A big story has monopolized the Egyptian press for days. Not the likelihood of war between Israel and Lebanon, not the country’s forthcoming water crisis and negotiations in Uganda with the Nile Basin nations, not the debate surrounding presidential succession, not the price of meat ahead of Ramadan, and not the siege of Gaza next door. Instead, the topic of conversation is Mohamed Nagy Ismail, the Egyptian football star commonly known as “Geddo.” The topic of his complicated and costly transfer from his Alexandrine club Ittihad to one of the two Cairo giants, Al-Ahly and Zamalek, has been a subject of contention between the two clubs, their supporters, and anyone with an interest in Egyptian football (which often seems like the majority of the population).
Geddo burst onto the scene in epic fashion during the Africa Cup of Nations (ACN) this year and immediately preceding the World Cup which saw Egypt eliminated in an explosive marathon of matches against Algeria. For a country angered and humiliated by its inability to make the World Cup, and in a show of what some commentators described as “divine justice,” Geddo came on as substitute for the Egyptian team and scored within minutes of play in 5 consecutive matches. His scoring average of one goal for every 35 minutes puzzled sports statisticians and delighted Egyptians. When Egypt was crowned African Champions in January, Geddo was the tournament’s top scorer and the country’s savior par excellence.
But what did Geddo save Egypt from? He had not fed the hungry, sheltered the homeless, treated the ailing, solved water shortage problems, improved the quality of education, conquered corruption, took on rampant sexual harassment, curbed domestic violence, burst the real estate bubble, or anything of the sort. Instead, he saved Egypt from Egypt. A nation increasingly aware of its receding role in regional politics, Egyptians are now sensitive to national blunders and pained by the all-too-frequent injuries to collective pride. It comes as no secret that almost every development indicator in Egypt is in decline, with the exception of literacy rates and access to communication. The executive summary of the 2010 Egypt Human Development Report states that “the most striking and unusual finding” of the report is the “extent to which youth are excluded from political and civic participation.” Why this would strike anyone as a surprise is beyond my comprehension.
Egypt has been actively depoliticizing its populace since at least the mid-1970s. Despite the hoopla about energizing the youth base of the ruling National Democratic Party (NDP) and the eruption of online activism through social networking sites, the majority of Egyptian youth are politically unengaged. Conveniently but not coincidentally, political ineptness and aloofness have an inversely proportional relationship to football fandom. This is the subject of a delightfully incisive book entitled Masr Bitil’ab (Egypt is playing) on the transformation of the Egyptian people from a sha’b (public/people) to a jumhour (audience). Authored by Mohammed Tawfik and published recently by Dar El-Masry, the book historicizes this trend dating back to the days of the first Egyptian team, Al-Ahly in 1909.
Tawfik asserts that “participation” in Egyptian football events now comes at a time when the country no longer leads the region in science, art, literature, music, politics, technology, agriculture or any other field of knowledge, practical or esoteric. However, he gives a plausible explanation for why football has so easily displaced politics in the lives of Egyptians. Fundamentally, the sport is the polar opposite of politics. Football is the only justifiable and legally-permissible reason for tens if not hundreds of thousands to congregate, either in celebration or public mourning. It is the only institution in the country where talent, performance and execution are measures of success–the ultimate meritocracy that defies the omnipresent wasta. Despite the Abougreishas and the Imams, football is the only dominion outside of hereditary succession. It is the only competition where results alone determine success, where retirement comes when productivity falls, and where a good work ethic is the only way to get ahead. And shockingly, it is the one realm where the security apparatus is there to protect these rules rather than rewrite them.
While all these characteristics suffice to explain why football is more than just the “beautiful game” to Egyptians, the icing on the cake is the fact that people are the true judges of quality and outcome. In a completely transparent field where the smallest detail in the operation is subject to the scrutiny of every member of our “public-turned-audience”, we are all coaches, jurors, experts, authorities, and elites. In a nation where social inequalities are rapidly growing, football IQ (not political wherewithal) is the last test of acuity where the son of a carpenter can compete with the son of minister. It is also the most likely profession where that carpenter’s son can climb the socioeconomic ladder to become at least a millionaire, and at best a Geddo.
Before Geddo there was Zizou, preceded by Aboutreika, Hosni, Hadary, Gomaa, Mido, etc. Players from very humble roots are sought out by the political intelligentsia to gain legitimacy within and the affection of the Egyptian public. And legitimacy they garnered. At no point in the last few years has so much public support been expressed for the highest echelons of the NDP as shortly after the final World Cup qualifying fiasco between Egypt and Algeria in Om Durman, Sudan. It was a time when “benign nationalism,” as Tamim El-Bargouti calls it, reared its ugly head. The national and private media marched to the jingoistic tune of a Pied Piper proclaiming that Egyptian dignity had taken a blow and had to be defended.
Television commentators like Amr Adeeb, Khaled el-Ghandour and company took the airwaves by storm, treating the match and claims of attacks by Algerian fans in Sudan after the whistle as if it were Egypt’s 9/11. Flag lapel-pins appeared, nationalistic music roared from televisions and radios alike, and the Egyptian blogosphere and Facebook were alight with commotion. Football, or what some call “opium of the masses”, had combined with propaganda and incitement to produce a chorus of antagonism that easily qualifies as hate media beaming with chauvinism, ethnocentrism and xenophobia. In one instance, a television host suggested that Egyptians can take the streets to kill Algerians and exact justice for the so-called crimes committed against his brethren in Sudan. The manner in which consent was manufactured and fanaticism fostered meets the conditions of what world-renowned linguist Noam Chomsky calls “propaganda models.”
By international broadcasting standards and laws governing media content, this expression was not unlike similar calls by hate radio station RTLM in the Rwandan genocide enticing Hutus to slaughter Tutsis. By international norms, Egyptian satellite broadcasters who exploited the public’s sentiments to orchestrate a crescendo of anti-Algerian frenzy should be investigated and tried for malpractice, hate speech, and incitement of violence.
The gaping wound of not making it to the 2010 World Cup in South Africa brought the little tranquilizing effect football success had on Egyptians to an abrupt end. The weapon of mass distraction had dissipated and the shroud of glory representing the country’s success drifted away. All that remained was a bitter amalgam of dismay and fanaticism. These are the markings of a sad nation, one that needs to be distracted not only from its public failures but also its football losses. Mohamed Sabe, the editor-in-chief of popular Egyptian sports portal Filgoal.com told me that this trend of distraction has been a characteristic of every major football loss. "When the national team was eliminated from the Confederation Cup, the case of players hiring prostitutes was raised and after the loss to Algeria in Sudan, the incidents of violence were exaggerated."
Lest Egyptians begin to ask pressing questions about their country during the brief hiatus from football in the weeks following the elimination by Algeria, the next tournament presented an opportunity to redeem and comfort a confused and wounded nation. The ACN provided a chance to have collective dignity reasserted, pride restored and tranquility brought back to 83 million “audience members”. And on 12 January 2010, with most Egyptians bracing for a tough match against World Cup-bound Nigeria, a new messiah was born to return waters back to their streams. Audiences would chant his name saying “If you want to demolish him, bring him Geddo.” The 25-year-old player from Damanhur mesmerized fans, prophetically resurrected national self-esteem, hypnotized audiences, concealed social ills, postponed introspection, and in the process, "saved" Egypt from Egypt.
Adel Iskandar is a media scholar and lecturer at Georgetown University. His column appears every other Thursday.