Friday, July 2, 2010

Thank God South Africa is Hosting the World Cup!

Press coverage of South Africa has been boosted to an all-time high, thanks to the country's hosting of the 19th FIFA World Cup. Documentaries and media reports broadcast round the clock on the world's major TV network do not only refer to the intense soccer competitions that will conquer the hearts and minds of football fans for one whole month, but also to the booming South African economy, its long struggle against Apartheid as well as various aspects of the country's cultural and social life.

Many Egyptians envy South Africa for this unprecedented world attention. Publicity is so important in today's globalized world. It is good for business, tourism and prestige. But, as marketing experts contend, publicity should only be sought when there are positive things to be publicized. Bad products cannot make use of advertisement, however efficient and incessant.

Those with sharper-than-fish memories remember well that six years ago Egypt bid to host the current football World Cup. To Egypt, the race was not so tight. In contrast to South Africa and Morocco, who secured 14 and 10 votes respectively, Egypt got a big goose egg. The public relations disaster, dubbed as the "Mondiale Zero" and seen as a symbol of Egypt's overall civilizational failure, still resonates in public discourses until today.

In contrast to Egypt, so much has been achieved in South Africa - politically, economically and socially - since the end of apartheid and the commencement of majority rule in 1994. Economically, the sustainability of strong growth rates, the significant increase in GDP per capita (from $2,440 in 2002 to $5,411 in 2006), as well as the remarkable drop in inflation rates (from 9% in 2002 to 4.6% in 2006), all reflect the rise of a robust and promising economy. The values of democracy and the rule of law have become deep-rooted, and a reverse of this process - fueled by the blood, sweat and tears of South Africans - seems unlikely.

Corruption, crime and AIDS are the major scourges currently haunting South Africans, and, so far, the government record on these three issues remains mixed, but positive outcomes are expected to ensue in the coming decade.

South Africa is also righteously proud of its historic leader Nelson Mandela. The anti-apartheid activist, who cheerfully spent 27 years in prison to free his people, turned into the greatest symbol of freedom and independence in the African continent.

There is sadly no grand figure like Mandela in Egypt's current history that can provide inspiration and elicit reverence. Egyptian politics renders nothing but the dismal image of an octogenarian leader who, after three decades at the helm, still clings to power and grooms his whiz kid to succeed him, and a bunch of worthless opposition parties that are content with the leftovers of the regime's poisoned banquet. This image evokes either sympathy or contempt.

There is certainly no scarcity of media stories about Egypt. But all pictures - and a picture is worth a thousand words – are detrimental and deeply upsetting. Take, for example, the grotesque picture of a young man's disfigured face that reveals human brutality and repression in their worst modes. Another surrealistic picture would be of the crowds of indignant protestors, who sought refuge on the People Assembly's threshold, overlooking the fact that the ruling party's parliamentarians are among the actors that have initially put them in these miserable conditions. What drives the prey so eagerly back to its hunter?

Equally embarrassing are the inhumane decaying conditions in slum areas, which have dropped from the moral calculus of the government, but will not drop from the interest of international news networks. All these images are very embarrassing, indeed.

Another clip of contemporary Egypt will have to shed light on ordinary people, the millions of weary Egyptians who struggle for the basic needs of life against the backdrop of harsh social and economic conditions. One day in the life of any of these people – at home, work and public transportation – speaks volumes about the country and what little has remained of its glorious past.

On another crucial level, the hospitality of Egyptians is, regrettably, in many ways becoming a relic of the past. In reality, the picture is not as rosy as the advertisements of the Ministry of Tourism try to portray. Walking in the streets of Cairo is mostly not feasible because pavements are hijacked by cafes, street vendors or parked cars. Renting a car is not a safe journey either; driving in major Egyptian cities needs skill, patience and, ironically, inattention to the basics of driving rules, and street signs are either non-existent or misleading. In addition, public transportation is in shambles and riding a taxi exposes one to the gluttony and immorality of taxi drivers. Plus, warnings against sexual harassment are today on any traveler's guide to Egypt. Due to skyrocketing pollution rates (exacerbated lately by the smog cloud), moreover, visitors to Cairo would inhale an overdose of smoke and dust, which would make them think twice before coming back to "drink again from the water of the Nile."

So, unlike South Africa, there is hardly anything so bright to brag about. Had Egypt hosted the World Cup, Egypt's apt organizers would have likely resorted to the conventional use, or abuse, of the Pharaonic legacy, indirectly admitting that to find positive aspects worth propagating, one needs to look thousands of years back for help.

Most Egyptians have already been disillusioned with the sham feelings of superiority they had been injected with since childhood. This is why they realize that there is still a lot to be done to make their country a better place. Therefore, the unrelenting buzzing of the awful vuvuzelas notwithstanding, they are grateful for South Africa's successful and impressive hosting of the World Cup.

Nael M. Shama

* This article was published in Daily News (Egypt) on Thursday July 1, 2010 (Page 7).

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