Fans of Besiktas (Black-White), Galatasaray (Yellow-Red) and Fenerbahce (Yellow-Blue) wave Turkish flags during an anti-government protest in Istanbul on June 2, 2013. (Reuters/Murad Sezer)
Mark Twain’s maxim that “History does not repeat itself, but it does rhyme” is echoing in the streets of Istanbul. The echo is heard in everything that makes Turkey resemble a sequel to the 2011 Egyptian Revolution that toppled assumed President-for-Life Hosni Mubarak. I’m not only referring to the fact that it marks another internal revolt against an iron-booted US ally. I’m not only referring to the repeat of the social equation that neoliberal shock economics plus police repression will equal upheaval. I’m talking about soccer. More specifically, the role that organized soccer fans are playing by the thousands.
Turkey and Egypt are of course two very different countries with different leaders, different political systems and different histories. But the revolt of the highly intense, usually apolitical “ultra” soccer-fan clubs must be noted. As in Egypt, for years the ultra soccer clubs have been places in Turkey where young, alienated men could express aggression without fear of serious retribution from the state. They were places a young man could release steam, get in a brawl with other fan organizations or the police and receive at worst a beating. In contrast, attending a political demonstration—or writing an article about the political demonstration—could land you in prison. For the state, ultra clubs have been seen as ways to channel anger in a direction that doesn’t threaten their power. After the last two years, they may need to revise their playbook on how to manufacture consent.
There are differences between the ultra revolts in Egypt and Turkey. Unlike in Egypt, the Turkish soccer fan clubs have historically been a magnet for people wanting a more liberalized, secular rule of law. Perhaps because they share this connective tissue, there is another critical difference: unlike in Egypt, the Turkish ultra clubs have all united in very rapid order. This isn’t Tahrir, where for days rival ultra clubs would organize on opposite sides of the square, until their hatred was worn down by the necessity of standing together against the police. In Turkey, from the start, the ultra clubs hailing from the city’s most pugnaciously oppositional clubs—Besiktas, Galatasaray and Fenerbahce—marched arm-in-arm under the slogan “Istanbul United.”