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A game of celestial inferences
Published in Al-Ahram Weekly on 14 - 02 - 2008

Amid ecstatic celebrations after Egypt won the Africa Cup of Nations, the pundits note that the beautiful game can be harnessed to cement continental ties, write Gamal Nkrumah and Mohamed El-Sayed
The national football team's illustrious winning of the Africa Cup of Nations (ACN) for a record sixth time hit the headlines of all newspapers, be they official, opposition or independent, with much aplomb. "Our heroes returned with the most precious cup" ran the headline of the daily independent Al-Masry Al-Yom.
Egypt normally does not put Africa on the top of its priorities. Alas, Africa is way down the list of Egypt's foreign policy agenda. That is a real tragedy, for Egypt is an integral part of Africa and the ACN demonstrated the vital importance of belonging to the much overlooked continent.
These are some of the afterthoughts that cropped up in the papers. "Egypt is the African champion for the sixth time" ran the headline of the daily official Al-Ahram. "Millions of fans pour out onto the streets to celebrate the victory", it added. "A fountain of celebrations in Egypt's streets", ran another headline.
What is rather puzzling is that Egyptians generally did not feel confident enough about tackling such formidable teams such as Ivory Coast, Ghana, Cameroon and Nigeria. Egyptians had already beaten Ivory Coast two years ago in the ACN tournament in Cairo 2006. So why the grave fear of Ivory Coast now? According to sports commentators, the main reason for such cold feet is that key African football stars are internationally renowned and are of such an esteemed calibre in world football that they present a formidable challenge.
Al-Ahram and other papers, however, have long suspected that having internationally acclaimed stars in a team is not necessarily the surest way to win a game. The editorial of the paper also focussed on the significance of Egypt's victory over heavyweight teams like that of Ivory Coast. "We were amazed that Egypt beat Ivory Coast because all the players of the latter play in the world's biggest and most famous clubs like Chelsea, Tottenham and Liverpool, while most of our players are playing in local clubs like Ahli, Zamalek and Ismaili. Be that as it may, international stars on a team are not enough to win a game or the Africa Cup of Nations."
A critically important factor is nationalism and taking the African cup seriously. Most African professionals on world-class European clubs selfishly play for themselves. They have no vested interests in playing for their respective countries. Their loyalties are first to themselves and the European clubs that employ them. They, alas, have little loyalty for their home countries.
Writing in Al-Ahram, sports columnist Hassan El-Mistikawi argued that "the national football team is a wonderful national project." El-Mistikawi criticised those who argued that millions of Egyptians celebrated in the streets because these celebrations were meant to give vent to their anger at difficult economic conditions. "Those who reiterate such talk do not know the value, meaning or magic of sports nor its widespread popularity."
And, this is the key importance and symbolism of the national celebrations on the streets of Cairo and other Egyptian cities, even in the Ghanaian capital Accra itself. Egyptians celebrated because they demonstrated a spirit of nationalism unique in the continent. Indeed, the Egyptian nationalist spirit was the main reason that they have now won two ACNs in a row.
Independent papers insinuated that the Egyptian authorities made much political capital out of the Egyptian triumph precisely to divert attention from the dire economic situation in the country. "The government made political capital of the national football team's victory, and the team's achievement caused people to temporarily forget their daily problems," Magdi Samaan commented in the Al-Masry Al-Yom.
In much the same vein, Egypt's economic malaise hit the headlines and so too did corruption. "Corruption hits unprecedented levels" ran the headline of a feature in the daily liberal-leaning Nahdet Masr. "LE75 billion is the size of corruption in Egypt, and Egypt is in 110th place in transparency" ran the headline of the feature. "Widespread briberies poses a threat to social security," said Abdel-Rahman Gadalla, a professor of economics.
The daily opposition Al-Ahrar went the same vein. "Corruption is reigning supreme" ran a headline. "Members of the People's Assembly have failed to stop the squandering of public funds" ran another headline in reference to the parliament's failure to hold the government accountable for its squandering of public funds according to the reports of the Central Auditing Agency.
The paper also reported on the squabble between the government and more than 100 MPs who called for the withdrawal of confidence from the government for allegedly "stealing LE307 billion worth of social insurance funds." The MPs and many opposition papers argued that the government used these funds to cover the deficit in its budget.
Regional development also featured prominently in the press. The case of Sinai was especially poignant. The weekly Akhbar Al-Yom ran a feature about the problems facing development in Sinai. "We warn against reverse emigration from Sinai in case the treasures of Sinai are properly used," warned many a development expert.
Other papers picked up on the subject. "Sinai is on the verge of a human disaster because of lack of basic commodities," warned a report in the daily opposition Al-Wafd. The shortage in basic commodities is attributed to the influx of Palestinians from Gaza into the Egyptian territories, and who bought almost all the commodities in Northern Sinai. "The government prevents food from being transferred to Sinai for the 12th day in a row," the report added.
Meanwhile, the daily official Al-Akhbar quoted Minister of Finance Youssef Boutros Ghali as saying the government is serious about social welfare provision. "Social security funds are in safe hands," the minister assured. "The president, the government, and the public guarantee the social security funds," he added.
Religion, too, occupied an important niche in the press this week. Writing in Al-Ahram, Anis Mansour criticised imams who deliver Friday prayer sermons and criticised the systematic frightening of those who go to mosques. "There are many critical daily issues [that should be the main focus of Friday sermons]," Mansour continued. "I wish orators of Cairo and Giza go to the filthy Al-Mansouriya Canal which millions of tourists pass by on their way back from the Great Pyramids of the Pharaohs, and in which they see the dirtiness of their grandchildren."


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