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World Cup Dictatorships | Part 5: Egypt

Egyptian President Office/Apaimages

Of the countries profiled in this series Egypt has the most complicated relationship between football and the regime. It’s probably also the team that people are most naturally inclined to support. They have a lot of lovable players like Liverpool star Mohamed Salah and 45 year old goalkeeper Essam El-Hadry. But Egypt is also arguably the country in which football is most political.

In 2011, protests began against Egyptian president Hosni Mubarak. Mubarak had held the title of president since 1981, a total of 30 years in office. Mubarak largely continued the policies put in place by his predecessor Anwar Sadat. Sadat had inherited a country that was running out of money and in response to this he fully embraced neo-liberal policies. This meant that Egypt made business and investment its number one priority, even at the expense of labour rights and the social safety net. To Sadat’s credit this plan did work to an extent. Egypt’s GDP per capita steadily rose under both Sadat and Mubarak. However, like the proverbial deal with the devil, these policies came with a great price. The number of Egyptians living in poverty also skyrocketed. Egypt was generating a lot of wealth, but it was all concentrated in the hands of a small number of extremely wealthy people. By 2011, the population of Egypt skewed very young, with the vast majority of its citizens being under 40, but government officials were disproportionately old. Egypt in the 2010s is a country of young, poor, and desperate people.

At the same time, revolutions were sweeping across the Arab world. It began in Tunisia where a man named Mohamed Bouazizi set himself on fire in front of a governor’s office out of sheer frustration with the harassment he received from police and government officials. This inspired protests in Tunisia which ultimately caused the resignation of Tunisian President Mohamed Ghannouchi. This was an inspiration to the people of other Middle Eastern countries living under dictatorships, because it showed that they could make a difference. In Egypt, people took to Tahrir Square for a variety of reasons, but one of the biggest reasons was Mubarak signalling that he was grooming his son, Gamal Mubarak, to succeed him, thus giving up all pretence of being a democracy. Mubarak was eventually forced to step down and Egypt had its first (relatively) free election. This election was won by Mohamed Morsi, the leader of Egypt’s chapter of the Muslim Brotherhood, which made things extremely complicated. The revolutionary credentials of the Muslim Brotherhood are up for debate. On the one hand the Brotherhood undeniably did quite a lot of work on the ground to help protestors in terms of organization, providing medical support to those who were injured, and getting people out to protest Mubarak’s regime. The thing is though, the Brotherhood aren’t exactly champions of liberal democracy themselves. In a 2013 PBS frontline documentary entitled “Egypt in Crisis”, Charles Sennott talks to a number of protestors both from the Brotherhood and those who favour a liberal democracy. Sennot has two conversations in the early part of the film that demonstrate the difficulty of the Muslim Brotherhood perfectly. The first is with Mohamed Abbas, the leader of the Brotherhood’s youth wing. Abbas shows Sennot how the Brotherhood have set up barricades to keep people safe, are serving food to the protestors, and running impromptu medical centres. But Sennot also talks to a young law student who says that he’s afraid of the Brotherhood. When pressed further the young man says that he fears the Brotherhood would make Egypt like Iran (i.e., a theocracy) were they to seize control of the country. At the same time though this boy sits in the midst of infrastructure that was largely built by the Brotherhood. Unfortunately, for Egyptian Islamists, a combination of the concerns expressed to Sennot by the law student and enemies in the Egyptian military meant that Morsi’s presidency quickly collapsed. After less than a year in office Morsi was booted out by a military coup, which had no small degree of popular support, and replaced by General Abdel Fatteh el-Sisi.

Sisi has been better at holding on to power than Morsi, but his position is still far from stable. Now the Egyptian protests are fractionalized. There are those who support Sisi’s regime, Islamists who demand the return of the democratically elected (and currently imprisoned) Morsi, and still those who hope for a Liberal democracy. In Egypt’s 2018 election the only opposition Morsi faced was Moussa Mostafa Moussa, a man who openly supported the regime and said that even he would vote for Sisi. People who could have possibly provided a legitimate challenge such as former military chief Sami Anan, air force commander and former prime minister Ahmed Shafik Konsowa, human rights lawyer Khalead Ali and Zamalek F.C owner Mortada Mansour all dropped out or were disqualified under dubious circumstances. Sisi won 97% of the vote. In second place were spoiled ballets, on many of which people wrote in the name Mohamed Salah.

The complications of politics in Egypt extend to football. In recent years though Sisi has seen the political value of football and has turned it to his advantage. In his book “The Egyptians: A Radical Story” Guardian journalist Jack Shenker talks to an ultra for Egyptian super club Al Ahly named Beshir. Shenker muses that perhaps football fans could be good for the revolution because they exemplify all of the traits that the regime typically tries to quash. They are young, boisterous, and disregard social norms. Unfortunately, as Shenker notes, this isn’t a role they are necessarily eager to have. Al Ahly ultras have taken up chanting “aha-el sawra” which roughly translates to “fuck the Revolution.” When Shenker asks Beshir why they do this he responds “why not…Lots of ultras support the revolution, yes. But stop calling the ultras revolutionaries. We play by our own rules, people can’t put me in a box, I destroy boxes.” But like it or not the ultras have often been thrust into politics. In 2012, during the tail end of the Mubarak regime, 74 people died and 500 were injured at a match between Al Ahly and Al Masry in Port Said. Armed thugs stormed the stadium, sealing the exits, beating people with clubs, and stabbing people. It is believed that this was revenge for the role the ultras played in the protests. They may not have supported it as a collective but, as Beshir told Shenker, many of them did support it individually. They were very valuable to the revolution because they already had experience with things like organizing people, chanting, and of course fighting the police.

The Port Said massacre was under Mubarak. Under Sisi, while there are still efforts to quash the nihilistic and wild attitude of the ultras in the Egyptian people, there is a better understanding of how to use football to further the control of the regime. Ahead of the 2018 election Sisi brought in a number of celebrities, especially footballers, to endorse his presidency. This included a press conference in which representatives from each of the teams in Egypt’s top flight declared their loyalty to the President. FIFA has rules about the separation of governments and Football Associations but, under Sisi, Egypt has blithely ignored these rules. Sisi has very intelligently seen that football was a means of resistance and thus he has set forth to colonize the footballing space in Egypt.

The elephant in the room is Mohamed Salah. He’s one of the most loved people in football at the moment. There have been a number of pieces written in the UK media about the positive effects of a beloved Muslim celebrity at a time when religious and ethnic bigotry seem to be on the rise in Britain. But is Salah being used as a propaganda piece in Egypt to hold up a regime? Well sort of. Salah has made efforts to remain a-political. This is understandable as former Egypt star man Mohamed Aboutrika now lives in exile in Qatar, and is on an Egyptian list of terrorists, due to his ties to the Muslim Brotherhood. But when you’re an international superstar from a country that uses it’s stars to prop up its regime, it’s very hard to stay separate from politics. On the morning of May 28th 2018 Sisi tweeted that he had spoken to Salah (who had left the Champions League final with an injury two days earlier) and that he had received Salah’s assurances he would be fit for the World Cup. Sisi also called Salah an Egyptian hero. This tweet is important. Egypt’s young working class, which makes up most of the population, have little reason to like Sisi. He has cut subsidies and the social safety net despite continuing to splurge on $200,000 red carpets. But they love Mohamed Salah. Salah is one of them, coming from a working class background and going on to be a star. So with this this tweet Sisi:

  1. Implies he has a direct line to Salah and speaks with him often
  2. Implies he and Salah are united and have a common vision
  3. Recognizes that Salah is an Egyptian hero and invites people to infer that he is great like Salah is.

This is also not Salah’s only tie to Sisi. He has, in the past, donated five million Egyptian Pounds (A little under $300,000) to Tahya Masr, a developmental fund under Sisi’s direct supervision. It could be argued that this was part of Salah’s well documented charitable endeavours but he didn’t chose Tayha Masr for no reason. This shouldn’t be seen as a condemnation of Salah because, as we saw with Aboutrika, he really doesn’t have much choice. Unfortunately for us as fans it seems as though a player, and indeed a team, that’s very lovable is being used to prop up a dictator. It’s sad, it’s not convenient, but it’s hard to deny.