When the final whistle blew on Egypt’s encounter with Russia on Tuesday, the sense of national deflation was palpable, even as far away as here, in Tunis, where I had gathered with a group of Egyptian friends and Egypt lovers to watch the match.
At kickoff, the mood was fairly optimistic. The team’s performance in the previous match, against Uruguay, had been honorable, and they lost only at the last minute. Egypt had managed to dominate play for large chunks of the game, but was unable to convert possession into goals.
With Egypt’s not-so-secret weapon, Mohamed Salah — a world-class striker who has won himself a local, regional and global following — deployed in the second game, we all hoped that his talent for scoring would lift the curse of the Pharaohs that has for so long plagued the national side at the World Cup and give us the edge over Russia.
These hopes were to be sorely disappointed. The Egyptian team was disorganized and in disarray, with none of the focus of the Uruguay game, and Salah was unable to deliver what was so desperately desired by his compatriots, who hero-worship him as the man who made dignity, principles and kindness great again, “a sudden assertion of human values within a dehumanizing system,” as Egyptian sociologist Amro Ali explains in this essay.
Perhaps the weight of the expectations of nearly 100 million Egyptians proved too much for his injured shoulder to carry, and his nerves buckled under the pressure in the biggest game of his career. Or Salah may simply have not been ready to return to the pitch following the banned judo move Sergio Ramos used to bring the Egyptian forward down during Liverpool’s encounter with Real Madrid in the Champion’s League final.
When it became clear that defeat was to be Egypt’s lot, yet again, the previously festive atmosphere turned heavy. “I wish there was something we could take pride in as a nation,” one of my Egyptian friends remarked, somewhat crestfallen, after the match had ended.
An Egyptian social media sensation known as Ali Saed made the same point, much more loudly. In a Facebook monologue (diatribe, actually) that by the weekend had been viewed more than 1.8 million times, Saed asks: “As Egyptians, why can’t we have a joyful moment?”
“Look at the street around you,” he asks viewers, as he drives through traffic. “Everyone is troubled and pissed off.” He then launches into a tirade, lashing out at the Egyptian celebrities flown out at state expense to Russia, the players, the coach.
“You’ve boiled the blood of 100 million Egyptians; a hundred million Egyptians want some joy. There is nothing to make us happy in this country,” he yells. “I hope a car hits me while I’m driving and puts me out of my misery.”
A traumatized, disappointed, disillusioned nation desperately needs the escapism football can provide. And now that Egypt is about to head home from the World Cup — no matter what happens in Monday’s match with Saudi Arabia, the team can’t qualify for the knockout rounds — the 90-minute doses of pain relief that each game provides are over.
Saed basically admits that he regards football as the opium of the masses, but one that he is more than willing to consume to “help us forget” and “make us happy for a while.” It is a sad testament to how desperate a situation is when even escapism does not offer the opportunity of escape.
“I don’t get it. What’s happening to Egypt? Everything in Egypt is black,” Saed laments.
For all but the hardiest and most die-hard of President Abdel Fatah al-Sissi’s supporters, the situation in Egypt appears bleak and desperate indeed. Not only has Egypt witnessed the most concerted, systematic and brutal crackdown on opposition and dissent in living memory during Sissi’s reign of terror, but the economy is in tatters, the value of the pound has plummeted and inflation is way up. Severe and extreme austerity measures have acted like pain enhancers administered to Egypt’s weakest and most vulnerable.
This intolerable cruelty is being piled on a population that had experienced a euphoric period of heightened pride and dignity and a fleeting sense of hope for the future, when Egyptians rose up en masse in 2011 and deposed a tyrant, the longtime dictator Hosni Mubarak. Back then, Egyptians did not need a superhuman hero on the soccer field, because they were collectively the very human heroes of their own heroic story, in which they would shape their destinies.
Although the military and its various civilian facades have been trying to bottle up the genie of revolution ever since, this campaign reached an unprecedented intensity under Sissi, who seems to be trying not only to punish Egyptians for having the audacity to dream but also to eradicate the very idea of and hope for self-determination and democracy from their minds.
The trauma of revolution and the even greater trauma of counterrevolution has resulted not only in titanic levels of despondency, disillusionment and despair, but also in a mental health crisis that is looming menacingly, all the more so because it is largely unrecognized and undiagnosed.
But despite the regime’s best efforts to do its worst, it is unable to silence dissent and assassinate hope entirely, as is visible by the tens of thousands of prisoners of conscience languishing behind bars.
Last week, “Sissi Leave” was trending in Arabic on social media, as a result of public anger about austerity measures. With the relentless brutality of the regime, its divide-and-rule strategy and the PTSD suffered by the population, it seems highly unlikely that people, even the politicized football fans known as the Ultras who were pivotal in the revolution, will take to the streets to demand the toppling of the regime … at least not in the foreseeable future.
Instead, frustration and pent-up anger will continue to erode the psyche of Egyptians, individually and collectively. In such a depressing climate, it is scarcely surprising that Egyptians seek elusive distraction, escape and mental relief in soccer — or that a talented, principled and apolitical footballer should be elevated to the status of near-savior.
When the Pharaohs fly home, the feel-good buzz the regime had hoped the World Cup would deliver to placate the masses will instead be replaced by an even greater level of seething frustration and anger. But at least shallow, superficial Sissi, Egypt’s self-appointed savior, will no longer need to feel threatened by and jealous of Salah’s popularity.