Friday, November 20, 2009

The beautiful game

Football has developed quickly in many countries because it used to be part of the politics of the pursuit of power and the ideologies it serves. Rapidly, it became the expression of nationalism, patriotism and chauvinism, even before federations were established. More than most sports, it lends itself to tribal feelings: the collective effort, the team colors, the speed, the physical aggression.”

Egypt should bomb Algeria”

My sense of patriotism has always been a bit skewed, I think because there can be no absolutes if your parents come from different countries (or planets, as mine do).

Another factor is the deep sense of bitterness that comes from never really belonging, or being accepted, to both, or either country. That’s a whole other story but in brief my identity is slightly nebulous simply because it’s always been defined (imposed) by where I am, and those around me.

An example: The day before Egypt’s first match against Algeria I went to the Algerian Embassy in Cairo and photographed Algerian fans there. I was approached by a woman who, once she discovered that I work for an Egyptian paper/am partly Egyptian (I never discovered what exactly got her goat) summarily ejected me.

A year ago I was at a protest where a lawyer refused to be interviewed because, he quote unquote, “doesn’t talk to foreigners”. I showed him my national ID card. He remained unmoved. Which reminds me of an incident which happened last week when a secretary registering my details in a hospital said (while turning over my apparently fucking useless Egyptian national ID card in her hand) “heyya el genseyya aih?” (What nationality?)

Which is not to say that I didn’t support Egypt during its World Cup bid. I did. How couldn’t I? Few things match the sense of collective joy I experienced when Egypt won the African Cup, and when Egypt beat Algeria on Saturday. There have been suggestions that an interest in football is a distraction from what really matters, that celebrating a victory by Egypt’s national team somehow gives legitimacy to the ruling regime, or that football fervour is a distraction. I disagree with these sentiments.

In the Egyptian context, football is one of the few areas where the ruling regime has little influence and practically zero relevance, despite the zoom ins on Gamal Kermit Mubarak every time a goal is scored. I also object to the suggestion that a love of football equates to manipulation by the regime, and that football victories are used to let off steam of anger which would otherwise be channeled into political opposition movements. To suggest this is to deny Egyptian football fans agency: some Egyptians actually just love football in the same way that the rest of the world does. It’s also dodgy and highly simplistic, because it links in with the theory that if football didn’t exist to distract the oppressed masses they would all be in their homes plotting the revolution. Where’s the evidence?

Which is not to say that a certain amount of manipulation hasn’t gone on off-pitch. Nationalism is wonderful when it’s positive, but its existence is necessarily predicated on the existence of other nationalities. And mankind likes groups and tribes, and these groups and tribes are necessarily defined by other groups and tribes. And therein lies the danger.

What’s interesting about Algeria and Egypt is that these are two very similar countries in terms of social identity, religion, economic status, oppression, etc. Which means that the Us vs The Unknown Other – the bogey man - element which is so often a theme in the Egyptian media has been more difficult to manufacture this time. The emphasis has been on the violent history of Egypt vs. Algeria encounters and on the suggestion that “our Algerian brothers” have somehow betrayed their Arab identity.

It all started with the allegedly fabricated attack on the Algerian team bus when they arrived in Cairo.

There is a video which shows missiles being thrown at the bus by Egyptian youths. The Algerian team claim that three of their players received head wounds necessitating stitches as a result of the “attack”.

The Algerian team’s claims were almost immediately dismissed as made up by the Egyptian media, and eventually the public prosecution office. I didn’t read a single news item which questioned why – against a backdrop of extreme tension in the run-up to the game – hotheaded fans were allowed to get so close to the Algerian team’s bus. The difference between the team’s entrance to Egypt and their exit from Cairo’s stadium after their defeat was stark, and amounted to about six central security trucks and two riot trucks complete with armed soldiers. The truth about how damage was caused to the team bus is almost irrelevant here. Egypt had a duty to protect the Algerian team. It failed. Whether or not Algeria protected the Egyptian national team when it was in Algeria is irrelevant, because duties are not defined according to the extent to which others fulfil their obligations.

The most interesting thing in all this business was the reaction to the shameful attacks by some Algerians on Egyptian interests in Algeria (Egyptair offices, Orascum employees) after Algeria’s defeat in Cairo.

Egyptians have been fucked over routinely in the Gulf ever since Egyptian migration to the Gulf began. Exploited, abused, vulnerable, unpaid, relieved unwillingly of their passports, injured…Where’s the domestic outrage? I can only assume that there is none because the competitive/chauvinistic element of football is missing. Or perhaps it’s because the Egyptians exploited in the Gulf aren’t Naguib Sawiris, and are voiceless in Egypt anyway.

On Wednesday Egypt was beaten by Algeria. It was a shit match, not only because virtually every single member of the Algerian team insists on throwing himself to the ground “in injury” every time an Egyptian player comes near him, but because the Egyptian team was all over the shop. But the match was irrelevant anyway.

Egyptians who attended the playoff in Sudan returned claiming that they were attacked by hordes of Algerian barbarians flown in by the Algerian government expressly for the purpose of terrorizing them with knives and violence.

Things I find astonishing about this and other developments since:

1. This is a football match being played out against an ongoing feud which began in 1989 and was revived only very recently in Egypt’s defeat of Algeria in Cairo. Violence and football are not strangers. Sudan anticipated violence. It deployed approximately 15,000 soldiers. The international media termed it a “revenge match”. Egyptian fans were apparently the only party “shocked” at the possibility and reality of violence.

2. The On TV channel this morning broadcast half an hour of interviews with Egyptian supporters in Cairo Aiport coming from Sudan, who described scenes of “hell” and “war” and savage attacks by Algerian fans. No Algerians were interviewed. No Sudanese eyewitnesses were interviewed.

3. No videos of these alleged attacks have since appeared despite tens of thousands of Egyptians and their mobile phones flying to Sudan. A video of young men brandishing knives has appeared on Youtube. They are not wearing Algerian team colours. There is nothing to prove where and when this was shot.

4. Nobody has doubted the credibility of claims that Egyptian buses carrying fans were attacked by Algerian fans, while the fact that the Algerian national team necessarily trashed its own bus is not open to debate and a matter of logic.

5. The Egyptian media has entirely failed in its responsibility of uncovering the truth. Truth (where it exists) is composite, and is usually discovered by speaking to people who refute the conclusion you already have in your head when you set out to discover the truth.

6. No distinction is being made between Algeria, football, the Algerian government and the Algerian people. Algeria el sha3b [the people] is now a blow up plastic devil with oxygen supplied by the Egyptian media. As I write this, an Egyptian actress is on a Dream TV talk show telling us that 3,000 Algerian criminals were released from prison and flown to Sudan expressly for the purpose of terrorizing Egyptian fans. She has not provided any evidence for this claim. The presenter has not asked for any.

7. Egypt has recalled its ambassador to Algeria because of the treatment of Egyptians at the hands of Algerians. Apparently, only Egyptians have the right to mistreat other Egyptians.

Samia who cleans my flat and I had a huge argument today about all this. She has concluded that “there’s something not right about Algerians”. I asked her why the Egyptian media has decided not to interview Algerians, to get the other side of the story. She suggested that no Algerian would consent to be interviewed by the Egyptian media, and then repeatedly muttered 7asby Allah we na3m el wakeel under her breath as fans described their experiences on On Tv.

Monday, November 09, 2009

Bread & Butter VIII

Ragai (left) with wunderbar lawyer Mohamed Abdel Aziz

Here's some good news for a change. A copper sentenced to five years after a horrible attack on a man in a police station.

ALEXANDRIA: Relatives of a mentally disabled man who was brutally assaulted in a police station last year were relieved on Saturday after offending police colonel Akram Suleiman was found guilty and slapped a five-year jail sentence.

“This is really great. Thank God. I’m so happy,” Ilhamy Sultan, the brother of Ragai Sultan told Daily News Egypt.

“I really didn’t expect that Suleiman would receive such a heavy sentence … I was confident that he’d be found guilty but thought that he’d be given a two- or three-year sentence at most.

“The court really understood what Ragai went through.”

A juvenile crime squad led by Suleiman arrested Ragai Sultan on the evening of July 22, 2008, as he walked on Alexandria’s Corniche.

His brother eventually found him the next day — after he has filed a missing person report — unconscious in a hospital.

Ragai, who had been dumped at the hospital and registered under the name ‘citizen,’ spent three days in intensive care after suffering a broken rib and shoulder, a fracture in the neck and brain hemorrhage that necessitated surgery.

Suleiman was found guilty of three crimes: misuse of force, possession of an illegal weapon and causing permanent disability.

The first offence carries a maximum sentence of three years while defendants found guilty of the second offence face a maximum of one year’s imprisonment.

The maximum sentence handed down in cases of causing permanent disability is seven years. The sentence is calculated according to the seriousness of the disability caused.

Suleiman’s defense lawyers alleged that Ragai — who is nearly 40 — was targeted by a juvenile crime squad because at the time of his arrest he was accompanied by a teenage girl called Passant, who he planned to engage in sexual relations with for money.

The defense maintained throughout the three-month trial that Ragai’s injuries had been caused by him falling down a flight of stairs while attempting to flee the police.

Forensic doctor Karam Shehata categorically repudiated this defense in October when he told the court that Ragai’s head injuries could only have been caused by being struck with a blunt object.

During Saturday’s court session, Suleiman’s lawyers changed tack and attempted to undermine the credibility of the forensic report. They claimed that Shehata did not examine Ragai and said that the fact that the CT scan carried out on Ragai was not accompanied by a report is irregular.

They also maintained that injuries of the gravity sustained by Ragai could be caused “by someone falling over on a beach while playing tennis”.

Doctors from Al Nadeem Center for the Rehabilitation of the Victims of Violence who attended the trial said that these medical claims were simply “false.”

Mostafa Hussein, a psychiatrist with the Nadeem Center, told Daily News Egypt that CT scans are not usually accompanied by a report printed on the CT film itself, as the defense claimed.

He added that while falls may lead to concussion or a brain hemorrhage, this is only the case where the fall is from “a considerable height” or if the person has a pre-existing malformation in the brain’s blood vessels, “which is not the case with Ragai.”

Two prosecution witnesses, who were held in the Alexandria Security Directorate at the same time as Ragai, appeared during Saturday’s trial, and gave conflicting accounts of what happened.

Both, however, concurred that a junior policeman called Mohamed was responsible for Ragai’s injuries.

Ragai had initially told his brother that the person responsible for his assault was called Mohamed, but changed this account eight months later when, Ilhamy says, his memory returned and he identified Suleiman as his assailant.

Defense lawyers argued that the fact that Ragai changed his account indicates “Akram is an innocent scapegoat.”

Lawyers who had lodged, and won, a claim for LE 10,001 compensation for Ragai’s injuries expressed surprise at Suleiman’s “shambolic” defense team throughout the trial.

During Saturday’s session Suleiman appeared in the dock wearing sunglasses and at points appeared to be crying.

At the conclusion of the defense team’s pleadings, he shouted out from the dock in tears, “Why am I here? Why has nobody listened to me? I’m being tortured in the newspapers and on websites. Why would I hit him? What is there between us that I would hit him?”

Defense lawyer Gamal El-Swede also focused on this angle during his defense pleadings.

He acknowledged that incidents of police violence and brutality do occur, but added, “members of the police only hit people in order to extract confessions.”

While complaints about police brutality are common, few police officers are held to account for such incidents.

Suleiman’s sentencing is roughly the sixth conviction of a police officer for brutality since 2007.

The heaviest sentence was handed down in November 2007 to a police officer and two policemen, each sentenced to seven years imprisonment, after they were found guilty of killing Nasr Ahmed Abdallah.

In a statement issued on Sunday, the Nadeem Center said that Suleiman’s sentence is “one of the heaviest sentences ever handed down by the Egyptian judiciary in a torture case.”