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Robert Springborg

Egypt's World Cup: A spectacular own goal for Sisi's regime

Despite scoring the team's only two goals, Salah seemed neither fit nor focused [AFP]

Date of publication: 3 July, 2018

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Comment: Sisi's attempt to co-opt Mo Salah and the Egyptian team has had disastrous consequences for everyone, writes Robert Springborg.
Under President Sisi the Egyptian military has extended its tentacles into the economy and society, negatively impacting them both.

Engagement in political institutions - never particularly robust in republican Egypt - has sunk to an all-time low. This is reflected in a parliament, cabinet and host of political parties for which there is virtually universal public contempt, due to their subordination to military intelligence.

Overspending on Sisi's vainglorious megaprojects, typically executed by the military or companies it owns, combined with stagnating private capital investment due to unfair competition with military enterprises, has forced the government into an orgy of borrowing. This has driven up debt servicing to more than a third of the total budget.

Civil society has been effectively strangled, so rendered unable to contribute even to debate over public policy, much less the formation or execution of it. As a result, the provision of health, education and other services by NGOs has been seriously impaired.  

Professional football has not been immune to the general militarisation of the country.

In retaliation to Ultra fans' active participation in civil disobedience in the wake of the 2011 uprising, scores of them were brutally killed in Port Said in 2012 in an incident yet to be fully investigated that involved both security and military personnel.

Since then, most professional football games have been played in empty stadiums, the regime fearful of independent gatherings of any sort, including by sports fans.

Aboutrika, the country's leading football star before the ascendance of Mohamed Salah, had his assets seized and was forced into exile in Dubai due to his less than enthusiastic embrace of President Sisi, and alleged sympathies with the Muslim Brotherhood.

The dramatic rise of Liverpool striker Mohamed Salah provided the regime with an opportunity to reclaim its credentials as a supporter of the sport, and to burnish its image more generally. But its usual heavy-handed methods ultimately caused this effort to backfire, thus scoring a metaphorical own goal leading up to and during the ill-fated World Cup.

Sisi's growing embrace of Salah - literal and figurative - as his star shined ever brighter, was preceded by the military's takeover of the Egyptian football publicity machine.

In June 2016, CEO of Egyptian Steel, Ahmad Abou Hashima acquired 51 percent of the agency Presentation Advertising through his Egyptian Media Company.

Abou Hashima was initially a stalking horse for Mubarak, then the Muslim Brotherhood, and finally Sisi in various economic and political takeovers. This included much of the steel industry, the media, and political parties such as the powerful Nation's Future Party that backed Sisi.

The regime's usual heavy-handed methods ultimately caused this effort to backfire

In July 2017, Presentation won the bid for sole sponsorship rights of the Egyptian Football Association (EFA) for five years for a paltry $22 million, with two state-owned newspapers being the only other contenders.

This gave Presentation exclusive rights to air all matches of the Egyptian national team, which by this time appeared to have a reasonable chance to participate in the World Cup and thereby showcase to the nation and the world the talented Mohamed Salah.

Indeed, as Salah and his team's prospects steadily improved in the second half of 2017, they became more tempting targets for Sisi's security state, which brushed Abou Hashima aside late that year through the takeover of the Egyptian Media Group by Eagle Capital.

Eagle Capital is front owned by General Intelligence, and headed by former investment minister Dalia Khorshid, who is married to Central Bank Governor Tarek Amer. As a result, Sisi and company were by 2018 well placed to both orchestrate the PR campaign around Salah and Egypt's participation in the World Cup, but also to benefit financially from it.

But as has been the case in other sectors taken over by the regime, mismanagement undermined these objectives. The first hint of over-reach was in April 2018, when the glitzy launch of the Egyptian team's newly painted airplane under the guidance of Presentation immediately gave rise to controversy over the use of Salah's image on the plane.

His lawyer complained that Presentation had violated Salah's contracts with MS Commercial and Vodafone for exclusive use of his image. This began a series of disputes between Salah, the EFA, and presumably the forces in the regime backing it, and which contributed to the Egyptian team's abysmal performance in the Cup, and laid waste to Sisi's efforts to capitalise on Salah's popularity.

The EFA chose Grozny, capital of Chechnya, as the site of the team's training camp, imposing very substantial travel burdens for each of the scheduled three games in the opening round.

It ignored not only the logistical burdens this placed on the team, but also the political ones, which similarly interfered with performance. Within hours of his arrival in Grozny, Salah was awoken by the Chechen dictator, Ramzan Kadyrov, who insisted that he accompany him to the City's stadium for photo ops.

This commenced a series of time consuming and embarrassing encounters for Salah not only with Kadyrov, but also his key henchman, Magomed Daudov - notorious as a torturer of prisoners, most notably those accused of being gay. In the wake of the much publicised event at which Kadyrov bestowed honorary Chechen citizenship on Salah, CNN reported that Salah was going to quit the national team.

Read more: Love for Salah offers refuge from Egypt's disappointing World Cup exit

Kadyrov's intentions had to be known to the Egyptian regime, since he had previously hosted a wide range of sports heroes, including Floyd Mayweather and Mike Tyson, with whom he sought photo ops.

Neither investigation will dig into the deep state's murky roles in this national disappointment

Presumably therefore, this impediment to the team's preparation was overlooked out of calculations at the highest levels that serving the interests of Russian president Vladimir Putin's hand-picked Chechen dictator would curry favour with Putin, who may well have suggested the arrangement to Sisi himself.

As if Kadyrov's depredations were not problem enough, the EFA, which is directly controlled by the regime, capitalised on the opportunity to curry favour with Egyptian political and business elites, as well as entertainers, by providing them with all expenses paid holidays to Grozny where they would have the opportunity to mingle with the team.

Some 100 took this opportunity and their presence in the training facilities proved to be another substantial interference in the team's preparations.

As has been the case in other sectors taken over by the regime, mismanagement undermined these objectives

The generally slipshod approach was reflected in how management handled the issue of Salah's participation. Initially it was announced he would play in the first game against Uruguay, but then his name was removed.

Precisely the opposite occurred in the final match against Saudi Arabia, when the EFA tweeted that he was not starting, then shortly thereafter tweeted that he was.

Little wonder that the team's performance was lacklustre. Despite scoring the team's only two goals, Salah seemed neither fit nor focused. That the Egyptian side surrendered two goals in the last minute of play in two separate games, indicated a lack of concentration. The final loss to a weak Saudi team was truly humiliating, probably contributing to Salah's decision not to attend the ceremony at its end for being named man of the match.  

Read more: In Egypt, the slow death of journalism continues

This overall disgraceful performance and the strong negative public reaction to it has caused the regime to search for scapegoats to cover up its own role. The new Minister of Youth and Sports, Ashraf Sobhy, himself formerly of the EFA, has implied that his ministry will investigate, while the Sports Committee of parliament has declared it is opening its own enquiry.

It is a foregone conclusion that neither investigation will dig into the deep state's murky roles in this national disappointment. Presumably some of the lesser lights of the EFA will be sacked, as was the team's Argentinian manager.

No photos of Sisi embracing Salah have been seen since before the World Cup began. This failed effort to bolster the regime's image and rebuild the national team on the back of one of the world's great players is symptomatic of the consequences of the military running the country, and running it very badly.


Robert Springborg is the Kuwait Foundation Visiting Scholar at Harvard University's Middle East Initiative, Belfer Center. He is also Visiting Professor in the Department of War Studies, King's College, London, and non-resident Research Fellow of the Italian Institute of International Affairs. 

Opinions expressed in this article remain those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of The New Arab, its editorial board or staff. 

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