By David Ignatius
WASHINGTON — If you’re trying to understand the rampaging soccer fans who have become a political force in the new Egypt, you might consult Anthony Burgess’ 1962 novel, “A Clockwork Orange.”
The book was about a chaotic future shaped by roving gangs of “droogs” (Burgess’ imaginary word for young male toughs). Led by Alex, the droogs get stoned on milk-and-drug cocktails and then commit brutal acts of what Burgess called “ultra-violence.”
“You got shook and shook till there was nothing left. You lost your name and your body and your self and you just didn’t care,” says Alex in describing his violent binges.
Burgess’ novel — popularized in a 1971 film by Stanley Kubrick, starring Malcolm McDowell as the malevolent Alex — is worth a new look. It’s an eerily prescient guide to the youth gangs that are wild in the streets of Egypt and other countries.
What are these hooligans telling us about the future — not just in Egypt but in other nations where authoritarian leaders have lost their power to repress dissent by angry young men? The teenage marauders seem to have lost respect for the world of their fathers — and for the forces of social control that were woven through traditional societies like Egypt.
The old social fabric has ripped. The young gangs who own the streets are contemptuous of police and most other authority figures. If the Egyptian government orders a curfew, the soccer thugs make a point of staying out all night. They display the restless, rebellious alienation that sociologists sometimes describe as “anomie.”
The Egyptian soccer thugs are known as “ultras,” a term that Burgess would have liked, and they are playing a growing political role. They helped overthrow President Hosni Mubarak two years ago in Tahrir Square. Now, styling themselves as the “Black Bloc,” they are challenging Mubarak’s successor, President Mohamed Morsi, and his Muslim Brotherhood government.
Analysts theorize that the soccer thugs were allowed to take root under Mubarak because they offered a nonpolitical way for young men to vent their anger — outside the mosque and outside opposition politics. But the gangs of violent youths became shock troops of the uprising that toppled Mubarak’s regime. They helped prevent the security forces from sweeping the square in the revolution’s fragile early days.
James Dorsey, a journalist and academic who writes a blog called “The Turbulent World of Middle East Soccer,” explains the rise of the ultras. After years of battling Egyptian police in the soccer stadiums, “they were fearless, they had nothing to lose, and they became battle-hardened,” he told Foreign Policy.
Egypt’s post-revolutionary challenge has been getting these angry youths to join in building a new democratic system. This same problem is evident in other Arab Spring hotspots, such as Tunisia and Libya, which are proving fractious and difficult to govern. In Egypt (a society with a deep love of order), the instability has been acute: A year ago, a soccer riot in Port Said killed 74 people. Last month, more than 30 were killed as soccer riots erupted in Suez, Alexandria, Cairo and Port Said. Morsi seemed close to losing control, until the military sent in troops to protect key facilities.
The problem, Dorsey told Foreign Policy, is “how to make the transition from street to system.” This hasn’t happened in Egypt or Libya, and has only begun in Tunisia.
The revolt of alienated soccer youths is hardly confined to North Africa. In Israel, a soccer team called Beitar Jerusalem is supported by racist young fans who chant “Death to the Arabs” and recently unfurled a banner that proclaimed “Beitar Pure Forever” to express their opposition to recruiting Muslim players. “When talking about Beitar, it’s actually showing a mirror for Israeli society,” Nidal Othman, the director of the Coalition Against Racism in Israel, asserted to The New York Times.
Soccer hooliganism is endemic, as well, in Britain and many other European nations. Racist chants can be heard on soccer pitches across the continent.
In his 2004 book, “How Soccer Explains the World,” Franklin Foer noted the paradox that hooligans and their violent tribalism continue, even as soccer becomes globalized and interconnected. Soccer teams provide an intense bonding experience in societies where other connections have broken down.
We can see this theme playing out now in Egypt, as the kids who made the revolution refuse to settle down and take their seats. Like the Jacobins of revolutionary France, these “ultras” rule the streets, almost daring some future general to crack down.
David Ignatius is a Washington Post columnist. His email address is firstname.lastname@example.org.