Soccer, religion and a unifying force in Egypt

Soccer, religion and a unifying force in Egypt

The chairs are all lined up facing the brand new Sony LCD flat screen television erected only minutes before at a Cairo café in preparation for Egypt’s match with Mozambique in the African Cup of Nations.

The scores of seats are for fans, and they underscore how integral soccer has become to the Egyptian psyche. It may well be the one – the only – thing – able to bring the nation together. For 90 minutes, Egyptians can and do fixate on the TV, with no worries except whether the Pharaohs – the national team’s nickname – can get the ball to the back of the net.

“What else do we have but our soccer?” said Wael Omar, a 38-year-old marketing manager in Cairo.

In Egypt right now, the answer is: not much. Government statistics say unemployment is at 10-12 percent while local NGO’s put the number closer to 20 percent; sexual harassment, according to a 2008 study from the Egyptian Center for Women’s Rights (ECWR) reported nearly 75 percent of all women living in Egypt have been a victim and the cost of living and inflation are spiraling out of control. With nearly half of Egyptians living on less than $2 per day, soccer has become an outlet.

As Amr Saleh, a 26-year-old fan and self-proclaimed former political activist, put it, “When it comes to politics, we have failed so many times.”

The pent-up frustration became evident in the almost religious fervor that followed Egypt’s loss to Algeria – a loss that booted Egypt from the World Cup next June – and alleged attacks by Algerian fans against Egyptians in Sudan – where the playoff was held.

Following the loss, videos, Egyptian actors and television commentators began to report on the violence that ensued in Khartoum. According to them, Algerian fans taunted the Egyptians and rumors of violence quickly spread to Cairo, where angry and frustrated Egyptians, already saddened by their national team’s loss, took to the streets, attacking the Algerian Embassy in Cairo. was swamped with videos allegedly showing Algerian supporters holding knives and chanting in the stadium, lashing out at Egyptians. The result was a wave of tension, hatred and violence rarely seen in Egypt.

It was similar to the protests and attacks on the Danish Embassies that took place in 2005 and 2006 across the Arab world after a Danish newspaper published controversial cartoons of the Prophet Mohamed wearing a bomb as a turban. Then, it was religion that took control of citizens.

In Egypt, it was with the same fervor that local shops had their windows smashed, rockets were fired and police – who had come to the upscale Zamalek neighborhood in Cairo to calm the mob – were attacked.

Just as the Danish cartoons were an affront to Muslim pride, the violence in Sudan and Cairo – most news outlets reported both sides culpable in Khartoum – was a similar attack on Egyptian national pride. Soccer had become like religion.

Reports during the Danish cartoon fiasco also drew attention to the continued frustration of Middle Eastern citizens, who were letting loose against an external foe because they were unable to focus their anger against their own governments. The Cairo riots saw similar analysis.

The struggling opposition in the country, which has tried to make in roads into reforms, greater freedoms for bloggers and activists, also tried to point to external factors as the reasons hundreds of young Egyptian men took to the streets in response to the confrontation that followed a soccer match. They blamed the high costs of living, government oppression – dozens of opposition activists and members have been rounded up and detained for weeks without charge in recent years – and the overall sense of hopelessness in the country for the carnage.

While this may be true, said Yahya Qandeel, a political science professor at Cairo University, “The opposition has had ample chances to get thousands of young people to the streets, but it hasn’t.”

He pointed that soccer played more of a role in the riots that followed the playoff than many want to admit. When Egyptian fans threw stones at the Algerian players – three of the players were left with minor injuries – when they were arriving at their Cairo hotel in a match the week before the playoff, “it revealed that Egyptians had taken soccer to a new extreme,” he said. For him, the violence in Cairo was a continuation of a means to vent, using soccer as the catalyst.

George Ishaq, a leading member of Kefaya and now spokesperson for opposition savior-like figure Mohame ElBaradei’s National Coalition for Change – a pro-democracy opposition group focused on reforming the Constitution and opposing the succession of the presidency to President Hosni Mubarak’s son, Gamal – said activists should harness the excitement surrounding soccer for the nation’s good.

For many young Egyptians, raised in the “security state of [President Hosni] Mubarak,” Ishaq said, “Soccer has become the new religion for them and, just like when someone insults Islam or Christianity, they go all out like it is life and death. It will take time,” he added, but through soccer “the opposition can gain followers.”

Good luck, said Ahmed Goma’a, a frequent participant at pro-democracy and free press protests across the nation. The unemployed recent college graduate said Egyptians are apathetic when they feel there is no hope.

“Even as we see our fellow activists and citizens arrested and tortured, we do nothing,” he said. “Egyptians forget their humanity. When it comes to a situation where we believe it isn’t possible, we sit quietly and go back to sports for comfort.”

As dozens of men meandered out of the café after Egypt’s 2-0 victory over Mozambique – securing Egypt a spot in the quarterfinals – a waiter named Tamer Mogahed laughed at the dozen or so large blue trucks carrying hundreds of riot police stationed outside. They were there to put down a planned sit-in of Egyptian bloggers who were recently detained for their political activism. It never materialized.

“They [activists] don’t see that nothing can change,” Mogahed said. “Soccer is all we have now.”

Republished with permission from Bikya Masr