Thursday, August 23, 2007

Defeated at the Stadium of the City Victorious

The pleasure, thrill and confidence with which the fans of Al-Ahly club awaited their team’s much looked-for game against the legendary European champions stand in sharp contrast with the desolation, gloom and disappointment overwhelming them after losing by four goals. This contrast is, perhaps unexpectedly, reminiscent in some important aspects of the tale of modern Egypt. For Al-Ahly’s sweeping defeat against Barcelona was not just about a football match; it was a replica of one of the salient tragedies of Egypt, as well as a subtle expression of its people’s moribund self-esteem.

Since its first encounter with modern civilization embodied by the French expedition’s unique combination of weaponry and science, Egypt’s history has been replete with false hopes and crushed promises. For example, in the first half of the nineteenth century, Mohamed Ali Pasha envisaged an Egyptian empire of might and wealth. To bring this wild dream into effect, schools were instituted, deserts reclaimed, factories built and a modern army assembled. In short, Egypt took off the worn out gown of the medieval ages for a scientific and modern outlook. Nonetheless, the shrewd leader overstretched his power, triggering a defiant union of heterogeneous European powers. Moreover, the imprudent fiscal management of his grandson, Ismail, led to Egypt’s bankruptcy and, eventually, its occupation. Egypt was pushed back to point zero.

After independence, came the romantic days of Nasser. The charismatic young officer sowed hope in Egyptian barren soil after seventy years of occupation and underdevelopment. He pledged the rise of an egalitarian society, the establishment of a viable economy, the creation of a formidable army and independence from the plots of superpowers. And much was, in fact, delivered in the course of fifteen years: the British were smoothly expelled, icons of foreign exploitation nationalized, an ambitious industrialization plan embarked on and regional leadership pushed to its limits. But as Machiavelli explained, great men do not know when to stop. Nasser’s national project was mercilessly shattered at the zenith of his success. To Egyptians, the humiliating defeat in 1967 was a painful eye-opener; they were shocked by the apprehension that Nasser’s political system was defective, for democracy was missing, and the ‘strongest army in the Middle East’ was nothing but a giant paper tiger. Inevitably, disappointment ran as high as expectations had initially reached.

Under Sadat, closing down prisons, introducing democracy, making regional peace and parting poverty became the official state slogans. Weary of conflicts and economic destitution, the country was ready to give the new leader a chance. But it soon turned out that Sadat’s version of democracy had fangs and claws, his peace with Israel gave the latter a free hand in subjugating more Arab land, and, perhaps more importantly, economic liberalization bred poverty instead of eliminating it. “1980 will be the year of prosperity”, Sadat had assertively promised, but affluence never came on a silver plate. A year later, Sadat was assassinated by his loyal boys on the October glory day.

Sadat was succeeded by Hosni Mubarak. A shadowy figure compared to his predecessors, the modest air force officer who had no political vision of his own, and little appreciation of historical processes opted for a less flamboyant leadership style. Grand plans were forsaken for less remote objectives, such as national reconciliation, amelioration of economic conditions and balance in foreign policy. But after twenty-five years in office, none of this materialized; the country’s social fabric is, day after day, more divided along class and religious lines, the economy is ailing and dependence on the United States is firmly rooted than ever.

In all these cases, a clear pattern could be effortlessly pinpointed, that of hopes abruptly vanishing and aspirations cruelly betrayed, leaving behind feelings of frustration, a shaken self-confidence and little faith in the future. Little wonder that the idiom ‘mafeesh fayda’ (no hope) is frequently heard in Cairo’s social gatherings and cafes’ chitchats, that dreaming of immigration has become so prevalent among youth and that people exhibit feelings of superiority and inferiority in unison. So, unsurprisingly, Egypt’s center, Cairo – ‘the city victorious’ in Arabic – was depicted by a Western journalist as “the city defeated”.

However, the analogy of the Cairo stadium debacle is not merely based on the remarkable resemblance of process, for substance is also relevant here. For hundreds of years, Egypt lost almost every competition with the developed world—in science, research, economy, diplomacy and war. Hence, there is no reason to anticipate a different outcome in sports. In effect, defeat in sports is a natural consequence of the county’s shortcomings on other arenas. That Egypt earned only one golden medal in the Olympic Games (the globe’s ultimate sports competition) since the 1950s should come, thus, as no real surprise. It is a drastic failure concomitant with deficiencies experienced on every other front.

These unrelenting and harsh defeats left deep scars on the nation’s psyche which, to tell the truth, explain the zeal displayed before the match against Barcelona and before any encounter with the omnipotent ‘First World’, with its supermen, hi-tech machines and invincible weapons. At stake, more than anything else, are the entrenched feelings of inadequacy and incompetence and the distant yet probable lure of breaking even with the triumphant West.

But what fans overlooked is that winning in sports follows development, not precedes it. Pity the Egyptian players who shouldered the failures of the nation, and were expected to fix the reverses of two centuries in 90 minutes. Suffice it to remind that today the GDP of Spain (a country once ruled by Arabs) exceeds that of all Arab countries combined, and that the income of Barcelona Club approximated 300 million euros last year (i.e. more than 2 billion Egyptian pounds), a figure that is - ironically – ten times the budget of the National Council of Sports.

At a local coffee shop, none of the comments made after the match were of any originality. Reflecting a mediocre sense of worth, lamenting our backwardness and the hundreds of solar years separating ‘us’ from ‘them’ dominated the low-spirited talks. Such commentary was reiterated after each and every military defeat, economic breakdown and scientific vulnerability the country had faced over the past two centuries.

The resilience of Egyptian people made them, occasionally, resist hopelessness, but the incessant recurrence of these defeats will continue to inject the society with an aura of bleakness, distress and indifference. And if no renaissance of any sort occurs, the next decades will, sadly, witness more defeats in Cairo Stadium and in more vital battlefields.

Nael M. Shama

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

A true perspective of what is really going on back stage. A state's political and economic status is definately linked to its other achievements.