“Welcome to Egypt,” the last security guard to grope me before I entered Cairo International Stadium said, half embarrassed and half earnest. He genuinely meant his warm welcome, the “Egypt” was said with a lot of pride and his bright smile was assuring. He meant no harm, he was just doing his job.
It’s just that grabbing at someone’s crotch and then starting a conversation with them isn’t how things are usually done. If there are balls to be grabbed, ideally a greeting comes before the grabbing so that there is some form of relationship between the grabber and the grabee.
But there is nothing normal about Egypt and the Africa Cup of Nations (Afcon). It wants to use the football tournament to bring a degree of normality to the country, especially after tourism took a dramatic nosedive after the Arab Spring.
The country that used to boast 15 million tourists a year is on a powerful marketing drive to bring back the glory days to the cradle of civilisation – and the Afcon is one way of doing that. The plan is to put on a show and a half with the continent and some parts of the world watching, to entice and assure them that Egypt is open for business. There are countless billboards in Egypt’s capital that scream: “Invest in Egypt. Your getaway to Africa and the world.”
Success would not only be categorised by putting on a good show at Afcon but also ensuring the safety of those attending the tournament, especially after the bombing of a bus carrying 25 South Africans at the Pyramids of Giza a month before the start of the continental showpiece. Those tourists left with injuries only, but the Egyptian authorities are leaving nothing to chance. Security has been beefed up throughout the country and especially at the six stadiums.
Entering any of these stadiums should be an Olympic sport, going by the number of barriers you have to overcome to get in. The security points start at the stadium’s perimeter, with every entrance surrounded by heavily armed police. You go through one metal detector and are then swept with a hand-held metal detector in case the first one missed anything, then you are physically searched. This is where the ball-grabbing starts. It’s a thorough search, undertaken with strong hands.
Then the contents of your bag are examined and any suspect-looking objects raise alarm bells. These include the bulging end of a laptop charger, headphones and power banks.
“They use them to make bombs here,” a security guard said after I was told I couldn’t enter Al Salam Stadium with these items. The explanation that I needed them for work and showing the guard the media accreditation dangling around my neck was met with deaf ears. A few minutes later, after a mix of broken English, sign language and poor Arabic, I was eventually allowed to enter with all my gadgets. But before I could do that, even my pen was opened to ensure that it really was a pen.
‘Welcome to Egypt’
All kinds of security measures are visible at stadiums in this Afcon. There were the police in white, the army in camouflage, riot police, a not-so-secret service in black suits and an external security company that dressed their employees in orange. There were two more checkpoints to pass through before entering the stadium. The last checkpoint also had two metal detectors and handy security guards. The last of those guards flashed a smile after grabbing my balls, and then he welcomed me to Egypt.
His “Welcome to Egypt” was as warm as the hundreds I had received from Egyptians after finding out that I was a foreigner. While the country has moved on from the Arab Spring that dethroned former president Hosni Mubarak, the hangover from those events that led to the 2011 Egyptian Revolution still hangs in the air when it comes to football.
But once you enter the stadium, especially when the Pharaohs are in action, those troubles disappear and you are transported to a wonderful world as a result of the festive atmosphere created by one of the most colourful, loud and passionate groups of supporters the continent has to offer. The sight of those fans – without the ultras, who are public enemy number one under the current regime because of the role they played in toppling Mubarak – are the pictures this government would like to be beamed around the world.
The atmosphere might still be electric, but there is something missing. The choir is there but the conductor isn’t. The ultras are the heartbeat of Egyptian fandom, a return to normality is a farce without them.
“I haven’t been to matches for years, and I’m certainly not going to start now. I’m not stupid enough to give the security services my address, where I work and my full name. I don’t mind doing this to vote or to get a national ID, but I won’t do this for a football match,” Shekho, a member of Ultras White Knights who back Zamalek, told The Guardian.
Shekho said this last year, when the six-year fan ban on supporters was lifted but with a lot of terms and conditions that would make it easier to crack down on supporters with which the regime didn’t agree. While these measures have limited the ultras, they haven’t depoliticised the fans.
In some matches, especially night games, supporters flash lights at the 22-minute mark and chant “Aboutrika” in honour of exiled Egyptian wizard Mohamed Aboutrika, who wore No. 22.
Cairo International Stadium lit up during the 74th minute of the Afcon opening match between Egypt and Zimbabwe, and also in the Warriors’ clash with Uganda. Supporters lit up their cellphones in commemoration of the 74 fans who were killed in the Port Said Stadium disaster. This incident is largely viewed as retaliation by the government against Al Ahly Ultras. The Al Ahly Ahlawy fanned the fires that engulfed Tahrir Square and the rest of Egypt, leading to the end of Mubarak’s 30-year reign.
No Arab Spring, but as dramatic
Six years later, another dictator was toppled, this time in Addis Ababa by an unassuming figure. Ahmad Ahmad pipped Issa Hayatou for the presidency of the Confederation of African Football (CAF) in dramatic fashion. The Malagy official went into the elections as a lamb who would be slaughtered by the Cameroonian, but he left Ethiopia’s capital hoisted in the air after ending Hayatou’s 29-year rule.
The immediate sweeping changes he made were welcomed. He increased the number of Afcon teams from 16 to 24. He changed the calendar for the CAF Champions League and CAF Confederation Cup, from playing January to November to playing August to May. Afcon changed from being played in January and February, right in the middle of most European leagues, to running in June and July. The Afcon calendar change was welcomed by most players as it meant they could be away from their European clubs without worrying about losing their places.
“That’s why it is important that technicians get involved in the decision-making,” said CAF deputy general secretary Anthony Baffoe. “If the Africa Cup of Nations was in January-February, do you think that Sadio Mane, Mohamed Salah and Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang, if Gabon had qualified, would have had the season they had?
“Three Africans finishing as the leading goal scorers in one of the biggest leagues in the world. It’s fantastic. Look at [André] Onana for instance, we don’t know if he would have gotten his place back at Ajax [in Amsterdam, Netherlands], where he had a good season. He did so well in the [Uefa] Champions League. This is good for African football.”
Ahmad’s fake new dawn
But CAF hasn’t always done things that are good for African football recently. The governing body and its president are under a cloud of controversy, with serious allegations levelled against Ahmad. He was questioned by French officials after the Fifa Congress in Paris in relation to a contract with Tactical Steel over refereeing equipment for the 2018 African Championship of Nations (Chan) in Morocco. Ahmad broke CAF protocol when he instructed former general secretary Amr Fahmy to deal with Tactical Steel instead of going directly to Puma to source the equipment like they had done in the past.
The dramatic 2019 CAF Champions League final that is yet to be finalised, with Esperance challenging the order for the second leg to be replayed, is another stain on Ahmad’s tenure. But it’s not as big as having the CAF executive committee call for an independent audit and even ask Fifa to essentially take over CAF.
Those at CAF don’t like this wording, that Fifa has taken them over. But even PR-speak can’t paper over the unprecedented appointment of Fifa’s general secretary, Fatma Samoura, as Fifa’s “general delegate for Africa” for six months, from 1 August 2019 to 31 January 2020. Samoura’s job is to “oversee operational management of CAF, including governance and administrative procedures, ensure the efficient and professional organisation of all CAF competitions and support the growth and development of football in all countries and regions of CAF”. Essentially, she will be running the CAF.
The success of this tournament in Egypt could play some part in deciding Ahmad’s future, which hangs by a thread. But Ahmad has brushed off those suggestions.
“Some people always want to criticise,” he said on the evening of the start of the tournament. “Even if this tournament is perfect, people will criticise.”
Open for business
The poor attendance at matches not involving Egypt is the only eyesore of this tournament. The organisation has been world-class.
“What’s important is that there is great infrastructure,” Baffoe said. “There are fantastic pitches and training grounds. My heart cries tears of joy when I see those fantastic pitches. We still need to work on certain details, but that’s why we don’t sleep. That’s why we are here. It’s all for the good of the game and African football.”
Egypt’s opening ceremony, like the draw that had the Pyramids of Giza and the Sphinx as its background, was a show of force by the country, reminding Africa and the world of its rich history and beautiful attractions. The three pyramids were on display at the Cairo International Stadium in a colourful and moving opening ceremony. The main “pyramid”, when opened, revealed a gigantic replica of the Afcon trophy.
Egypt is looking to lift the real thing on 19 July. But for President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi, a bigger Egyptian victory than a record eighth title would be the tournament – which was originally supposed to go to Cameroon, but Egypt agreed to organise it in less than six months – serving as a catalyst to tell Africa and the world that Egypt is open for business.