Football, not politics, gives young Egyptians hope

‘Our voice is heard when we cheer and make a difference to the players. But if we vote in the election, our voice does not count — it makes no difference,’ said a local resident. (AP)
Updated 30 March 2018

Football, not politics, gives young Egyptians hope

CAIRO: On the second night of voting in Egypt’s one-sided presidential election, a crowd of young men gathered excitedly in a cafe in a middle-class district of Cairo.
Shouting and talking animatedly among themselves, the group were all feeling patriotic because of the event unfolding around them, yet they had no interest in voting and expressed little enthusiasm for the eventual winner, the incumbent Abdel Fattah El-Sisi.
What energized the young men that night was the football match being shown on the cafe’s television, not an election that has been plagued by weeks of government-backed intimidation and only token nods toward democratic values.
The best way for them to show their love for Egypt was through supporting the national team in its 0-1 friendly defeat to Greece, they told Arab News, rather than going to the polling station just down the road.
“Our voice is heard when we cheer and make a difference to the players, who are also doing something for the sake of this country. But if we go and vote in the election, our voice does not count — it makes no difference,” said Hassan Allam, a 28-year-old local resident.
El-Sisi won this week’s election with 92 percent of the vote, according to preliminary results released on Thursday, but his victory was never in doubt.
For the young men of Cairo, many of whom participated in the massive Arab Spring protests of 2011 that toppled the autocratic government of former president Hosni Mubarak, the election simply showed they are back to square one.
“There was no real competition against El-Sisi and many of the people I know were harassed by security forces for their political affiliations,” said Allam. “The only safe route for us to support the country is by cheering on our national football team; we have nothing else to do.”
Egypt were without their talisman, Liverpool forward Mohamed Salah, in Tuesday’s defeat, but the national team has galvanized the nation by qualifying for this summer’s World Cup in Russia — the first time it has reached the tournament in 28 years. It has been drawn in the same group as Russia, Uruguay and Saudi Arabia.
The feelings of the young men in the cafe were typical of the general feeling across the Egyptian capital. Many of the polling stations visited by Arab News in Cairo during the three days of voting were dominated by elderly voters. Few youths were spotted.
Sherif Ragy, a 26-year-old engineer, took part in the 2011 revolution that overthrew Mubarak. “I no longer care about politics; my love for Egypt is only represented in football now,” he told Arab News. “I’m going to Russia to cheer on the team there.”


Iraqi PM tightens government grip on country’s armed factions

Updated 17 September 2019

Iraqi PM tightens government grip on country’s armed factions

  • The increasingly strained relations between the US and Iran in the region is casting a large shadow over Iraq

BAGHDAD: Iraqi Prime Minister Adel Abdul Mahdi is putting increased pressure on the nation’s armed factions, including Shiite-dominated paramilitary troops and Kurdish guerrillas, in an attempt to tighten his control over them, Iraqi military commanders and analysts said on Monday.

Military commanders have been stripped of some of their most important powers as part of the efforts to prevent them from being drawn into local or regional conflicts.

The increasingly strained relations between the US and Iran in the region is casting a large shadow over Iraq. 

Each side has dozens of allied armed groups in the country, which has been one of the biggest battlegrounds for the two countries since 2003. 

Attempting to control these armed factions and military leaders is one of the biggest challenges facing the Iraqi government as it works to keep the country out of the conflict.

On Sunday, Abdul Mahdi dissolved the leadership of the joint military operations. 

They will be replaced by a new one, under his chairmanship, that includes representatives of the ministries of defense and interior, the military and security services, the Popular Mobilization Units (PMU) and the Ministry of Peshmerga, which controls the military forces of the autonomous Kurdistan region.

According to the prime minister’s decree, the main tasks of the new command structure are to “lead and manage joint operations at the strategic and operational level,” “repel all internal and external threats and dangers as directed by the commander-in-chief of the armed forces,” “manage and coordinate the intelligence work of all intelligence and security agencies,” and “coordinate with international bodies that support Iraq in the areas of training and logistical and air support.”

“This decree will significantly and effectively contribute to controlling the activities of all combat troops, not just the PMU,” said a senior military commander, who declined to be named. 

“This will block any troops associated with any local political party, regional or international” in an attempt to ensure troops serve only the government’s goals and the good of the country. 

“This is explicit and unequivocal,” he added.

Since 2003, the political process in Iraq has been based on political power-sharing system. This means that each parliamentary bloc gets a share of top government positions, including the military, proportionate to its number of seats in Parliament. Iran, the US and a number of regional countries secure their interests and ensure influence by supporting Iraqi political factions financially and morally.

This influence has been reflected in the loyalties and performance of the majority of Iraqi officials appointed by local, regional and international parties, including the commanders of combat troops.

To ensure more government control, the decree also stripped the ministers of defense and interior, and leaders of the counterterrorism, intelligence and national security authorities, and the PMU, from appointing, promoting or transferring commanders. This power is now held exclusively by Abdul Mahdi.

“The decree is theoretically positive as it will prevent local, regional and international parties from controlling the commanders,” said another military commander. 

“This means that Abdul Mahdi will be responsible to everyone inside and outside Iraq for the movement of these forces and their activities.

“The question now is whether Abdul Mahdi will actually be able to implement these instructions or will it be, like others, just ink on paper?”

The PMU is a government umbrella organization established by former Iraqi Prime Minister Nuri Al-Maliki in June 2014 to encompass the armed factions and volunteers who fought Daesh alongside the Iraqi government. Iranian-backed factions such as Badr Organization, Asaib Ahl Al-Haq and Kataib Hezbollah represent the backbone of the forces.

The US, one of Iraq’s most important allies in the region and the world, believes Iran is using its influence within the PMU to destabilize and threaten Iraq and the region. Abdul Mahdi is under huge external and internal pressure to abolish the PMU and demobilize its fighters, who do not report or answer to the Iraqi government.

The prime minister aims to ease tensions between the playmakers in Iraq, especially the US and Iran, by preventing their allies from clashing on the ground or striking against each other’s interests.

“Abdul Mahdi seeks to satisfy Washington and reassure them that the (armed) factions of the PMU will not move against the will of the Iraqi government,” said Abdullwahid Tuama, an Iraqi analyst.

The prime minister is attempting a tricky balancing act by aiming to protect the PMU, satisfy the Iranians and prove to the Americans that no one is outside the authority of the state, he added.