By August 7 2013, tens of thousands of Tunisians had joined the protest in Bardo Square in the capital, Tunis, following the assassination of secular opposition leader Mohamed Brahmi just under two weeks earlier, on July 25. They were demanding the government step down, after the perceived lack of economic and democratic progress in the two years following the ousting of President Ben Ali in January 2011.
The crowd chanted slogans: “This is not a legitimate government!” and “Who are you Ghannouchi?”, referring to the President of the ruling Al Nahda party. Among them was a group well used to making some noise: Tunsia's football fans.
From its infancy, football was incorporated into Tunisian society as a means of resistance and protest. The first football clubs emerged in the early 1920s at a time when the French authorities were suppressing Arabic culture and tradition. Club Africain (CA), one of Tunisia’s most famous sports clubs, best known for its football, incorporated an anti-colonialist resistance movement that actively promoted Islamic identity.
From the beginning, the French authorities resisted the potential of football clubs to mobilise their fans against the colonial regime. CA was originally named Club Islamic Africain but was forced to moderate the name to something less Arabic. The club Étoile Sportive du Sahel (ESS) hoped to be called either La Soussienne or La Musulmane (The Muslim), but was likewise forced to Westernise. Despite this interference, the first football clubs in Tunisia continued to use the game to engage the country’s youth with anti-colonialist ideals.
Football remained hugely popular during the rule of President Ben Ali and, in due course, club rivalry became increasingly prominent. Football clubs developed large and loyal followings. Fans frequently marked their local neighbourhoods by scrawling the abbreviated names of football clubs on street walls, often to be crossed out by opposition fans and replaced with the name of a rival club.
Ben Ali’s RCD party embraced the popularity of football in Tunisia and encouraged its growth by investing both man power and money into the game. Football hooliganism was by and large accepted. Under the regime, politics was a censored topic, which meant that football offered a ‘safe zone’ for rebellious behaviour.
However, in the later years of Ali’s rule, football suffered, as appointments became increasingly nepotistic and corrupt. In May 2013, it was discovered that Ben Ali’s son-in-law, Slim Chiboub, who had been Chairman of Espérance Sportive de Tunis (EST) from 1989 to 2004, had been involved in money laundering. He had received numerous payments from fraudulent international sources, including nearly $6 million from the Canadian engineering and construction firm SNC-Lavalin between 2001 and 2010, in exchange for contracts from the country.
In January 2011, the framework changed for football fans and political activists alike. Public outcry following the self-immolation of street vendor Mohamed Bouazizi, after the confiscation of his vegetable cart by the police, turned to calls for revolution. In response, football fans mobilised to become one of the most prominent and aggressive groups within the Tunisian protests. Football graffiti became overtly politicised and football supporters, whilst still identifying with their club, used football as a platform to attack the former government and the infamously corrupt family of Ben Ali's wife. The regime’s plan to use football as a distraction from politics had failed.
In the immediate aftermath of the revolution, politically fuelled riots at football matches became a common occurrence as fans began to use the stadium as a space for political action. Matches were reluctantly restarted after a three month suspension in March 2011 but, following a surge in violence, fans were banned from attending league games for the rest of the season, and referees went on strike in protest. In February 2012, the Ministry of Interior made a decision to indefinitely ban fans from attending football games.
With no matches to go to, football and politics have become increasingly blurred. Club Africain is chaired by Slim Riahi, a businessman who is also leader of the Free Patriotic Union Party (UPL). UPL was established by Riahi after the revolution in January 2011 and has throughout its existence vehemently opposed the legitimacy of the ruling Al Nahda party.
Riahi's involvement in politics is seen to undermine the neutrality of the game; Club Africain supporters who attended the protest in Bardo Square, who behaved as they would have done at a football stadium, creating an atmosphere by banging on drums and chanting, were inadvertently aligning themselves to the political views of the club chairman and his political party.
The league was scheduled to commence this August, but was postponed because the clubs refused to continue to play matches behind closed doors. The Interior Ministry’s decision to ban fans from attending league matches has made the game less popular, but fans are now left dangerously unoccupied. Yosh Yoshy, a Tunisian journalist, believes the ban was regrettable. She says, “There is an urgent need right now for people to be able to unwind and blow off steam and to be able to shout about a good cause.”
Correction 23/9/13: In the final paragraph, Tunisian journalist Yosh Yoshy was identified as male. This is incorrect and has be changed.
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