morocco, even if the regimes there were not directly affected by the 2011 revolutions. Police interventions have become more restrained. “After the Arab Spring, the state has lost a lot of its authority,” says Moncef Elyazghi.

The connection to politics

Football fans, especially the well-organized “Ultra” groups amongst them, had the same demographic and sociological makeup of the young crowds that took to the streets during the “Arab Spring” rebellions. The history of confrontation with the police prepared rebellious youth for the street battles. In certain regards, it introduced them to “politics”. James M. Dorsey thinks “the role of law enforcement and security is often key in the politicization and radicalization of fans”. Nowhere was the role of the “Ultras” in revolutionary and post-revolutionary politics more visible than in Egypt.

Since the Port Said catastrophe, hardcore football fans have found themselves in the middle of a no-holds-barred civil strife, involving political parties, the army and the police.

“Ultras” are no political parties though. Instead of party platforms they have “codes of honor”, according to which they are not supposed to blink in front of police action and not to forget their “martyrs”.

For many years before the 2011 revolutions and until today, football violence has been an awkward form of expressing regional grievances and regionalist frictions. Football violence in Bizerta, Gabes and other Tunisian cities, only amplified old resentment of “marginalization” and development imbalances.

Crowds during some of the football games chant “regionalist” slogans. The rival team’s region of origin is at times attacked and insulted. There were even episodes where angry fans raised the flags of neighboring countries to taunt the authorities.
Disturbances tend to get more easily get out of control in regions with a strong of identity, such as Egypt’s Port Said and Tunisia’s Bizerta, both proud of their historical role in defending the country against outside enemies.

In the North African countries in transition, regionalist tensions are also exacerbated by deep social and political divisions and by a weak commitment to the higher national purpose. But that’s another story.

Ending football violence requires establishing new rules of engagement. New generations must come to believe they have a stake in the future of the country, and that uninhibited expression can be peaceful and lawful. “Grown-ups” in power should take time to listen and stop yelling instructions. Young people are not deaf.


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Oussama Romdhani is a former Tunisian minister of Communication, previously in charge of his country's international image. He served as a Tunisian diplomat to the United States, from 1981 to 1995. He was also a Washington DC press correspondent and Fulbright Research Scholar at Georgetown University. Romdhani is currently an international media analyst

Disclaimer: Views expressed by writers in this section are their own and do not reflect Al Arabiya English's point-of-view.