Wednesday, June 23, 2010

In the Footsteps of Fascists: The Mubaraks and Egyptian Football

Football and politics are not two mutually exclusive realms as many may think. To gain legitimacy, bolster their rule and spread their ideology, various political leaders have turned football into a political and ideological battlefield. In the heyday of Fascism, for example, Mussolini, Hitler and Franco used football to achieve multiple political ends.

Though the Italian leader Benito Mussolini was not a fan of football, the rising popularity of the game in the 1920s impelled him to pay attention to its dynamics and impact. "Opportunity," argues Professor of International Sports History Pierre Lanfranchi, is the key word that explains "why this wedding between fascism and football worked well," a wedding that ushered in the age of "football in a black skirt."

Italian fascists were attuned to the influence of popular culture. They realized that through football, they can effectively reach and influence the masses. According to Simon Martin, historian and author of Football and Fascism: The National Game under Mussolini, fascists "were very keen to attach themselves to the sport all over the country." Football was exploited domestically to create consensus by developing a sense of national Italian identity and cement Il Duce's popularity, and internationally to promote Italy's image in the world.

Adolf Hitler also used the magnificent appeal of football to serve the parochial interests of his Nazi regime. As host of the World Olympic Games in Berlin in 1936, the master of propaganda in the 1930s scored a huge propaganda success, just as Mussolini had done with Italy's organization of the 1934 World Football Cup.

After WW II, Spain's notorious Francisco Franco became aware of the appealing charm of football. In the age of television, he made sure football games are broadcast on TV, to keep people off the streets when social turmoil was anticipated. Franco adopted the Spanish Capital's major club – Real Madrid – considering it the symbolic embodiment of his fascist regime. The current rivalry between the teams of Real Madrid and Barcelona dates back to Franco's adoption of the former and his suppression of the latter.

Mubarak rejuvenated these long-forgotten fascist traditions. In a country like Egypt, where successes are rare, and corruption, despotism and inefficiency are commonplace, getting associated with football seemed to be the only way for Mubarak's authoritarian regime to fill its acute legitimacy deficit. In Egypt, football is the opium of the masses. Egyptians jokingly say that the biggest two political parties in the country are Al-Ahly and Zamalek—Egypt's top football clubs. With millions of enthusiastic supporters, the fans of these two clubs far outnumber members of all political parties who suffer from state oppression, which has ensured the dominance of the ruling national Democratic Party (NDP) over the past thirty years.

No wonder thus, after his rise to power in 1981, the Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak sought to give his people the impression of a healthy leader, who wakes up early, plays tennis, and is genuinely interested in sports. The official media has depicted him ever since as "the guardian of sports and sportsmen," and Mubarak spared no chance to confirm this image.

Last November, the fierce competition between Egypt and its archrival, Algeria, resulted in a vicious propaganda campaign between the two countries. In the heat of the crisis, Mubarak called the Egyptian Ambassador from Algiers. In foreign relations, Mubarak has been a lifetime pragmatist, who favors diplomacy and reconciliation, and shies away from conflict and confrontation. But appeasing the disgruntled football fans was an opportunity not to be missed.

Furthermore, the Egyptian state' interference in football has left its prints on Egyptian football. In the recent few years, formidable state institutions have poured massive funds into their own clubs, resulting in a fundamental shift in the structure of the Egyptian Football League. In the season 2009/2010, seven teams in the first division of the league (which comprises 16 teams) were funded and run by the ministries of Interior, Defense, Military Production and Petroleum. Consequently, the popular teams, that have historically shaped Egyptian football for the past century or so, have suffered from negligence and scarcity of resources, and many dropped to the second division. Major Egyptian cities, such as Tanta, Mansoura, Aswan, Al-Minya, and Damietta are not represented anymore in the first division.

Football also figures heavily in the current heated question of succession to the nearly three-decade rule of the octogenarian Hosni Mubarak. Like father, like son. The recent national football team's winning of the African Cup of Nations – the third in a row – was a golden photo opportunity that Gamal Mubarak, Hosni's Mubarak's son and heir apparent, could not miss. Gamal attended the final match in Angola and headed back home with the team, to salute the masses that flocked to Cairo Airport to receive the heroes.

Egypt's gigantic official propaganda machine claimed that the moral support Gamal Mubarak had given to the national football team was crucial to its bright success. The media's feverish attempts to attach the achievements of the team to the genius of Gamal Mubarak prompted an independent Egyptian journalist to ask: "Is it Egypt's national team, or the team of Gamal Mubarak?"

True, football was used by authoritarian regimes, but it could also be the antidote against the evils of authoritarianism. Many Egyptian activists contemplate using stadiums to express their support of former International Atomic Agency Chief, Mohamed El-Baradei, who, since declaring his readiness to run in the 2011 presidential elections, came to symbolize Egyptians' hope in a democratic and free Egypt.

Nael M. Shama