CAIRO — For a few hours, at least, Egyptians forgot their lives.
On Sunday night, their national team defeated Congo 2-1, which meant it was heading to the World Cup for the first time in 28 years. The capital erupted in collective joy. Fireworks lit up the night. Horns blared on traffic-clogged streets, a symphony as raucous as this soccer-crazed country. Congratulatory tweets were fired off at a rapid pace.
It was a feeling Egyptians desperately needed again. Their lives have been upended by a tanking economy, their bank accounts decimated by rising prices and lowered subsidies as Egypt’s government enacts measures demanded by the International Monetary Fund.
Politically, the nation is in the grip of the harshest repression it has experienced in decades. The government of President Abdel Fatah al-Sissi has jailed tens of thousands of opponents, prevented protest marches and blocked hundreds of websites to stifle any avenues of dissent. Extrajudicial killings are rising, as is torture by the country’s notorious security forces, according to human rights activists.
This year and last there have been numerous terrorist attacks, particularly against the country’s Christian minority, killing hundreds. Most were claimed by an Islamic State affiliate based in the northern Sinai region that has grown increasingly brazen in recent months.
“To me, it was like Egypt hurts us a lot and we are never happy,” said Salma Shouman, 28, an assistant film director. “The people deserve to be happy, even for one night.”
Haitham Refaei, a 40-year-old banker, was at the stadium to see the penalty shot that clinch Egypt’s spot in Russia for the 2018 World Cup. It last competed in the tournament in 1990 in Italy.
Refaei came home at 3 a.m. and went to work at 7 — “fresh and happy” and unable to think of “any burdens, economic or else.”
“This is the biggest joy I felt ever in my life after my son was born,” he said.
Seated around him, he said, were Egyptians from all walks of life. There were rich and poor, old and young. Some had thick beards, others wore Islamic veils. And “everyone was hugging each other,” Refaei said. “It was surreal.”
“Football does not detach people from reality,” he added. “It is just a pain killer for a few seconds. I just wish this victory could push this country to create more joy.”
Some viewed the victory as cathartic, even if it was momentary.
Sports journalist Mahmoud Mostafa, 28, who was a baby when Egypt last played in the World Cup, described the victory as “healthy for people who are ferociously oppressed.”
“If you have no tools for expressing opposition, let alone making real change, then those happy moments keep you sane,” Mostafa said. “They make you restore that lost feeling of hopefulness. I can’t forgive those who killed the hopes of the past, but I totally can cheer for the team they are cheering for. No one can own football — football owns people.”
Other Egyptians said in interviews that the victory could make more of their countrymen patriotic, while others cynically said it was an opportunity for the government to distract people from the woes facing the country.
When Sissi announced that every player on the team would receive 1.5 million Egyptian pounds — roughly $85,000 — as a bonus for winning, Kareem el Deeb knew the euphoria would not last long. “Many people showed their anger, saying it’s a waste of money when we need food and medicine,” said the 33-year-old.
Khalid Kilany, a 29-year-old engineer, said: “This victory can make people forget for two hours or 24 hours. But with the first payment of credit for the cellphone or the electricity bill, or any payment actually, people will recognize again our bad situation. It cannot detach people from reality.”
After the match Sunday night, celebratory crowds gathered at Tahrir Square in downtown Cairo, with many revelers draped in Egypt’s flag. The square was the epicenter of the populist revolt that overthrew President Hosni Mubarak. Today, security forces swiftly stop any anti-government protests from forming in the square.
“When I saw people celebrating, I was very happy to see them smile,” Shouman said. “Until I saw the celebrations in Tahrir Square. That's when I felt hurt. The place of the revolution went to be being a celebration of a fake victory. The match was just a good distraction from all the sadness and negativity.”