During the 2012 Summer Olympics, each country cheered for its athletes’ success. In Egypt, this hope went beyond winning. For a country with many societal divides, sports – particularly football – can strengthen social cohesion and national identity.
Egypt’s participation in the Olympics could not be more symbolic of the role of sports as a means to regain national pride and social unity. Egypt’s Olympic football team is coached by Hani Ramzy, the Coptic Christian player who led Egypt to victory in the 1998 Africa Cup of Nations championship. Despite the divisions between Egyptians, evident in recent sectarian clashes in many parts of the country, there was unanimous support for the Olympic team. Although Ramzy is the only Copt on the team, Egyptians praise his work and his team, especially after Egypt qualified for the Olympic quarter-finals with a 3-1 win over Belarus.
Football clubs are spread across Egypt and the sport has the potential to help bridge the gap between Muslims and Copts. However before this unity can be achieved, Egyptians must first acknowledge the social divisions evident in the country’s sporting leagues. Only then can they realise the potential of sports as a means to come together.
Hassan Shehata, a Muslim and the former coach of the Egyptian national football team, once said that he selected his players for the Egypt team on the basis of their “religiosity and piety”. The statement caused a massive furore, and was taken as a pretext for not including a single Coptic player on the national football team. The Coptic Church, on the other hand, has its own football league, open to only members of the Coptic community. The example of religious diversity provided by the Olympic team should be replicated nationally.
Egyptians should create sporting leagues across the country in which participation is based on skill and not athletes’ religious or sectarian affiliations. By playing, watching and supporting sports together, the two religious communities could share a mutual and healthier national spirit, rather than being divided by group affiliations.
We should think of sports as a common language to bring people together. Everyone in the country can use them to communicate, building a relationship based on shared experience.
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In June 2012, London's Wembley Stadium was the site of a “faith and football” day that united students from Muslim, Christian and Jewish schools. This event was planned by a UK-based organisation dedicated to building relationships between people of all faiths, the Three Faiths Forum (3FF), and the UK Football Association, which officially oversees the sport in the country.
Egyptians could replicate this example by creating nationwide leagues to promote intergroup and interfaith cooperation. These teams could include anyone who wants to participate, which would make Egyptians’ shared interest in sports a tool for a more inclusive society.
Sports lessons that promote intergroup unity in schools should be given priority. Everyone should be given a chance to compete to join the national teams, regardless of whether their name is Mohammad or George. Sadly, there are few examples of interfaith football teams in the country.
Though these possibilities may seem ambitious and idealistic in the current context, there are many such examples in Egypt’s history.
In 1998, Hany Ramzy, an Egyptian Copt and the current coach of Egypt’s Olympic team, scored a goal for Egypt in the Africa Cup of Nations championship game. After scoring the goal, he traced a cross on his chest, in a gesture of prayer to thank God. When Hazem Imam, Ramzy’s Muslim teammate, scored a second goal, he knelt down in prostration, also expressing gratitude through prayer. As they celebrated their victory, with Ramzy carrying Imam on his shoulders, not a single member of the team or the audience cared at that moment who was a Muslim or a Copt.
Although the Olympics have ended, the spirit of the games should continue. Egyptians need to believe in a future that is inclusive and encompasses all citizens. That’s where sports comes in.
Mustafa Abdelhalim is award-winning journalist who works for Al-Ahram and the BBC. This article was written for the Common Ground News Service (CGNews).