Discussion started by James M. Dorsey , on Wednesday, 07 December 2011 01:55


The butterfly effect of our “Top 100 Global Thinkers of 2011 list” continues.

Today we propose an interview with James M. Dorsey (GT 2011

number 79), Senior Fellow at the S. Rajaratnam School of International

Studies, syndicated columnist and author of the acclaimed blog,

The Turbulent World of Middle East Soccer“. Dorsey is one of the most

capable analysts about the Arab world, and one of the few who have

underlined the key role of sports in the Arab spring (Egyptian role in

Tahrir Square clashes) and as a geopolitical factor in general (2022 World


You were one of the first that underlined the role of the  Egyptian

football supporters in Tahrir square.  How would you describe this

role? Why this connection? What did they bring that other

people on the square was lacking?

Egyptian soccer fans modelled themselves on the ultras in Italy and

Serbia. They share their militancy, degree of organization and willingness

to employ violence with their European counterparts. What sets them

apart is that they are highly politicized and developed in an autocratic

society where the mosque and the soccer pitches were the only

venues where one could release pent-up anger and frustration. As

a result, they were the one group that was fearless and had

garnered street battle experience in years of clashes in the

stadiums with security forces and supporters of rival clubs. That

enabled them to play a leading role in the destruction of the

barrier fear that had prevented people for standing up for their rights

and to become in effect the protesters’ shock troops, the ones

that defended protesters on Tahrir Square against the security

forces and groups loyal to former President Hosni Mubarak. Since

the fall of the Mubarak, the ultras were in the front of protests demanding

an end to corruption, a more pro-Palestinian Egyptian foreign policy

and that the transition military government keep its promise to lead the

country to free elections. They were the ones who stormed the offices

of the State Security Service immediately after Mubarak’s downfall as

well as the Israeli embassy in Cairo in September and battled security

forces on Tahrir Square last month.

We all know that Al Jazeera had an important role on the Arab

Spring, but maybe not everyone is familiar with the role of it had

already in the Arab world through football, what can you tell us

about it?

Al Jazeera is one of the major sports broadcasters in the Arab world,

if not the predominant ones. Its acquisition of the broadcast rights of major

leagues and tournaments including the 2014, 2018 and 2022 World Cups

and league matches in for example Egypt and France is part of Qatar’s

strategy to use sports as a political and commercial tool. Al Jazeera Sports

however played less of a role in the Arab revolt than the main Al

Jazeera news channel.

Is it possible to compare the Tunisian supporters during the revolution

with the Egyptian ones? Which are the similarities and


The root causes for the revolts in Egypt and Tunisia are the same: a

quest for dignity, political freedom and economic opportunity. The difference

in the way they unfolded and the way the transition to a more open

society is occurring lies in the structure and role of the military. In Tunisia, the

military had no stake in the old regime, which had marginalized it, radically

cut its budget and and decimated its officer corps. As a result, it also had no

vested interests to defend in whatever would emerge from the ashes of the

regime of ousted President Zine el Abedine Ben Ali. In Egypt, the military

as the transition government had its own interests: a significant say in

national security, lack of civilian oversight, a commercial conglomerate of its

own and a direct relationship with the US. Preserving those interests

makes the military an interested party, not an independent arbitrator in the

transition process. As a result, the transition in Egypt is far messier than in


Could you please describe the importance of football players in the

revolution in their countries? We are thinking about two different

kinds of examples: The case of Abdelbasset Saroot in Syria (positive)

and the divisions in the Egyptian national team (negative).

By and large football players and managers have stayed on the sidelines

of the revolts in the Middle East and North Africa. This is largely cause

managers are regime appointed and players enjoy many perks. The two

exceptions are Libya where four months into the revolt a split emerged

in the national team with the captain supporting Qaddafi  and some

players joining the rebels. In Syria, the national team goalkeeper

has been imprisoned while the goalkeeper of the national youth team is

a leader of the protests in the city of Homs.

The Qatari royal family have been selected by us as global thinkers

n°1, how would you describe the links between the different members

of it?

The Qatari royal family is an interesting study in contradictions. It is without

doubt the most visionary and creative of the Arab rulers,witness the creation

of Al Jazeera which revolutionized the Arab media landscape, its

employment of sports as a policy and economic tool and its independent

foreign policy. While it has recently announced elections, it remains how all

of this and the lessons of the Arab revolt will be translated at home.

From East to West, from North to South there is a trending  topic lately

Turkey as model for Tunisia and Egypt, which is your opinion?

There is for the first time a power vacuum in the Middle East and North Africa

that is not being filled by a global power. The competition is between Turkey,

Iran and Saudi Arabia. Saudi Arabia brings financial clout and the moral

power of being the guardian of Islam’s two holiest cities but lacks the military

clout to make a sustainable claim. In addition, Saudi Arabia is not a system

many want to emulate and is vulnerable to domestic challenge by protesters

seeking real change. Iran similarly does not have a system others want to

emulate and is likely to at some point witness a revival of its own. With other

words it is Turkey’s to loose. Turkey is a model of an open political system

that is economically successful and proved that Islamists can perform in a

pluralist, secular system.

World cup 2020. You have often explained the economic impact that

it will have in a country as Qatar. Is it possible that the FIFA

investigation confirms the corruption accuses? Which will be the

economic consequences of this?

Theoretically anything is possible. If it comes however to an investigation,

I suspect that it will emerge that Qatar technically will not have violated

rules or crossed red line. What I expect will also emerge is that Qatar

skillfully employed its financial muscle to exploit gray areas that need to be

resolved in a revision of FIFA’s bidding rules and process.

Egyptian elections have just finished. Do you think that, this chapter

being closed, we can expect an important change in Syria and

a bigger involvement of the international community? Is it possible

that they were waiting for the elections to happen and refrained

themselves to act before that in order not to create too uncertainty to


I don’t think that there is a link in terms of timing between the Egyptian

elections and potential intervention in Syria. I think one will initially see

stepped up covert support for the dissident Free Syrian Army that has a

base on the Turkish side of the Syrian border and eventually a possible

Turkish buffer zone inside Syria. I suspect that if it comes to a full-fledged

military intervention and that would still be a ways off, it would be

a Turkish-spearheaded effort.

(Interviewed by Andrea Matiz)

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