Carl Rommel on his book, Egypt’s Football Revolution

Interview by Jessica Winegar

Jessica Winegar: The study of sports has been somewhat marginal in the field of anthropology. Why do you think that is, and in what ways does your book show its importance to understanding major social events such as revolutions?

Carl Rommel: This is an intriguing question, because in many ways, sports is really a total social fact. Huge spectator sports, such as football (soccer), bring together a range of sociocultural spheres, including economy, ritual, performance, religion, emotion, gender, global media, mega events, and politics. Still, with the exception of a small number of recent works (such as, Guinness & Besnier 2016, Kovač 2022, Carter 2008), sports has indeed been marginal in the field of anthropology.

Now, I am not exactly sure about the reasons for this marginalization, but I have a few ideas. First, I think that spectator sports for a long time came across as too modern to a discipline primarily interested in the primitive and exotic. Hence, while Clifford Geertz went to thickly describe the local practice of cock fighting on Java (1973), it was left to sociologists to analyze spectator sports as an exceptional realm of excitement in bureaucratically organized western societies (Dunning & Elias 1986). More recently, as ostensibly modern social phenomena such as mass media, science, and development have been made central foci of anthropological exploration, sports might instead have looked too ordinary: a popular pastime for the masses without any true epistemological or aesthetic depth. I would also not rule out a measure of latent snobbism. At least in some contexts that I know, academics self-identify as ‘people who don’t like sports.’ Anthropologists with such opinions might not only opt to research more supposedly worthy topics. They also do not possess the background knowledge necessary to penetrate the world that a huge spectator sport assembles. To be able to properly discuss the game with one’s interlocutors, one needs to master information about a large corpus of players, coaches, clubs, matches, and tournaments. While that is no easy task for any anthropologist taking on a whole new sports universe (as I did in Egypt), it is likely even more daunting for a scholar who is not a sports person in the first place.

As for the second part of your question, I think that my book shows that sports can provide unique anthropological angles on a revolution’s who, when, where, and what. First, my story about Egypt’s Football Revolution introduces a completely new cast of revolutionary characters: television pundits, players and coaches, club officials, representatives of the football association, and more or less organized supporters. Second, my study of football gives the revolution an alternative timeline. It shows how supposedly non-political football events (matches, tournaments, television talk shows) constituted key moments in a revolutionary transition that began to take shape already before January 25, 2011. Third, my story recasts the revolution’s spatiality: the football revolution that I chronicle took place at stadiums, in television studios, and in coffee shops just as much as in Tahrir Square, the Egyptian Parliament, or the headquarters of the Muslim Brotherhood. This shift of focus, finally, provides an alternative account for what the revolutionary struggle was all about. I analyze the revolution first and foremost as a contest over how Egyptian football men – and Egyptian men more generally – should feel, act, and behave. My ethnography of the world of football recasts the revolution as a revolt that set out to transform emotions, masculinities, and ultimately the Egyptian nation.

Jessica Winegar: Taking football seriously has indeed given us a better understanding of the depth and breadth of the revolutionary process in Egypt, and the important ways that this process was gendered through notions of masculinity as related to politics and nation. I would love to hear you riff on how these insights from football in Egypt could be useful to those studying protests and revolutions of the past 15 years – which have seen an intensification of such political action worldwide.

Carl Rommel: I’d like to answer this question by returning to the revolution’s who, when, where, and what. The way my book suggests alterative answers to these questions could arguably be useful in other settings ripe with protests and revolt too. Because, a truly revolutionary situation is never merely a moment when activists raise demands limited to representational politics and try to push them through the vested institutions of the nation-state. When studied carefully, a revolution always reverberates in spaces that might look somewhat marginal, and through events that both precede and succeed canonized timelines. You might also find actors who may not come across as political at first glance, but who are actually key players. And you might identify a revolutionary battle over whom the taken-for-granted and normal we are or should be. In my Egyptian case, this contested normal we was a national and gendered we. Football provided a central stage for carving out normal Egyptian masculinities before, during, and after the 2011 Revolution. In other situations, the established we that the revolt has to take on could just as well be a classed or racialized we. For instance, who is the normal and white middle-class woman?

What my research illustrates – and what could be useful to consider elsewhere – is that processes that define who are normal and who are not are complex and a long time coming. Normalized subjectivities surface at the intersection of media, popular culture, spectacle, investments, legislation, and more. For a revolt to be truly revolutionary, it has to provide alternatives to such entrenched scripts. My ethnography illustrates both how and why this is possible and why it is difficult to pull off. Because processes of subjectivation are long-term and multidimensional, they take on an inertia that is difficult to fully obliterate. The counterrevolution is always likely to gain momentum from never fully eradicated ideals for how to be, feel, and behave normally. In Egypt, as elsewhere, revolutions are fragile projects, and they most often fail. One reason is that they are up against potent powers vested in distributed assemblages of institutions, discourses, ethics, pop culture, and media technologies.

Jessica Winegar: Do you think that fun can be a revolutionary practice? What would your soccer fans have said at the time, and what would they say now?

Carl Rommel: Oh yes, absolutely, this is one of the central arguments that I make in the chapters that deal with Egypt’s so called Ultras supporters. The Ultras were a new type of football fans who started to appear at Egyptian stadiums in 2007. Inspired by Ultras groups in North Africa and southern Europe, they introduced a new style of fandom that grew influential in the years leading up to January 2011. As the ethnographic research that I conducted with the Ultras shows, the new fan groups’ success was to a large extend a result of the fun and freedom that they generated in the stands. Through bold chants, flags, choreographed displays, graffiti, and firework, their novel way of supporting their teams attracted tens of thousands of young men. Almost immediately, this subculture was spotlighted as a security threat by the Egyptian police. Consequently, the Ultras found themselves forced to confront the security forces and defend their right to do their thing – that is, having fun in their own way – inside and outside the stadium. In 2011 and 2012, this experience of taking on the security state through organized violence proved vital for the revolutionary struggle. The Ultras’ subculture of fun and freedom became a central force in clashes and street fights.

But the Ultras new way of having fun was also subversive for another reason. As I discuss in the book’s first two chapters, Egyptian football had constituted a realm of fun also before the Ultras entered the scene. To make a long story short, Egyptian football experienced an unprecedented boom in the late 2000s. Fueled by victories, media, and popular culture, the nation was swept away by a football craze that was mobilized successfully by the Mubarak government in a pretty classic bread-and-circuses manner. Rather than a fight for or against fun, therefore, the revolution inside Egypt’s national game was at the heart a conflict between two different ways of having fun: one older, media-driven and closely related to the political and economic establishment; one younger, more international, and vehemently opposed to the media. As such, while my book demonstrates that fun can be a revolutionary force, it also shows that fun is not revolutionary by default. Football’s unmatched ability to generate fun could just as well be reactionary. It all depends on the context, and how the fun is mobilized and by whom.

As for what Ultras would say about this today, it is difficult to know as the supporter groups are currently in disarray. In the years since the 2013 Military Coup, the Ultras (like most revolutionary groups in Egypt) have been crushed by the counterrevolution. Many leaders are or have been in prison. Others live abroad. While Egypt’s biggest group, Ultras Ahlawy, was formally dissolved in 2018, other groups still exist, but their activities are scattered. When talking to (former) Ultras today, they tend to look back at the revolutionary years with a great deal of nostalgia. They tell me about a period when they had an incredible amount of fun at the stadium. And they tell stories about demonstrations, clashes and sit-ins that all but revolutionized Egypt. Whether Ultras connect these stories about fun and revolution, I am not sure. Possibly such an analysis is more exciting for an anthropologist than for the people who live the (counter-) revolution’s twists and turns. Still, everyone knows that one reason for why their revolution was crushed is that the regime has banned fans at most Egyptian football games over the last ten years. As a result, it has been impossible to keep generating fun at the stadium. And without fun, there has been no way to recruit new members, and hence no way to keep the revolutionary momentum going.

Jessica Winegar: And it is hard to keep revolutionary momentum going within the straitjacket of proper nationalism that requires a kind of seemingly apolitical stance. I think readers would be especially interested in your argument about that bind in the book, in part because I see it playing out in other contexts. Can you briefly recap that central theoretical point?

Carl Rommel: So, the notion of siyasa (politics in Arabic) pops up in several chapters in the book. Overall, I show that while siyasa comes with many different connotations for my interlocutors, it almost always elicits a sense of unease. One reason is a long-standing tension between siyasa and idealized notions of Egyptian nationalism. To put it brief and simple, we might say that whereas a true nationalist works for the common interests of the whole people, being political (siyasi) by definition means serving partial group interests at the expense of some other citizens. Since the foundation of the Egyptian nationalist movement in the late 19th century, therefore, nationalism and siyasa have been understood as inherently antithetical. One telling example is the way nationalist leaders, such as President Gamal Abdel Nasser, have strived to appear non-political (Roussillon 1996).

Being Egypt’s indisputably national game, football is a realm where this tension is particularly recognizable. In my book’s chronology, it surfaces for the first time in the wake of two World Cup qualifiers between Egypt and Algeria in November 2009. I portray these matches as the culmination of the football hysteria permeating late-Mubarak Egypt. This was both the moment when the regime used football most actively to shore up support and the time when things began to crack. After Egypt lost the second game and missed the 2010 World Cup, criticism against the sport’s ‘politicization’ proliferated. Instead of bringing people together, commentators argued that the national game was breeding fanaticism and politics. After January 2011, such ideas became even more commonplace. Football now looked like the cause of a range of problems grouped together under the rubric of siyasa. In the final chapters, I examine ethnographically how these debates impacted on supporter attachments. As the national game became mixed up with politics, many Egyptian men found it increasingly difficult to care about it.

Tensions between siyasa and nationalism play a key role in my story of the Ultras too. Journalists, club officials and people in the football association recurrently blamed the new fans for being political, that is, for serving their own interests rather than those of the whole people. The Ultras were well aware of these labels. In 2011 and 2012, the fans were keen to prove that they were properly nationalist, for example, by not taking parts in supposedly overtly political demonstrations and street fights. Indeed, I argue that the Ultras’ football revolution was most powerful precisely when it came across as respectable, nationalist, and non-political among the general public. Paradoxically, their political success was a consequence of their ability to stay outside the realm of putative politics. In the long run, however, it was not possible to push for revolutionary demands while at the same time maintaining an apolitical profile. From early 2013 onwards, the Ultras were caught up in events that made them look increasingly political, and which saw them lose a great deal of popular support.

The book’s conclusion suggests that this double bind faced by the Ultras was an impasse plaguing many revolutionary factions in Egypt. To understand this point we must first realize that the Egyptian revolution was a nationalist revolt first and foremost. Nationalism constituted a taken-for-granted meta-framework; liberals, Islamists, socialist, and the Army all claimed that they were fighting for the true interests of the whole people. While this was no doubt a reason behind the revolution’s initial success – appeals to nationalism could be recognized and supported by millions of Egyptians – it also imposed limitations. As the Ultras exemplify, it can be difficult to combine being a proper nationalist with fighting for the interests of particular subsections of the national collective, for example, a particular class or gender. I am convinced that this is a factor to consider when we try to understand why the Egyptian revolution was stifled. It is not at all easy to stay strictly non-political in a revolutionary situation that by its very essence requires bold action, violent resistance, and demands calling for radical transformation.

Jessica Winegar: This working with and through local conceptions of politics (siyasa) is fascinating. What advice would you give junior anthropologists working on politics in other contexts, then?

I guess my suggestion would be to be a bit less concerned with how anthropology defines politics and a bit more interested in what the people we work with understand to be political and not. In my analysis of siyasa I take cues from an article that Matei Candea wrote in 2011. Candea notes that while anthropologists since the 1960s have been very good at discerning politics in all thinkable sociocultural fields (the politics of gender, the politics of the body, clothing, taste, language, knowledge and so on), politics itself has rarely been examined. Candea proposes that anthropologists should study the political as an ethnographic category. His ethnographical material from schools and educational administrators on Corsica analyses in detail how politics is understood locally, how the political and non-political are divided up, and how such boundaries become an important part of reality.

My book demonstrates the potential of studying politics as an ethnographic category in revolutionary situations. Conducting my research in a period when siyasa seemed to be everywhere in Egypt, I documented how football people understood and delineated the political, as well as how it generated a visceral sense of unease. This empirical focus facilitated an analysis of the variegated work that the political does. It allowed me to pinpoint how too much politics forecloses previously strong emotions. As one interlocutor expressed it, ‘everything has become politics; there is no fun left.’ It also made me show how the political functions as a derogatory label: how it could discredit and marginalize actors from the national we; and how it could render a whole sport suspicious and problematic. I would imagine that similar analyses would be of interest in many contexts around the world. Which phenomena or individuals are political or not can never be known in advance. It is a fluid field ripe with contestations that must be studied ethnographically. Such ethnographic attention to emic notions of politics does not only provide valuable insights about what the political is, how it is debated, and how it feels. As I hope that my book demonstrates, it could also provide a fresh entry point for analyzing conflicts over resources, power, and hegemony, a ‘politics of politics,’ as I call it at one point in the conclusion.

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