No cream and no crop
South Africa's 2010 World Cup delegation to Zurich totally eclipsed that of Egypt's. Karim Hafez*
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Egypt had no-one of the stature of Nelson Mandela on its 2010 World Cup bid committee (photo: AFP)
Egypt's total 2010 World Cup collapse has been so dramatic that it clearly enjoins the staking of a completely new path in football organising specifically and in sports management generally. Candour requires, and the matter at issue warrants, radical re- assessment.
Some will no doubt condemn the unfairness and opacity of FIFA's voting system. Others will want to hold the Egyptian sporting officials responsible. A third group will blame anti-Arab feeling, a Zionist conspiracy, personal or institutional corruption, the hand of a vengeful Omnipotence, or some such standard cause of our many national ignominies. And no doubt there will be those who will condemn all of the above.
Now, unlike many around me, I am less concerned about the result of the vote, and more so about an interesting question that I heard frequently asked in the week leading up to the vote, particularly following the announcement of the list of delegates who would finally present Egypt's bid to FIFA. Variously worded, that question was always substantially the same: "Why, assuming we are serious about bidding, did we not send our most impressive delegation to Zurich?" The question seemed the more interesting because it appeared to cut across the country's social, political, gender, and even generational divides. It is relevant that the questioner typically impugned neither the integrity nor the competence of the Egyptian delegates, but merely expressed unease about the results of comparing their profile to South Africa's own.
Egypt's committee included Minister of Youth Alieddin Hilal, President of the Egyptian National Football Association Essam Abdel-Moneim, bid coordinator Hisham Azmi, actor Omar Sharif and Serge Zidan, a 15-year-old footballer. Boutros Ghali sent a recorded message supporting the Egyptian bid.
South Africa's delegation, on the other hand, comprised its current president, Thabo Mbeki, two former presidents, Nelson Mandela and Frederik W de Klerk, Archbishop Desmund Tutu, footballer Lucas Radebe and Oscar-winning actress Charlize Theron.
Obviously, South Africa's six international celebrities -- all instantly recognisable figures the world over -- have much the higher profiles compared to their Egyptian counterparts. But what interests me particularly about the question, "why did we not send our most impressive delegates to Zurich" is that it assumes that Egypt could have fielded a significantly more inspiring delegation but somehow failed to do so. The assumption, I will now argue, is at once false and revealing: false because this country has not produced significantly more inspiring figures of world class standing in the last 50 years; and revealing because the refusal to admit as much testifies to the grotesque delusions of grandeur which we, Egyptians, continue to nurse. Let me now try to back up these blatantly unpatriotic claims.
To determine which Egyptians might have matched South Africa's delegates' international profile, it is necessary to know something of those delegates. So who are they?
Mbeki is a veteran African National Congress politician, twice directly elected president of a republic whose political process is amongst the world's most vibrant, dynamic and open, in elections universally acknowledged to have been free and fair.
It is, I trust, unnecessary to draw the comparison with the situation in Egypt.
Mandela was elected president of South Africa in that country's first non-racial democratic elections, held in 1992. In 1993, he accepted the Nobel Peace Prize and in 1997, he stepped down from the ANC leadership. In 1999 he retired from active public life altogether. Formerly, Mandela had been his country's longest serving political prisoner, the same who, in his own 1962 sabotage trial, uttered the immortal words, "I have fought against white domination, and I have fought against black domination. I have cherished the ideal of a democratic and free society in which all persons live together in harmony and with equal opportunities. It is an ideal which I hope to live for and to achieve. But if need be, it is an ideal for which I am prepared to die."
De Klerk, on the other hand, did not start out political life as a reformer but as minister of national education. He supported segregated universities and as leader of the National Party in Transvaal never once advocated radical reform. But in his first speech as elected leader of the National Party, de Klerk called for both a non-racist South Africa and for negotiations over the country's future. Once elected president later in the same year (1989), de Klerk lifted the ban on the ANC, released Mandela from prison, effectively ending apartheid and opening the way for the country's first non-racial democratic constitution. In 1993, de Klerk shared the Nobel Peace Prize with Mandela. In 1997, he retired from politics, having served two years as deputy president.
Former presidents of the Arab Republic of Egypt are, alas, all no longer.
Tutu is Archbishop Emeritus of Cape Town. Under apartheid, he was amongst the most forceful advocates of equal civil rights, calling for economic sanctions against the South African government in protest over its racial policies. Under Mandela, Tutu headed the world's most ambitious and, in the event, most successful attempt at nationwide racial and ethnic reconciliation, South Africa's Truth and Reconciliation Commission. Awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1984 for his advocacy of non-violent reform, he survives today as a universally recognisable symbol of human affection.
Egyptian religious figures of comparable stature do not easily come to mind.
Radebe is one of 11 children born to a modest family in a rough Soweto neighbourhood. In 1994, he left South Africa to play for Leeds United in the English Premiership. There, he rose to prominence, eventually becoming the premiership's finest defender and captaining his club back to former glory. In due course, Radebe acted as FIFA ambassador for SOS Children's Villages. For this, and for his record of fighting racism in the game, FIFA presented him its Fair Play Award, in 2000. Twelve years and 69 caps after he first took to the field with South Africa's national football team in 1992, Radebe survives today as one of the symbols of African sportsmanship.
Once again, Egyptian sporting figures of comparable stature are difficult to name.
Finally, there is Charlize Theron. Theron was the first African (alongside actor Djimon Honsou) to be nominated for an Academy award. In 2004, she won a Best Actress Oscar. Back to a heroine's welcome to her native South Africa, President Mbeki wrote congratulating her, and Mandela praised her for putting South Africa on the map.
A quick rundown of the list of fellow Oscar winners has not revealed comparable achievements by an Egyptian.
There are today two living Egyptian Nobel Laureates -- Naguib Mahfouz and Ahmed Zewail -- each the source of national pride, the one stabbed almost to death for his writing, the other fired in the 1970s by Alexandria University for staying on to pursue his research career in US universities. Egypt can also boast several top international civil servants: for instance, Mohamed El-Baradei, secretary-general of the International Atomic Energy Agency, elected to that office only by beating a countryman candidate to the post. Other luminaries include Magdi Yaqoub, the renowned London-based heart surgeon; scientist Farouk El-Baz, of Boston University; Youssef Chahine, the director of Cannes' Palm d'Or fame, born to a Syrian family in Alexandria. And, of course, there is Abdel-Latif Abu Heif, the legendary long-distance swimmer.
More research might turn up a couple of more names. But the tally is unlikely to be either huge or hugely impressive, though the country is 70 million.
Furthermore, aside from their undoubted achievements, all those whose names would appear on a list of contemporary Egyptian greats would have one thing in common: none has come to symbolise something greater than himself to the world community, in the same way that Mandela, for instance, has done. It is idle to speculate why; enough for present purposes simply to note it.
Now, I did not enjoy writing the above one with more than you would have enjoyed reading it. But you may have noticed, I have been mostly factual.
At this point, so much at least is clear: the problem is not that we failed to send our best to Zurich, but that our best are simply not good enough. The trouble is not that we did not dispatch our most impressive delegation to Zurich; the trouble is that we did.
On this view, the question, "Why did we not send our best?" becomes self-deluding. It becomes so because it implicitly refuses to recognise that ours is a society that has long substantially failed to produce distinguished statesmen, eminent scientists, world-famous artists, renowned sportsmen, outstanding intellectuals, and superior industrialists, in any significant numbers. Indeed, it is only slightly exaggerated to say that we have contributed little to the world's moral, intellectual, aesthetic or material output in modern times.
And as if this were not pathetic enough, we continue to rhapsodise the glory of times past, take refuge in empty rhetoric, indulge in naïve superstition, blame fanciful conspiracies, and protest that reform, when it comes, if it comes, must come from "within", whatever that means. All of this rather than acknowledge our predicament and embark on radical re-assessment and self-reform.
But enough. Let this recent experiment in international competition be an opportunity for radical re-assessment. By all means, let us try to find out why, in an all-African competition, we have failed to win a single vote from one of the world's leading sporting federations. But let us not stop there. It would be foolish to stop there. The particular ought not to be suffered to trump the universal, the lesser the greater. Let us reflect on the more urgent questions, why could we not have staged a more impressive turnout in Zurich, try as we might? Where are our distinguished statesmen? Our illustrious scientists? Our famed artists? Our legendary sportsmen? Our celebrated intellectuals? Our notable industrialists? Why have we failed to produce them at all or in respectable numbers? And how could we begin to turn them out?
Nothing less than brutal honesty and conscious effort would secure a measure of self- improvement at this point in our history.
And whilst we think about those questions, it may not be wholly irrelevant to recall that what glory South Africa can claim today, it has achieved by dint of political struggle and political reconstruction.
* The writer, an independent lawyer practising in Cairo, may be reached at email@example.com