Football fans: an answer to youth political marginalisation?

A popular old saying in Cairo declares that in Egypt “there are only two political parties: Al Ahly and Zamalek”, the most popular football teams in Egypt.

The USM in Algiers, the African Club in Tunis, theRaja in Casablanca and Nejmeh in Beirut are some of the most popular clubs in Arab countries. For young people in these cities, becoming a supporter is a “modus vivendi”. In societies with few possibilities to construct a collective identity through other cultural artefacts, being a fan of any of these clubs is a key factor in defining a "we" in relation to adult society. It is a “we” that is chosen instead of other imposed identities defined byage, gender, economic, religious or ethnic characteristics. As Frederick Barth suggested, in the end, any collective identity construction is a political strategy to visualise a social group excluded from formal ways of political participation. However, adult hegemonic discourses in Arab countries try to confront these kinds of young initiatives according to their view of their potential danger for wider society and of the representation of young people as a “problem” (Swedenburg, 2012). Maybe the fear of several governments has something to do with the participation in 2011 of uprisingsof different football club fan organisations.                                                                       

On May 2015, “Arab Media and Stadium Hooliganism: Vision and Solutions” was a symposium attended by Arab sports officials and dignitaries as well as senior members of the Arab sports media in Cairo. It was suggested that structural strains, experiences of deprivation or a low socio-economic background can at times be instrumental in the acceptance and reproduction of norms that tolerate high levels of violence and territoriality. This is a well know justification for the penalisation and marginalisation of these kinds of young people’s experiences of self-association.

What does marginalisation mean? Marginalisation could be seen as a process in which some deviant attitudes, ideologies, values, practices and beliefs are ‘excluded’ from the society due to their contrast with the hegemonic procedures (Foucault, 2004; Bayat, 2012). In any case, this is the hegemonic logic that deliberately ignores how the marginalisation could mean economic exploitation, political repression, social stigmatisation or the cultural exclusion football fans represent. Therefore, marginality is not limited to material considerations. It is also the result of institutional policies with, on the one hand, protective measures that are insufficient given the magnitude of the local social demand and, on the other, violent police practices and penalisation measures.

On the other hand, clearly, youth marginality has undeniable consequences in the processes of subjectivation and lifestyles. Young people seem to have internalised the negative representations of their lifestyles conveyed by the media, but this does not prevent them from being attached to their social networks, which are a major foundation of young people’s identity constructions. Marginality seems to also favour the feelings of distrust of the institutions, which is expressed by distancing youth organisations from government initiatives because they may constitute a deviant identity for young people. It should be noted that in most cases, this distrust of power does not lead to a questioning of the dominant values of society. Work, school and family remain privileged places for young people to anchor their identities and acquire recognition.


In this sense, at the same time, the marginalised (memekh or mengi as some young boys identify themselves) positions of football fans in Arab societies permits us to see them as an innovative and creative manner to manage their situation. These marginalised social groups struggle in their immediate day-to-day activities for a share of urban services, alternative economic strategies, alternative means of production and for their ‘right to the city’ (de Certau, 1984). The Zapatistes in Tunis, White Knights or Ultras al Ahly in Cairo have been creating social spaces to establish and manage organised movements that represent an alternative to the social, political and cultural marginalisation of young people.


Therefore, it is very important to relate this kind of reaction with marginality in its dual dimension, material and symbolic, as well as other state programmes that seek to regulate youth initiatives, understood as "problematic" social spheres, as Loic Wacqüant suggests. Thus, criminalisation and de-politicisation of the turbulence associated with football fans and urban marginality are ongoing and mutually reinforcing, cyclically linked as occurs in both Europe and the United States.It illuminates marginalisation and social liminality (translating alternatively as civic invisibility or hypervisibility) and could detect new forms of urban marginality and identify the activities of the state aiming to marginalise it initially and regulate it later, and thereby evaluate emerging inequality in the age of the spread of social insecurity.




Barth, F., Ethnic groups and boundaries. The social organization of culture difference. Oslo: Universitetsforlaget, 1969.

Bayat, A., “Marginality: curse or cure?” in: Bush, R. and Ayeb, H., Marginality and Exclusion in Egypt, London: Zed Books, 2012.

De Certeau, M., The Practice of Everyday Life. University of California Press, Berkeley, 1984.

Foucault, M., Sécurité, territoire, population. Cours au Collège de France, 1977-1978, Paris: Gallimard, 2004.

Swedenburg, T., “Imagined Youths", in: Sowers, J. and Toensing, C., The journey to Tahrir. Revolution, Protest, and Social Change in Egypt, 1999-2011. Verso and New Left Books, 2012.

Wacqüant, L., "Marginality, ethnicity and penality in the neo-liberal city: an analytic cartography". Ethnic and Racial Studies 37 (10), 2014, pp.1687–1711.




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