Online activists played a key role in Tunisia’s Jasmine Revolution. “Takriz-ards” or “Taks” (members of Takriz, a hacker group founded in the late 1990s) had long been active opponents of the authoritarian regime of President Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali, who had denounced them repeatedly since 2000 and sought to block their online presence. Many had been driven into exile, from where they collaborated closely with Taks still in Tunisia. They’d become increasingly innovative users of mobile communications technology, “‘geo-bombing’ the presidential palace by adding videos of human rights testimony that appear in the YouTube layer of Google Earth and Google Maps, and charting Tunisia’s prisons” as well as hosting satirical anti-regime chat forums, and using Mumble (a voice- over-Internet-protocol communications application which they considered more secure than Skype) to coordinate protests and anti-regime activities.
In the half century before the revolution, Tunisia had experienced rapid growth, its populace more than doubling from 4.2 million in 1960 to 10.7 million in 2010, with a high rate of coastal urbanization. As more and more Tunisians moved to coastal cities, they gained access to the Internet and global media, and acquired email addresses, Facebook accounts, smartphones, and digital cameras. Throughout the last decade of Ben Ali’s dictatorship, the expansion of electronic access for urban dwellers in Tunisia was especially fast-paced, and Takriz surfed this wave of increasing connectivity to propagate its anti-regime messages. And as rural-to-urban migration continued apace, many urban Tunisians retained close ties to their villages of origin, maintaining human networks that allowed information to circulate quickly by telephone and word of mouth among urban, periurban, and rural communities. Newer, virtual social networks thus meshed with preexisting, trusted human networks, generating synergies between activists in the real and virtual worlds when the uprising came.
Similarly, since the late 1990s, the Takrizards had evolved from merely mocking the regime online: they’d taken their protest action into the real world, forming a street-level alliance with disaffected youth in Tunisia’s cities. As well as the youth bulge, urbanization, and high youth unemployment mentioned above, Tunisia has an extremely high level of urban littoralization, second only to Libya in the region, with 70 percent of its population concentrated in coastal cities.
Soccer fans in these cities–especially disaffected young men who joined tight-knit, highly motivated, violent groups of militant fans known as “Ultras”–became central to the opposition movement. Since the early 2000s, Takriz had hosted a Web forum where Ultras from different teams could interact and discuss their street battles with the regime’s police. This forum helped build relationships and collaborative alliances among fans of different teams–urban youth tribes who normally would have spurned each other as enemies–so that over several years “a distinctive North African style of Ultra–one with more political character–spread quickly among Tunisia’s soccer-mad youth and then to fans in Egypt, Algeria, Libya and Morocco. When the revolution began, the Ultras would come out to play a very different game. They were transformed into a quick-reaction force of bloody-minded rioters.”
It’s important not to romanticize the Ultras here: radical soccer fans have a long history of involvement in ethnic cleansing, urban violence, radicalism, and street conflict, and historically have been just as willing to back authoritarian causes as to support liberal ones. In the Balkan Wars of the 1990s, for example, one of the most violent Serb paramilitary groups, Arkan’s Tigers was recruited primarily from urban soccer fans and led by Zeljko Raznatovic, a former street criminal and gangster who became an Ultra mobilizer and head of the Red Star Belgrade supporters’ club.
Several groups of Ultras also engaged in violent action in Croatia, Bosnia, and Kosovo. Likewise, in East Timor in 1999–2000, some of the most violent militias were recruited from urban soccer fans and marginalized teenage street youth, and their sponsors (often members of the urban political establishment or rogue members of Indonesia’s security forces) used them as proxies in mass killings and expulsions in Timorese coastal towns including Dili, Batugade, and Suai.
The role of Ultras as a politically biddable, readily mobilized, self-organized, street-savvy, battle-hardened corps d’élite in urban conflict has been underexamined but would clearly repay deeper academic interest. One of the world’s pioneering researchers in this field, James Dorsey, has written extensively on the role of Ultras in European, Southeast Asian, and Middle Eastern politics. As Dorsey points out, Ultras–by virtue of the militarization and fortification of soccer stadiums (the “military urbanism”) that they confront, and the pitched battles against police, security forces, and other fan groups that their urban tribal lifestyle involves–have become increasingly radicalized and militarily experienced. “With elaborate displays of fireworks, flares, smoke guns, loud chanting , and jumping up and down during matches,” Dorsey writes, the Ultras form a hard-core supporter element for their team, seeking to intimidate opposing fans and rally their own, and this brings them into constant conflict with the police.
Most ultras are young working-class men “who embrace a culture of confrontation–against opposing teams, against the state, and against expressions of weakness in society at large.” For many years, Ultras in Tunisia, Egypt, Libya, and other parts of the Middle East engaged in stadium battles against police and other fans on a weekly basis. Indeed, their actions can be seen as a struggle (like that of gangs in San Pedro Sula or Kingston, Jamaica) for control over key urban terrain–in this case, soccer stadiums–in what Dorsey describes as “a zero-sum game for control of a venue they saw as their own.”
Regimes across the region saw these urban youth tribes as a challenge to their monopoly on the use of force. “In the name of public safety they turned football pitches into virtual fortresses, ringed by black steel and armed security personnel. The ultras, for their part, radicalized in response to the militarization of the stadium.” As Dorsey points out, however, they did not always view their own actions as political:
“We steer clear of politics. Competition in Egypt is on the soccer pitch. We break the rules and regulations when we think they are wrong. You don’t change things in Egypt talking about politics. We’re not political, the government knows that and that is why it has to deal with us,” said one Eg yptian ultra in 2010, after his group overran a police barricade erected to prevent it from bringing flares, fireworks and banners into a stadium.”
Despite their initial lack of political consciousness, Dorsey’s description shows these organizations (including the Tunisian Ultras) for what they are: nonstate armed groups that seek to control not only urban populations (soccer fans, opposition supporters, and local inhabitants) but also physical and economic terrain (stadiums, social venues, and rallies) in the cities where they operate. They compete for control against other fan groups and against the police, security services, and other representatives of the state, and they apply a spectrum of coercive, administrative and persuasive tools in order to do so. They’re also, of course, a primarily urban and periurban phenomenon, since major sporting events tend to occur in cities and towns, though Ultras–like other urban nonstate armed groups–often live in marginalized areas that are physically or functionally on the periphery of the urban core. Likewise, access to mobile communications technology, especially cellphones, text messaging, or Twitter feeds, gives soccer fans a degree of connectivity that lets them self-synchronize their activity, and such connectivity (via Wi-Fi or cellphone network coverage) is also usually much greater in urban than in rural areas.
We should note here, of course, that the vast majority of soccer fans (like fans of any other team sport) aren’t particularly violent, and there’s nothing necessarily disruptive about most supporters’ behavior. The Ultras are a small, hard-core, organized, violent minority within a much larger and more diverse movement–an urban vanguard, as it were. Their tight cohesion, self-synchronizing swarming behavior, willingness to engage in violence, and battle-hardened tactical competence in the scrappy business of street fighting combine to give this radical subset of fans a great deal of latent military strength.
In particular, Ultras–who battle the cops every weekend anyway, just in the normal course of events–have little fear of, and much familiarity with, police riot control tactics, and this turned out to be a key adaptive trait when the uprisings came. When online activists such as the Taks managed to unify the disparate Ultra groups in Tunisia via the Internet, and thus helped raise the fans’ political and anti-regime consciousness, they were creating an alliance with an urban tribal force. This alliance had enormous military potential for conflict in cities–but its power rested on the twin pillars of electronic connectivity (which connected Taks with Ultras and broke down barriers among rival Ultra groups) and virtual-human network overlap (the meshing of real-world and cyber relationships), which allowed online networks connecting city-dwelling activists to map onto human networks that connected Tunisian cities with rural towns and villages.
Reprinted from Out of the Mountains by David Kilcullen with permission from Oxford University Press USA, © David Kilcullen, 2013.