Carl Rommel, Egypt’s Football Revolution: Emotion, Masculinity, and Uneasy Politics (University of Texas Press, 2021).
Jadaliyya (J): What made you write this book?
Carl Rommel (CR): First and foremost, I have always been a passionate football (soccer) fan and I have long found the game a promising research topic. Second, I happened to live in Cairo during the late Mubarak era when the Egyptian national team won three consecutive Africa Cups on Nation (2006, 2008, and 2010) and the biggest club al-Ahly dominated the African Champions League. During eighteen months of Arabic studies, I found the game present everywhere I went and looked: in the media, in urban space, in pop culture, and in political debates. As I left Cairo, I was convinced that there was a dissertation to be written about the socio-political role played by football in contemporary Egypt.
I started my graduate studies in social anthropology at SOAS University of London in fall 2010. When I arrived in Cairo for twenty months of fieldwork in August the following year, the 25 January Revolution had turned the country upside down, and football was not at all what I had experienced it to be a few years prior. This inevitably affected what I would and could study. Instead of conducting ethnographic research about how the sport facilitates construction of everyday masculinities in one city neighborhood, my fieldwork turned into an exercise of tracing a nationwide popular cultural phenomenon undergoing rapid and exceedingly politicized transformation. In this way, I stumbled on a topic that was vastly more confusing but also far more exciting than what I had planned for. Egypt’s Football Revolution is the final outcome of this somewhat haphazard research project: the story of how Egypt’s national sport got caught up in, but also fashioned, a series of dramatic emotional-political developments before, during, and after the country’s 2011 Revolution.
J: What particular topics, issues, and literatures does the book address?
CR: The book’s three main parts string together an overarching rise-and-fall narrative: first, football inflated into an enormously popular emotional-political “bubble” during the late Mubarak era; second, this hype became challenged by a new kind of supporters—the so called “Ultras”—in the revolutionary years; and, third, popular attachment to the sport withered away in a post-revolutionary period dominated by confusion, turbulence, and conversations about “politics.”
In doing so, the monograph examines entanglements between emotionality, masculinity, nationalism, and revolution. One central argument is that football has long been much more than Egypt’s most popular spectator sport, and especially so in the late Mubarak era. Thanks to aggressive state funding, booming satellite television, football-themed movies and pop songs, and unprecedented successes on the pitch, the game spawned nationwide affective registers that defined how normal Egyptian men should behave, speak, and feel. As this normalized masculinity aligned with the ethos and aesthetics of the Mubarak family (the president, Hosni, and his two sons, Alaa and Gamal), the game turned into a key component of the regime’s soft power.
These arguments take inspiration from works examining the formation and politicization of Egyptian nationalism in film (Armbrust, 1996), music (Danielson, 1997), television (Abu-Lughod, 2005), the fine arts (Winegar, 2006), and physical exercise (Jacob, 2011). If previous studies have analyzed how national subjects take shape though narratives, symbols, and discursive tropes, however, my book rather casts the nation as a particular “structure of feeling” (Williams, 1977) or “affective state” (Stoler, 2004).
I also illustrate how Mubarak’s normal and emotional Egyptian football man came to face a challenge from a radically different “emotional style” (Gammerl, 2012) orchestrated by the younger, better organized, and more internationally oriented Ultras supporters. The Ultras initially appeared at Egyptian football stadiums in 2007, and they developed into an influential revolutionary force in the wake of January 2011. This clash between two opposing ways of supporting the national game and embodying the nation is a central drama animating Egypt’s Football Revolution.
It is worth noting that although the book shares thematical concerns with other analyses of the Egyptian Ultras’ rise to fame during the 2011 Revolution (for example Close, 2019, Dorsey, 2016, Ibraheem, 2015), its scope and perspective are also distinct. My ethnography does not only detail the Ultras’ involvement in street battles with security forces and the developments precipitating the gruesome February 2012 stadium massacre in Port Said that saw seventy-two Ultras getting killed. Locating the fans in a longer historical development of politicization within Egyptian sports that well preceded January 2011, my account also adds historical depth and ethnographic nuance to why the Ultras’ revolution became so contentious.
J: Why does your book about Egyptian football focus so much on conversations about siyasa (politics) and what does that tell us about the 2011 Egyptian Revolution?
CR: The ways in which siyasa was discussed and experienced by my interlocutors feature in several chapters. My ethnographic material shows that although siyasa comes with multiple connotations in contemporary Egypt, it always causes feelings of unease. These sentiments are perhaps the most present in my examination of why so many Egyptian supporters lost their attachments to the game after 2011. Time and time again, fans told me that the current era was dominated by siyasa, that the national game had become “mixed up” with politics, and that this made it difficult to take pleasure in the sport which they had used to love passionately.
I also argue that siyasa, for more than a hundred years, has sat uneasily with idealized versions of Egyptian nationalism: true nationalists should work for the interests of the whole Egyptian people, whereas being “political” (siyasi) indicates serving partial group interests. This tension surfaces powerfully in the story about the revolutionary Ultras. Being blamed recurrently by actors in the football establishment for being siyasi, i.e., for promoting their own interests rather than those of the whole people, the fans took pains distancing themselves from “political” manifestations and rhetoric. I argue that the Ultras were the most popular and powerful precisely when they managed to craft a respectable and non-political aura. By the same logic, they lost their momentum as soon as their struggle started to be perceived as “politics.”
In the book’s conclusion, I suggest that more revolutionary groups than the Ultras faced this dilemma and that this was one reason underpinning the revolution’s eventual collapse. As my story about the Ultras illustrates, it can be challenging carrying out efficient and purpose-oriented revolutionary activism while simultaneously maintaining a non-political profile (see also the excerpt below).
J: Who do you hope will read this book, and what sort of impact would you like it to have?
CR: I primarily wrote this book for readers interested in contemporary Egyptian society and politics. I like to think that my ethnography of Egyptian football fans, football media, and football institutions provides novel perspectives on Egyptian national politics in general and revolutionary transformations after January 2011 in particular. My focus on emotions and affect will illuminate readers about why football came to have such a central role in Egypt’s revolutionary and counterrevolutionary developments. My examination of debates about siyasa gives new clues as to why the revolution ultimately failed.
I also hope that the book will be read by people interested in the political potential of football even if they have no particular interest in Egypt or the Arab world. The book is arguably the most extensive ethnographic account that has been published to date on football in the midst of a full-scale revolution. The fact that I conducted long-term dissertation fieldwork smack in the middle of a revolutionary transition renders my monograph unique.
J: How does this book connect to and/or depart from your previous work?
CR: Although this is my first book and the culmination of my first major research project (see also Rommel, 2014, 2016), I had some experience researching the cultural politics of football before enrolling for a PhD. In 2009, I conducted ethnographic research with fans and club officials in two football clubs run and supported by Middle Eastern Christians (Suryoye) in Södertälje, Sweden. I found that the two clubs facilitated a particular kind of performative identity politics and divisions inside an “immigrant community” where everyone agreed that they are “one and the same people,” but where there were diverging opinions about the people’s ethnic origins (see Rommel, 2011).
Since 2011, I have also conducted ethnographic research at state-run youth centers (marakiz al-shabab) in Cairo. It has so far resulted in one article about youth football, masculinity, work, and “corruption” (Rommel, 2018).
J: What other projects are you working on now?
CR: My current research examines dreams about “projects” (mashari‘) in contemporary Egypt. It is based on participant observation with lower-middle class men who envision, contrive, and (sometimes) launch small business projects in central Cairo, or in the new cities that are being built in the capital’s desert peripheries. I also analyze media and promotional material about the vast array of mega projects that are the regime’s current obsession.
The research is primarily interested in how mashari‘ of vastly varying scales have become the default format for envisioning improved futures in Egypt. I am also trying to grapple with the longstanding salience of Egyptian dreams of the desert as a playground for projects and future-making, as well as how the regime’s push for desert cities opens up space for smaller, individualized project dreams. In more general terms, I like to understand what it does to our way of envisioning the future that such visions increasingly tend to be formatted as projects. What kind of futures are encouraged and what are foreclosed when society becomes projectified? Are some dreams more projectable than others?
Excerpt from the book (from the conclusion of Chapter 5, pp. 158-62)
When looking back at a decade and more of Ultras fans in Egypt, we see a lengthy uphill struggle broken off by a couple of years replete with promises and prospects. In 2011 and 2012, everything happened, and it happened all at once. On the one hand, the supporter movement was pulled into a maelstrom of events beyond their control. As the Egyptian people rose up and more than seventy Ultras were killed, the fans found themselves organizing demonstrations, commemorating martyrs, and lobbying judges instead of attending football matches. On the other hand, whatever the Ultras did, they did it with remarkable effectiveness. Mobilizing as a unified collective with a clear set of goals, they projected a sense that they could achieve just about anything. The result was a football revolution within the Egyptian revolution, a radical revolt inside Egypt’s national game. The supporter movement constituted a conspicuous part of a revolutionary generation for whom the possibilities seemed endless and the future bright and assuring.
Just as the Ultras epitomized the revolution’s endless possibilities and openings, [however], their fate likewise demonstrates the force of the Egyptian counterrevolution. As the nation split in two, the security state regrouped, legislation was amended, and the clubs and the media sided with the powers that be, Egypt’s young football supporters found themselves thwarted, marginalized, and back at square one. This counterrevolution in the Egyptian football arena is one of many small and large tragedies that have unfolded in the wake of the July 2013 Military Coup (for other examples, see Armbrust, 2019; Shenker, 2016; Winegar, 2016).
One issue that the history of the Ultras highlights is the unease that surrounds siyasa [politics] in contemporary Egypt. A variety of anxieties and questions about siyasa and about who or what should be considered siyasi [political] have arisen in this (counter-revolutionary football tale. Over the years, the Ultras supporters have been portrayed as selfish, as a minority, as thugs, or as government affiliates—that is, as self-concerned or politically partisan in one way or another. The groups themselves, however, have always insisted that they are nonpolitical. “We are just football supporters, we don’t interfere in politics,” has been a recurrent claim.
What do the Ultras mean when they insist that their activities and objectives are located outside the realm of siyasa? What kind of politics do they reject? One possible reading would characterize siyasa as a future-oriented process of deliberations and game-theoretical calculations. Historian Lucie Ryzova (2020) makes such a point in a recent analysis of the urban battle that took place in Cairo’s Muhammad Mahmoud Street in November 2011. Drawing on interviews with underprivileged, lower-income men who fought the security forces in this glorified and brutal confrontation, Ryzova argues that her interlocutors conceive of siyasa as an unclean and insincere game played out by actors whom they consider categorically Other: political parties, organizations with particular interests, or the primarily middle-class activists who occupied Tahrir Square while the battles raged. The clashes in Muhammad Mahmoud, by contrast, constituted a pure revolution precisely because of it being everything that siyasa was not. It was an existential and affective fight—part riot, part carnival—where the current moment of liminality was all that mattered, and where the sole aim was to “fuck” the security apparatus and “take back one’s rights” Ryzova, 2020).
The Ultras fans’ dismissal of politics has often been fueled by the working-class sentiments described by Ryzova. The fact that scores of Ultras participated in the Muhammad Mahmoud clashes—although only as individual citizens, never as a coherent group—is in this regard telling. Similarly, when the supporters insisted that they confined their struggle to the realm of sports and to restoring the rights of their killed comrades (haqq al-shuhada’), it reflected an antipathy to siyasa as an institutionalized process that Ryzova’s interlocutors would recognize. UA07’s [Ultras Ahlawy’s] decision to protest against the SCAF (who they held responsible for the Port Said massacre) but not against the Muslim Brotherhood government (a political player) in February 2013 is a good example too. Still, this classed rejection of politics from below was never all there was. If the Ultras had cared only about fighting the security forces and taking back their rights, the Muhammad Mahmoud clashes should have constituted a black-and-white moment of “absolute truth against absolute evil” (Ryzova, 2020:308). They did not. At the time, leaders from both UWK [Ultras White Knights] and UA07 saw themselves forced to make statements in the media denying reports about their members participating in the thuggish street fights and condemning “any action that hurts the interest of the country and its institutions” (chapter 3). Likewise, when UA07 in September 2012 decided not to attack the Super Cup match by force, the decision was once again framed in broad nationalist terms: “we do not want to hurt any citizens of this country” (chapter 4). In a documentary produced by TRT World, an anonymous leading member of Ultras White Knights describes this nonpolitical position as a kind of patriotism: “[the Ultras] was always a national movement, not a political one. We are not involved in politics. We just love football very much and we love our country even much [sic] more (2018).”
The multiplicity inherent to these stances suggests the limitations of Ryzova’s neat distinction between working-class revolution and middle-class politics. Being nonpolitical is not only a way to distance oneself from future-oriented, nationalist deliberations and long-term institutional change. It might also be a requirement for anyone aspiring to enter precisely this forward-looking field of reforms and action. For one thing is certain: queries about siyasa are mobilized as a persuasive form of discursive power in a wide range of Egyptian establishment contexts. In his research on state secularism, for instance, Hussein Agrama illustrates how conversations about proper and improper religiosity constantly spotlight delineations between the religious and the political. At one point, Agrama writes that “secular power works precisely by continually politicizing those traditions that it designates as religious [. . .] it is the politicizing of these traditions that renders them irrelevant” (2012:25). In other words, as soon as a religious group or practice is considered “political,” it is rendered suspicious and troubling. Moreover, as I outlined in chapter 2, Egypt’s pervasive nationalism is endowed with a similar power-laden capacity to politicize in order to render opponents irrelevant and distrustful. To prove one’s nationalist, common-good credentials has for more than one hundred years necessitated a nonpolitical image and charisma. To be singled out as siyasi has therefore effectively stripped any given actor of his or her national-political relevance.
These ideals and anxieties were ever-present during Egypt’s 2011 uprisings too. The Revolution, as well as the Counterrevolution that followed, were always framed as axiomatically nationalist projects carried out by and for the whole Egyptian people. Every political player with ambitions—President Mubarak, the so-called revolutionary youths, the army, President Mursi, the Muslim Brothers, and Abdel Fattah el-Sisi—inevitably claimed that their particular policies best served the national interest (maslahit al-watan) and the will of the people (iradit al-sha‘b) (Schielke, 2015:191–198; Winegar, 2016). An inevitable flipside of this consensus was an instinctive caution vis-à-vis partisanship and siyasa. Competing actors routinely accused each other of prioritizing factional demands (matalib fi’awiyya) or personal interests (masalih shakhsiyya) (see, for example, Brown, 2013a, 2013b; Makram-Ebeid, 2014; Shenker, 2016). The political process was in this sense curiously antipolitical.
In other words, the impetus on the Ultras to stay strictly nonpolitical drew on two distinct genealogies: on the one hand, templates for working-class masculinity that valorized “taking one’s rights” and the emotional rush of violence, while dismissing the political deliberations and intrigues that occupied the middle classes; on the other hand, a broad nationalist consensus that shunned all kinds of partisan-political motives. By juggling these distinct versions of nonpolitics, the Ultras attempted to do and be two things at the same time: sometimes their goal was al-qasas[retribution] against the security state in the moment, and at other times future-oriented institutional reforms of the national sport; sometimes they were working-class fighters, and at other times middle-class activists. During their exceptional moment in 2011 and 2012, the fan groups pulled off this balancing act in spectacular fashion. The darlings of the revolution were accepted as both rebellious fighters and solid nationalists. Their aura transcended class divides. No accusation of siyasa seemed to stick. By spring 2013, the tensions could no longer be reconciled. The Ultras could no longer be both. When they at times claimed to be all-nationalist and not taking sides, the movement appeared to be not only disloyal and inconsistent but also passive and somewhat irrelevant. But when they narrowed their focus to fighting immediate enemies and claiming precious rights, that did not work either. Celebrating the Port Said verdicts or burning down the EFA [Egyptian Football Association] headquarters might have been in line with the action-oriented, antipolitical ethos of some working-class men. Yet it certainly looked “political” to those heralding the strict nonpartisanship of Egyptian nationalism. The tragic tale of the Egyptian Ultras in this sense dramatizes a group of football supporters being caught up in developments beyond their control. No matter how hard the fans tried to stay nonpolitical, they ended up acting within a realm of siyasa staked out by others.