A build-up of sporadic anti-government protests on the soccer pitch preceded the mass demonstrations that erupted in Tunisia in December, led to the toppling of Tunisian President Zine Abedine Ben Ali, and sparked the wave of protests sweeping the Middle East and North Africa, according to Tunisian and Arab soccer analysts. Tunisian fans jeered Confederation of African Football (CAF) president Issa Hayatou in November during the Orange CAF Champions League return final between Esperance Tunis and TP Mazembe from the Democratic Republic of Congo. The fans charged that the Togolose referee in the first encounter between the two teams in Congo in which Esperance lost had been corrupt and waved banknotes at Hayatou. The protests led to clashes between the fans who like their counterparts in Egypt are street battled-hardened and police. As far back as 2005, dissatisfaction with the Ben Ali regime boiled to the surface at soccer matches. Fans shouted anti-Ben Ali slogans during the Tunisia Cup final that year and insulted the Tunisian leader’s son Chiboub, forcing him to leave the match prematurely. Analysts say Mohamed Bouazizi, a Tunisian street vendor who set himself on fire on December 17, 2010, in protest of the confiscation of his wares and the harassment and humiliation he suffered at the hands of a municipal official, resonated with soccer fans, many of which are unemployed. Bouazizi’s death sparked the protests in Tunisia. Soccer fans were not involved in the planning or initial organization of the protests that ended Tunisia’s dictatorship, but actively participated in them. The fans are “informal groups that are unstructured, talk among themselves in and around stadiums, but do not act in town,” said Faouzi Mahjoub, author of the French-language Miroir du Foot Africain blog, describing why the pitch was often the venue for expressing anti-government sentiment prior to last month’s revolt.
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