Egypt’s Football Revolution: Emotion, Masculinity, and Uneasy Politics
By Carl Rommel
One does not have to spend a long time in Egypt to apprehend that football is a serious matter that stirs powerful emotions across the male population. Match shirts of Cairo’s two giant clubs, al-Ahly and al-Zamalek, are omnipresent in streets and squares throughout the country; club rivalries are a source of passionate controversies and banter in cafés, workplaces, and social media; the achievements of Liverpool FC’s superstar, Mohamed Salah, make millions of Egyptians excited, happy, and proud; when the national team plays a crucial game, even Cairo’s infamous traffic eases for ninety minutes. That the game has been deeply imbricated in politics is also obvious to anyone paying attention. Whether we consider President Hosni Mubarak’s staunch backing of the national team, the so-called Ultras supporters’ active involvement in the 2011 Revolution, or the beloved playmaker Muhammad Abu Treika’s outspoken support for President Muhammad Mursi in 2012 and 2013, the sport and its passions recurrently spills out of the stadium into political fields and domains.
The overarching aim of my recent book, Egypt’s Football Revolution: Emotion, Masculinity, and Uneasy Politics (University of Texas Press, 2021), is to detail and elucidate entanglements of emotions, politics, and football in contemporary Egypt. Narrating developments within Egypt’s national game between 1990 and 2019, my research draws on media sources, interviews and several years of ethnographic fieldwork with male supporters in Cairo to show both how football emotions have interfered in national politics and how debates and experiences of ‘politics’ (siyasa) have impacted Egyptian fans’ emotional attachments to football.
The book is divided into three main parts, the first of which examines football in the late Mubarak era. The focus is especially directed to the last five years (2006–2011), a period when Egyptian football teams were enormously successful, and the nation was swept away by an unprecedented sports hype. I call this moment in time Egypt’s ‘emotional-political football bubble’: a historically distinct coming together of satellite television, indirect state-funding, pop-cultural productions, and unparalleled success on the pitch, which located football at the very centre of the national formation. In those years, the world of football distributed powerful affective registers across the Egyptian nation. The game provided an arena to feel upbeat, boisterous, and victorious, which contrasted otherwise dominant feelings of frustration, despair, and humiliation (Schielke 2008, Sobhy Ramadan 2012). I also argue that emotions elicited by the sport staked out a normal Egyptian masculinity. To be a normal Egyptian man at the time, it was necessary to cheer for teams and rejoice at victories. As this normal Egyptian football masculinity happened to be well in line with the ethos and public persona of President Hosni Mubarak and his two sons Alaa and Gamal, football allowed the presidential family to partake in a positive, successful, and normal version of the Egyptian nation. My argument is that this turned football into a central part of the regime’s soft power.
The book’s second part gets to the core of Egypt’s football revolution. It tells the story of Cairo’s ‘Ultras’, new kinds of more dedicated and highly organised fan organisations that appeared at Egyptian football stadiums in 2007. Supplementing previous studies of the Ultras’ principles, organisation, and brave fights with the security forces at and around Tahrir Square (Close 2019, Bashir 2011, Thabet 2013), my monograph locates the Ultras in a longer emotional-political development. To fully understand the subversiveness of the Ultras’ fandom, I argue that we must look closely at their unique ‘emotional style’ (Gammerl, 2012). Bringing together elaborate chants, painted flags, banners, fireworks and graffiti, the Ultras’ spectacle in the stands was at same time more homemade, more international, and more fun than any previous way of supporting football teams in Egypt. As such, it appealed to tens of thousands of Egyptian male youths. In the years right before and after January 2011, this young and masculine fan culture developed into a revolution inside Egypt’s national game. Delineating an alternative script for being and feeling as an Egyptian football fan, and by extension as a normal Egyptian man, I demonstrate that the Ultras enacted a ‘politics of fun’ (Bayat 2010) that posed a serious challenge to the way football had been politicised by the Mubarak regime. Slightly later, after a gruesome massacre of seventy-two Ultras at a stadium in Port Said in February 2012, this emotional-political football revolt moved into the streets. As my book illustrates, the Ultras supporters’ impressive campaign for justice for the Port Said martyrs and reforms of Egypt’s corrupt sports institution constituted a central pivot of Egypt’s revolutionary movement, especially in 2012 and early 2013.
The third part of the book is more closely ethnographic than the previous two. It includes intimate stories of ordinary, non-Ultras supporters in Cairo, who struggled to stay attached to teams, players and matches in the aftermath of the 2011 Revolution and the 2012 Port Said massacre. In this analysis, I pick up and further develop a theme that pops up frequently in Part I and II: the unease that most Egyptians feel vis-à-vis all things rendered ‘political’ (siyasi), and the way in which labelling a phenomenon or actor as such disqualifies it or him from the proper national community. My ethnography examines a variety of ways in which siyasa (politics) is talked about, understood, and experienced in contemporary Egypt. It illustrates how football became mixed up and overshadowed by siyasa in the post-revolutionary period, and how this made it difficult for many Egyptians to keep up their emotional attachments to the sport. Siyasa, I argue, is widely understood as antithetical to sound Egyptian nationalism. The more football became entangled in politics, the more it lost its ability to be Egypt’s unquestionably national game.
Stories in all three parts pivot on an analytical dialectic between football feelings and football politics. My examination of the game’s conflicting styles of emotionality and masculinity expands our understanding of why football was so central to Egypt’s pre-revolutionary regime as well as to the revolution that brought it down. My ethnography of discourses and visceral experiences of siyasa interfering in the sport’s rhythms and realms explains why many Egyptians have found it difficult to reignite their passions for football in the wake of the 2011 Revolution. Until today, there is a sensitivity vis-á-vis political interference in sports that make many Egyptians wary. In the book’s postscript, I suggest that this unease has made it very difficult for President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi to politicise the game’s emotions to the same extent Hosni Mubarak did in the tail end of his long reign.
Finally, my book also spotlights a peculiar paradox at the centre of the Egyptian revolution. In the story that I tell about the Ultras’ radical push for revolutionary justice and change, their attempts to maintain a ‘non-political’ profile form a recurrent theme. While the young men faced constant accusations of being rowdy, fanatical, partisan, and political, the supporter groups themselves always insisted that they were fighting for non-political goals in the service of the common good and the whole people. Indeed, the brief period when the young fans emerged as role models for the revolutionary struggle was also a time when their struggle was perceived as a non-partisan one by a critical mass of journalists, activists, and ordinary citizens. In the book’s conclusion, I suggest that the Ultras’ balancing act was a dilemma faced by the Egyptian revolutionary movement more generally. The Egyptian revolution was always framed as a nationalist revolution by default. The way in which it interpellated the whole Egyptian people (al-sha‘b al-masri) as the revolutionary subject and promoted the shared interests of the people as a non-divisive totality was a reason behind its wide-reaching popularity and appeal. And yet, the nationalist consensus also limited the revolutionary movement. In particular, it did not leave much space for activities and alliances that could be understood as ‘political’, that is, as forwarding partisan demands or specific group interests. Egypt’s Football Revolution examines and analyses the consequences of this anti-politics at the heart of the Egyptian revolution. It illustrates the potentials but also the limits of a revolutionary push inside an emotionally charged pop-cultural realm, where nationalism is taken for granted, and politics is deemed suspect and marginalised by default.
Carl Rommel is a social anthropologist with a PhD from SOAS, University of London. His doctoral research explored the emotional politics of Egyptian football, before and after January 2011. Rommel’s current research project – “Egypt as a Project: dreamwork and masculinity in a projectified society” – examines male dreams of large and small ‘projects’ (mashari’) in contemporary Egypt. He is a research affiliate at the University of Helsinki and teaches anthropology at Stockholm University.
Citation: Carl Rommel, Egypt’s Football Revolution: Emotion, Masculinity, and Uneasy Politics, in: TRAFO – Blog for Transregional Research, 16.11.2021, https://trafo.hypotheses.org/31345