How Soccer Can Help Us Predict the Next Arab Spring Revolution

By Josh Meyer
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Fans of Cairo's Al Ahly soccer club celebrate inside the team's training stadium after hearing the final verdict of the criminal case related to the 2012 Port Said massacre, on January 26, 2013. (Amr Dalsh/Reuters)

It's been said that soccer tells us all we need to know about life,parenting, even globalization.


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Now a Singapore-based blogger says soccer can tell us which Middle East or North African government will be the next to blow. At the top of the list: Algeria and Saudi Arabia.

Over at his blog, The Turbulent World of Middle East Soccer, James M. Dorsey looks at soccer as a lens through which to view the fault lines carving up the Middle East and North Africa. In Egypt, Tunisia, Libya, and other countries, he says, soccer played a key role in allowing pent-up anger and frustration to percolate into organized protest that forced transitions from autocratic rule to more open societies.

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In these countries, those engaging in public forms of dissent are often tortured and "disappeared." Soccer fans, in contrast, are allowed to vent as much as they want, and in large numbers. Stadiums become incubators of protest and insurrection. One only has to watch the action off the pitch to accurately gauge the mood of the people and see how close they are to erupting into mass protest, Dorsey tells Quartz.

Dorsey, a former Wall Street Journal foreign correspondent, has been writing his blog for three years. In February 2011, he focused on the role of the militant, highly politicized, and well organized soccer fans, known as Ultras, in Egypt's uprising. Here's a taste:

One catch: Often, especially in family-run monarchies, the countries' leaders own soccer clubs as a status symbol, so fans might just be mad at the government for the latest losing streak. That might have been the case recently in Saudi Arabia, where fans booed Prince Faisal bin Turki, the owner of Riyadh soccer club Al Nassr FC.

Saudi soccer fans booing and pelting a prince.(http://www.Alhilal.com/The Turbulent World of Middle East Soccer blog)

Dorsey doesn't think so , and contends the Saudis are in trouble. Washington-based Saudi dissident Ali al-Ahmad agrees, based on the increasingly militant behavior of young male soccer fans in the stands as well as on Facebook and YouTube.

"It has reached a breaking point. They are calling for overthrow, and using very similar chants to fans in Tunisia and elsewhere,'' said al-Ahmad, of the Institute for Gulf Affairs. "When they are all together, they are not afraid anymore."

Dorsey predicts the next revolt will be in Algeria. Soccer fans there are increasingly voicing opposition to 76-year old president Abdelaziz Bouteflika, who is recovering from a stroke in Paris. Recently, they interrupted a moment of silence during a match to commemorate the death of a former leader, chanting "Bouteflika is next."

Dorsey says some very influential security types, as well as soccer officials, follow his blog for hints as to what is to come. One US intelligence official agrees with Dorsey's premise. The official, who has spent decades in the Middle East and North Africa, said CIA officers routinely attend matches to glean clues as to where a country is headed.

Often, the official said, an autocratic regime would cover up burgeoning dissent by blaming it on hooliganism. The CIA person on the ground would mention that, too, in the cable back to headquarters: "They would take note of it all, and put it in context. As soon as the prince shows up, everyone starts booing. That sort of thing.''

This article available online at:

http://www.theatlantic.com/international/archive/2013/05/how-soccer-can-help-us-predict-the-next-arab-spring-revolution/276115/