For Egypt, Africa Cup of Nations is more than just a sports event

Apart from seeking to woo its neighbours and regain its status in Africa, Egypt is striving to prove that it is a safe and stable country.
Sunday 20/01/2019
Egyptian football fans with a picture of star player Mohamed Salah before an Africa Cup of Nations Cup qualifying match in Alexandria, last November. (Reuters)
Raising the flag. Egyptian football fans with a picture of star player Mohamed Salah before an Africa Cup of Nations Cup qualifying match in Alexandria, last November. (Reuters)

CAIRO - Preparations are being made in Egypt to host the Africa Cup of Nations, set to kick off in June, at a time Cairo is seeking to reassert its ties with Africa.

Egyptian Prime Minister Mostafa Madbouli established a special panel to monitor readiness for the football tournament and ensure that stadiums used for matches of the 24 teams participating in the competition were in top shape.

“Our stadiums are completely ready for the championship,” Egyptian Youth and Sports Minister Ashraf Sobhi said. “Guest African teams and fans will get to know that the Confederation of African Football (CAF) had selected Egypt to host the competition for a good reason.”

Egypt prepares to host the Africa Cup of Nations after Cameroon was stripped of hosting duties following concerns about the pace of its preparations.

Qualification matches are to take place March 20-26 with the Africa Cup of Nations tournament set for June 15-July 13. Those matches are to be played in Cairo, Alexandria, Ismailia, Port Said and Suez.

Inside government offices, the Africa Cup of Nations is less about football than about Egypt’s foreign policy and economic prosperity. Visits are being made to sports facilities and plans are being made to make the best use of the competition in advancing Egyptian interests in Africa.

Egypt, which neglected ties with the continent in the past, has sought to strengthen its presence in Africa in recent years, and views the tournament as a priceless opportunity to do this. This is why almost every high-ranking official in Egypt is watching preparations for the event, particularly given questions over security at stadiums.

Fans only returned to Egypt’s stadiums last year following the Port Said stadium riot in February 2012 that left 74 people dead and more than 500 injured. Since then, Egypt’s domestic matches were played in predominately empty arenas, although CAF Champions League games were played to full stadiums, demonstrating Egyptians’ love of football.

Political talk shows are ditching the issue of party politics, the opposition and what the government did or did not do, to focus on the Africa Cup of Nations.

“We must forget our differences for now and focus on one thing: How the organisation of the competition can be a success,” said Ahmed Moussa, host of “On My Own Responsibility” on Sada al-Balad TV.

Egypt has learned the lesson of neglecting ties with African states the hard way, particularly given the effect on Cairo’s attempts to negotiate with Addis Ababa over the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam, which could have a major effect on Egypt’s share of Nile waters.

Egyptian companies and products are losing out in African markets to Turkey and Iran, threatening Egyptian strategic interests and economic prosperity.

Militant groups in African countries, such as Mali, Somalia and Nigeria, are believed to be coordinating with others active in North Africa, particularly neighbouring Libya.

“These are all reasons that make it important for Egypt to revive its ties with fellow African states,” said Ibrahim al-Shuweimi, a former Egyptian assistant foreign minister for African affairs. “Football is a popular sport in Africa and it has a magical ability to bring peoples together.”

Egypt is also preparing to take over the presidency of the African Union, a body that froze Egypt’s membership in 2013 following the ouster of Islamist President Muhammad Morsi.

Since Morsi’s ouster, Egypt made a strong effort to return to the African fold. Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi’s first foreign trip as president in June 2014 was to attend an African Union summit. Sisi has since made dozens of visits to African capitals and welcomed many African leaders to Egypt.

Apart from seeking to woo its neighbours and regain its status in Africa, Egypt is striving to prove that it is a safe and stable country.

Cairo has made significant gains in the fight against terrorism, weakening the branch of Islamic State in the Sinai Peninsula.

Approximately 100,000 policemen are to be deployed across the country to provide security for the Africa Cup of Nations, the Interior Ministry said. Dozens of rapid intervention units will be posted in host cities to secure the safety of participating teams and the fans expected to travel to Egypt for the matches.

“Security conditions have improved greatly thanks to the huge efforts made by the security establishment over the past years,” said former Assistant Interior Minister Magdi al-Bassiouni. “The competition will be a very good chance for Egypt to show the world that it is stable and secure.”

20