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The Egyptian revolution started at a soccer stadium.
I heard that, a theory about the unlikely setting for the Arab spring, at another unlikely venue, the Terminal 2 Barbershop at Bay and Dundas.
About 20 people came to the antique barbershop to hear Mohammed Al Rashidy, an Egyptian and now the director of the Canadian Arab Federation, put forth the idea that soccer lead to the January 25 uprising.
The event was organized by the Couchiching Institute ("Cooch" for short), which bills itself as "Canada's oldest and most influential non-partisan forum on public affairs."
Al Rashidy perched on one of Terminal's four restored antique barber chairs and spoke for half an hour about his love for soccer and his newly emboldened home country. Only once did someone interrupt by coming in looking for a haircut.
Soccer games under Hosni Mubarak's regime were "an incubator for the revolution," Al Rashidy said to audience, who from the look of it were half retirees. (There was also at least one urban planner and a dude with a shaved head and an Arsenal jersey.)
While at one time sports and religion were the two areas into which the government didn't intrude, Mubarak's vendetta against Islamic extremists soon meant there was a good chance the man next to you at the mosque for Friday prayers was an informant. Sports became the only the only forum for free expression, and in Egypt the only sport that matters is soccer.
Al Rashidy recalled his experience returning to Cairo to see a game between Egypt and Algeria on November, 2009. The stadium holds 120,000 people, but typically corrupt officials sold 200,000 tickets to a single game, meaning fans had to show up seven or eight hours early to have a chance of a seat.
Al Rashidy paints a picture of thousands of Egyptians waiting out the time in the open air, sharing food and water, in a clear foreshadowing of events in Tahrir Square over a year later.
"What happens is, the fans outnumber security," he said. "That doesn't happen in any other situation in the Middle East. Anytime there's a congregation of people there will always be security, and usually the ratio was ten to one in favour of security. There's no chance for those protesters. Soccer games were different."
When Mubarak was introduced over the PA at the Egypt-Algeria game, the crowd openly booed him, an act of defiance Al Rashidy said was unthinkable anywhere outside the stadium.
For many Egyptians, the soccer stands was the only place where they actually felt proud to be Egyptian.
"People are beaten down on a daily basis, you're humiliated in your dealings with your government," said Al Rashidy. "It's the type of life that would make you not like your country, it would make you feel a sense of not belonging in your very own country. When you get to the stadium, that reverses. You think, ‘We love our country, we would do anything for it.'"
When mass protests finally hit Egypt in January, the connection between soccer and revolution became literal. Ultras, the elite groups of fans that beat the drums and led the chants in soccer stadiums, showed up in force in Tahrir Square. But the chants they were leading weren't against the opposing team, they were against the government.
Al Rashidy said that when he tuned into Al Jazeera on Jan. 25 he knew immediately the Mubarak regime was doomed. "As soon as I saw the first clip, I knew that it was over. For the first time ever, those same soccer fans, that same spirit of ‘Nobody's going to disband us, nobody's going to stop us' was on display in the streets."
Soccer can't explain everything about the Egyptian revolution of course, but Al Rashidy makes a strong case that it played a role as a means of civil organization under the dictatorship.
With the next two World Cups being played in the democratically-challenged countries of Qatar and Russia, I wonder if national leaders there have noticed that pattern.