Graphic by María Laura/The Gazelle

The Distracting Noise: Politicizing Football in Egypt

Growing up in a football-breathing nation like Egypt was a unique experience. Putting aside all the political events that happened in the last 10 ...

Apr 16, 2016

Graphic by María Laura/The Gazelle
“GOAAAL!” “MASR!” BEEEP! VREEEW! I will forever remember these chants and noises as drops in an infinite ocean of sound that masked the last years of dictatorship and autocratic corruption led by Hosni Mubarak’s regime.
Growing up in a football-breathing nation like Egypt was a unique experience. Putting aside all the political events that happened in the last 10 years, one of the highlights of my childhood was watching Egypt’s star-studded national football team win the African Cup of Nations — CAN — three times in a row. The team gained its taste of victory in 2006 when the tournament was hosted on our land. This golden generation hoisted the trophy high again in Ghana 2008 and Angola 2010.
These victories came during a period when people urgently needed hope; seeing Egypt achieve something on an international level elevated our spirits. Beyond the Egyptians’ excessive love for football, there was a nationalistic incentive to watch the games. This has led to an audience that encompasses a majority of the Egyptian population. Fans come from diverse economic, social and educational backgrounds. Football united Egyptians before politics polarized and divided them. Games were family gatherings and places for friends to meet. During this time, that strengthened relations and bonds that reached unparalleled levels.
The most memorable chant shouted during the games was wholly nationalistic. It consisted of three continuous beeps followed by the loud shout “Masr!” — what Egypt is called in Arabic. Alongside this chant, wild celebrations of diehard fans dressed in the colors of the Egyptian flag sparked the streets after victories. The sense of nationalism had skyrocketed to a staggering level only comparable to the days of the 2011 revolution and the June 2013 protests against the Muslim Brotherhood.
Gatherings driven by a sense of nationalism were always politically manipulated by ruling regimes and noise is always a source of distraction, mentally and socially. The CAN was no exception, so Mubarak’s regime used it to achieve some of its political purposes and distract people from its violations and the everyday problems that Egyptians faced. These tournaments were held during a highly corrupt period of Egyptian history. A few months before the 2006 tournament, President Mubarak was elected for a new six-year term in elections that were massively criticized for violations and low voter turnout. Mubarak’s family was deliberately present in all of Egypt’s games, creating a psychological link between them and football fans.
Another incident that occurred during the same edition was the sinking of the seriously defected ferry MS al-Salam Boccaccio 98 in the Red Sea on its voyage back from Saudi Arabia, killing more than a thousand Egyptian workers and pilgrims. Mubarak allowed Mamdouh Ismail, the owner of the ferry and a figure close to the regime, to flee to London without facing any trial. Even after the tournament ended, Mubarak never visited the victims’ relatives. Instead, he hosted the team in the presidential palace, showing generosity to figures who were considered role models by many Egyptians. Surprisingly, there was no popular outrage; most Egyptians were hypnotized by the continental victory.
The 2008 cup diverted the attention of many Egyptians away from the global financial crisis. Last but not least, the 2010 edition was held a few months after diplomatic tensions with Algeria due to the decisive World Cup qualifier that was hosted by the Sudanese city of Omdurman. Reports said that the bus carrying the Egyptian team was stoned, the buses designated to transport Egyptian fans to the airport were destroyed and some Egyptian supporters were attacked by violent Algerian fans.
Despite the condemnation of these violent acts by Mubarak, his son Alaa and the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, no serious action was taken. The government’s weak response was overlooked when Egypt thumped Algeria 4-0 in the semi-finals of CAN 2010 and eventually won the cup. In both 2008 and 2010, Mubarak’s sons attended the final game and, of course, the victory was celebrated in the presidential palace.
Three continental titles were used to glorify the ruling National Democratic Party — NDP — and add it to its list of non-existent achievements. Mubarak’s last years in office were notorious for the widening gap between the rich and the poor as well as unbridled corruption. Poverty, inflation and incessantly rising prices were significantly affecting Egyptians, who had lost the hope to seek any change in the near future.
Just as Hafez Al-Assad prepared his son Bashar in Syria, Mubarak was preparing his younger son Gamal, who lacked both charisma and political expertise, to become the next president. This stirred up controversies among Egyptians, who refused to relive thirty years of more corruption and dictatorship. To gradually give Gamal more authority, the regime used figures such as Ahmed Shobeir, an NDP member and Egypt’s former goalkeeper, to distract people with football shows. These shows would start nearly three hours before the games and would never end before midnight, filling the airing time with shallow football related discussions. Players like the CAN-winning striker Hossam Hassan, were used to persuade people to go home during the revolution. By that time, it was too late for the regime to realize that these approaches were not as effective as before.
Six years after the latest CAN title and five years after the revolution, I have mixed, but mostly positive feelings about Egypt’s recent past. Despite the utilization of the tournament by Mubarak’s dictatorship, I still have an inner sense of nostalgia driven by the unsurpassed sense of pure nationalism, strong bonds between Egyptians and the relative stability that I have witnessed.
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