Among escalating crises, the Handball World Cup is little more than a fig leaf for al-Sisi

“The USA is now in turmoil, with the storming of congress and many other problems. But Egypt … praise be to God, is now organising the World Handball Championship,” said Ahmed Mousa, the broadcaster close to the regime, who is considered by observers as a spokesman for the Egyptian authorities. Mousa’s words reflect the hopes of General Abdel Fattah al-Sisi’s regime that the Handball World Cup will show his country as a successful and stable country.

Al-Sisi sees the Handball World Cup, which is held across four Egyptian cities, as an opportunity to present his country in a good light, at a time when Cairo’s relations with its closest regional and global partners are facing major headwinds. Al-Sisi believes that the successful hosting of the tournament will relieve him of the criticism directed at the government’s handling of the coronavirus pandemic after the government admitted that the official figures represent a tenth of the truth.

Egypt has taken strict precautionary health measures related to the epidemic for the sake of the championship, from the moment the teams, officials, and journalists arrived at Cairo International Airport. The measures are applied to training, accommodation, and media, as well as transportation to and from the hotels and the four venues designated for the tournament. Egypt is showing its determination that the tournament will not be turned into a source for spreading corona. This concern prompted the International Handball Federation and Egyptian authorities, at the last minute, to postpone a plan to allow fans to enter the four stadiums. The International Handball Federation said the decision was taken “in view of the current situation of corona, in addition to the concerns raised by the players themselves.”

Critics accuse Egypt of hosting the tournament, although it appears unable to meet the basic requirements of health workers who are on the front lines fighting the epidemic. Doctors and nurses protested the high number of injuries among their ranks, because they lack adequate protective equipment, and are threatened with imprisonment if they do not come to work despite the danger to their lives.

Sisi’s brutal campaign against any kind of criticism was evident in the arrest of many doctors on terrorism charges for expressing their grievances. Leaving aside the fact that the impact of the handball tournament diminishes when compared to the stature of hosting a mega-event, such as a soccer World Cup or the Olympics, it is unlikely that the tournament will provide a fig leaf for al-Sisi’s harsh repression against anyone who expresses an opinion other than his supporters.

This is especially true of the failed administration of US President Joe Biden, which has not only made a promise to focus on human rights in its foreign policy, but it should also do so in its attempt to repair America’s image and restore its credibility, which has been severely damaged by the years of the rule of Donald Trump, who is seen as a supporter of dictatorships, including Egypt. Likewise, the tournament will not change perceptions in Italy and most of Europe, which hold al-Sisi’s intelligence services and law enforcement authorities responsible for the kidnapping, torture, and murder of researcher Giulio Regeni.

Regeni, a 28-year-old graduate student at Cambridge University, was researching independent unions in Egypt before disappearing in late January 2016. His body was found so mutilated in a ditch that his mother was unable to recognise her son, except by the tip of his nose. He was reported to have had his neck, wrist, toes, fingers, and teeth broken before his death, while letters were carved on his severely burned and bruised skin. Last month, relations between Egypt and Italy deteriorated further when the Egyptian Public Prosecution office closed its investigation into Regeni’s murder, rejecting the Italian prosecution results, which accused four Egyptian security officials of responsibility for his death.

Al-Sisi’s unsavoury human rights record may not be a concern for the UAE and Saudi Arabia. The tournament will still do little to mend fissures in his relationship with the two Gulf states, his principal financial backers. In a move that will not go unnoticed in the Gulf capitals, Egypt has chosen the newly opened St. Regis Qatar Hotel on the Nile River banks in Cairo as one of the main logistical points for the tournament, including the media centre. Qatari Finance Minister Ali Sharif Al Emadi arrived in Cairo last week to open the hotel, hours after the Gulf Cooperation Council summit lifted Qatar’s economic and diplomatic boycott, which lasted three and a half years. Thus, El Emadi, the first Qatari government official, was visiting Egypt since the boycott in 2017.

The purpose of choosing the hotel was to indicate to Saudi Arabia and the UAE, Egypt’s concern, that Qatar’s reconciliation would entail many concessions, including dropping demands to close the Doha-funded Al Jazeera television network and stopping support for political groups such as the Muslim Brotherhood. Egypt was forced to reluctantly agree to the boycott’s lifting, even though it accepted continued Qatari investment and Qatari gas supplies over the past years.

Egypt also felt marginalised by the UAE and Bahrain establishing diplomatic relations with Israel, as this move deprived Egypt of its role as Israel’s main official diplomatic channel with the Arab world. Al-Sisi’s fears are also exacerbated by Emirati support for Ethiopia, with which he disagrees about building a dam on the Nile River that threatens Egypt’s water supply, in addition to the UAE’s growing influence in neighbouring Sudan. Egypt also fears plans to link the UAE and Israel through a pipeline that competes with Egypt in selling gas to Europe and the Emirati interest in Haifa Port, which could create an alternative to the Suez Canal.

All of this could undermine Egypt’s position as a central pillar of US policy in the Middle East and convince the United States to shift the focal point of its broader Middle East and North Africa policy to the Gulf. Al-Sisi sought to pre-empt the next Biden administration by releasing prisoners, attempting to show it had excellent relations with Egyptian Christians, and employing American lobbying companies to defend him against Biden’s camp, as well as Congress. In sum, hosting the World Handball Championship is a small step in the mountain that al-Sisi is trying to move, especially after Trump defamed him by calling him his “favorite dictator,” but this is a name that is unlikely to change due to the success in organising the World Handball Championship.