Football and the Illusive Stability of Coalition Governments in the MENA States
An Arab Spring political cycle is emerging. Single-party domination gives way to multi-party democracy which crumbles back into single-party domination.
Football: An Introductory Anecdote
Sitting with a group of western-educated, politically active Tunisians at a restaurant in Tunis, I commented on my surprise at the absence of soccer-playing children. I had been there for ten days and had travelled through most of the major cities and many small villages both inland and on the coast. I had yet to see a single soccer ball being kicked around, typically a common sight. Their answer was unexpected. They explained that before the 2011 Revolution, soccer clubs were one of the few permissible private organizations in the country. Everybody played soccer and the sport became a way to vent public frustration. After the revolution, however, government monitoring and suppression disappeared. Civic clubs, student groups, and a host of other citizen-driven networks appeared and flourished. Scouting for both boys and girls was present in Tunisia before the revolution but has since grown into one of the largest organizations by population in the entire country. Soccer, therefore, was still popular but had growing competition from dozens of political, athletic, and other social alternatives.
Unfortunately, their answer was not a complete one. Although the given explanation is true to an extent, it is also true that soccer in Tunisia became increasingly politicized in the later years of the Ben Ali administration. After the revolution, it became even more violent and politicized until fans were finally banned from all Tunisian league matches in April of 2011, only months after the Revolution. Since then, the trouble has only continued. In late September of 2013, the Tunisian sports minister formally requested of FIFA, Football’s international governing body, to dissolve the Tunisian Football Federation, potentially leading to its suspension from important international matches and tournaments. This and other post-revolution difficulties are sensitive issues for political activists who want to highlight the successes and positive changes brought about from the revolution. They also highlight a larger cultural problem that has massive political implications.
Thirty Year Rulers
The Arab Spring toppled rulers that had been in power for decades. In Tunisia, there had been only two presidents between the country’s independence in 1956 and 2011. Habib Bourguiba led the country for a full thirty years, followed by Ben Ali who ruled for fourteen until he was overthrown in 2011. In Syria, Hafez al-Assad also ruled for a full thirty years until his death in 2000, at which time his son Bashir ascended unopposed to the presidency to which he continues to cling amidst a bloody civil war. Egypt’s timeline of rulers is similar. Gamal Nasser served as President of Egypt for fourteen years. He was followed by Anwar Sadat who ruled for eleven years until his assassination in 1981. Following the assassination, then Vice President Hosni Mubarak rose to the Presidency and ruled from 1981 until 2011, when he resigned during the Egyptian Revolution during the 2011 Arab Spring. Libya and Yemen also lost rulers in the Arab Spring. Libya’s Gaddafi ruled for forty-three years, Yemen’s Saleh for thirty-three.
The implications of these durations are great. In all three countries, there are no precedents within fifty years of a true multi-party democratic system. The theme of the pre-Arab Spring rulers was to consolidate power and either silence or placate opposition. During these tenures of these autocrats, nearly every country suffered through violent putdowns of uprisings or reasonable protests by either minority or majority groups. The most notable among these are perhaps the 1982 Hama Massacre and the long series of strikes and protests in Egypt that Mubarak used to consolidate power. As countries move away from autocratic leaders, they must also move away from the longstanding tradition of suppression. Much ink has been spilled on these difficulties facing Arab Spring countries. Some are hopeful, others are less so. Given the recent developments throughout North Africa and the Middle East, however, the window for the optimal progress has closed and it now promises to be a long and uncertain march towards political freedom and stability.
Egypt is often seen as a political barometer for the wider region. After the removal of Mubarak, Egypt enjoyed open elections which saw a coalition centered around the Muslim Brotherhood’s rise to power. After barely a year, however, the Brotherhood had alienated the other members of the coalition and, before the people had the opportunity to ameliorate the problem with their votes like a proper democracy, the army stepped in and ousted Morsi. What followed is all recent news.
This struggle is indicative of an emerging post-Arab Spring political cycle in the region. Single-party domination gives way to multi-party democracy which crumbles back into single-party domination. If the violence and political upheavals in Syria, Egypt, Tunisia, and elsewhere are an indicator, then there is one commonality between minority groups and majority groups in these countries. They refuse to share power. The populace has found that through protests, they can claim a greater share of power for themselves. Split between Islamists, secularists, and various moderate and radical groups, these popular protests have been purely for power, not for the democratic processes itself. While there may be voices championing the democratic process, there are few to no instances where the process is respected over the grab for available power. When coalition governments do exist, they are quick to crumble. The people, used to autocratic rule, are impatient with the slow pace of democracy in responding to economic or security crisis, the age-old opportunities for power consolidation.
Conclusion: Football and Coalitions
The introductory anecdote on Tunisian football closely parallels the current political cycle in the region. Following the Arab Spring revolution, Tunisian football clubs become politicized, even representative of post-revolution struggles. Violence ensues as the competition between clubs escalates. Finally, popular participation in the clubs is banned due to violence and the inability to uphold the respect of the rule of law. The game passes through its brief democratic moment and back into a controlled sport, given to the people but not truly of the people. So it is with the coalition governments emerging out of the Arab Spring. They will neither compromise nor cede power. This competition will erupt in political upheaval and violence. Egypt already had its chance at democracy and it is unlikely it will have another for a few years. Syria’s coalitions have already begun fighting each other before their common enemy Assad has been defeated. Tunisia is in the midst of deciding her democratic fate. While there is a possibility that the opposing parties will reach a compromise, it is more likely that one party will win power and the other party lose power, leaving a large portion of the population unhappy. In the meantime, pay close attention to football in Tunisia. Its successes may herald a bright political future while its failure may become a harbinger of impending upheaval.