Patriotism and soft power: how Egypt sought to gain from Afcon

20th July 2019

When the curtain falls on Egypt’s Africa Cup of Nations on Friday night, the overwhelming sense among many local residents will be one of relief. Senegal and Algeria will contest the final but there is a feeling, at the end of a hastily arranged tournament that divided home supporters and saw their team fall short of expectations, that the past month is best swept under the carpet. The country sought political capital from extending the arm of help to its continent when Cameroon was stripped of hosting rights last year, but the gains have been hard to discern.

“Nobody can deny the fact there’s a connection between politics and the organisation of this tournament,” said Ziad Akl, an analyst with the Ahram Centre for Political and Strategic Studies. “The national discourse overshadowing this whole thing is that this is a matter of patriotism, not a matter of football.”

The tournament has been a clear opportunity for Egypt: one that allows it to promote its soft power interests within Africa. “This connects to Egypt’s presidency of the African Union, how Egypt is trying to exhibit an image saying that it is the most capable country with sports infrastructure,” said Akl.

Egypt also launched a new channel, TimeSport, that has allowed citizens to watch matches for free. The channel excuses them from paying fees to BeInSports, owned by rival nation Qatar. “Having a channel like TimeSport is one of the tools of political soft power that the regime is using right now throughout football,” said Akl.

There has been a less open approach around the stadiums. Supporters were required to obtain a “Fan ID” before purchasing a ticket, a step up from already tight measures filtering fans who wanted to watch domestic matches since the stands were reopened last year. Getting a fan ID requires handing over a lot of personal data: all four names each Egyptian has, plus their mother’s name from their birth certificate, details of their jobs, a picture and a photo of their existing ID card.

“This is something that logistically has never existed in the history of Egyptian audiences and stadiums,” said Akl. “You’re being evaluated according to your own data – it’s not about the fact you want a Fan ID, it’s about whether you qualify for one. You’d have to be someone who isn’t politicised.”

The Fan ID requirement has allowed the Egyptian authorities to sift out anyone they believe might say or do anything political in the stands. Akl believes upper- and middle-class fans, those less likely to use football as an opportunity for political messages, are being targeted to fill stadiums. There have been quiet exceptions: in the 74th minute of every game, fans have held their phones aloft to commemorate the 74 victims of the Port Said tragedy, while similar scenes have occurred to mark the shirt number – 22 – of the exiled former superstar Mohamed Aboutrika. But they are low-key forms of protest that would require heavy-handedness to quash.

Some visiting teams have played to largely empty stadiums. Akl said he knows an estimated 250 people who were refused tickets. “There are plenty who have been refused for no apparent reason, with no obvious affiliation, and there are games where it just doesn’t make sense that the tickets would be sold out,” he said. He added that some businesses have bought tickets in bulk since Egypt suffered a surprise exit against South Africa, offsetting a desire among local fans to treat the tournament as over.

That has still hurt attendances during the knockout phase, although ticket prices have hardly helped. The cheapest access to the final costs $30, just under a quarter of the average monthly salary; semi-final tickets cost a minimum of $18 and it is no surprise that Senegal v Tunisia and Algeria v Nigeria took place to swathes of empty seats. “What disappoints us is that the stadiums are a little empty,” the Senegal coach, Aliou Cissé, said. “Tomorrow we hope that the Egyptians, Algerians and Senegalese will be there to fill the stadium.”

There is genuine concern they may not and, for a country eager to demonstrate its sporting fervour, the optics of more gaps in the stands would be terrible. In any case, Algeria’s supporters may have to practise caution. One, named locally as Samir Sardouk, was punished during the group stage for breaching the barrier between football and politics. He is believed to have been deported for holding a placard which translates as “they all must go!”, a slogan of the anti-government uprising that began this year in Algeria. He has since been jailed for a year in his home country.

“As soon as they asked me for my passport I knew something was wrong,” one of his friends told the Guardian. “They almost kidnapped us from the stadium. After a few kilometres they dropped me and the second supporter off. As soon as we got out of the car, they told us not to cause any problems and drove away with Samir.” Sardouk was taken straight to El Harrach prison in Algeria upon returning, and subsequently sentenced.

Egypt’s human rights record is difficult to ignore. As the tournament progressed, Egyptian authorities arrested at least eight leftist political figures in coordinated dawn raids. Friends suggested the group was targeted as they prepared to launch a political party to compete in next year’s parliamentary elections. A week later, Amnesty International released a report describing “unprecedented repression,” under the regime of Abdel Fatah al-Sisi.

For domestic fans, Afcon was supposed to be a ray of sunshine that never really materialised. In July, Egypt raised fuel prices, an unpopular move that strains a population wearied by years of austerity measures. “The fact we were knocked out was unexpected and didn’t wield the expected outcome for the regime,” Akl said. Afcon was also supposed to bring in vital revenue. “There was an overestimation of financial gains,” said Akl.

Now they hope that, with the world’s eyes on what should be a watchable final, a positive last impression brings at least some fond memories before everyone moves on.