Arabs in the African Cup: How Soccer Challenges Egyptian Nationalism

Arabs in the African Cup: How Soccer Challenges Egyptian Nationalism

Credit: CAF Online

“If a hundred things separate us, soccer unites us.” These opening lyrics to the viral African Cup of Nations (AFCON) song highlight that nothing unites African nations more than soccer.

Transcending borders, language, religion and culture, countries across the region compete for the coveted AFCON title. Hundreds of millions watch the games, with a viewership third in popularity to the FIFA World Cup and European Nations Championship. A unified African identity is celebrated and imagined in these moments.

Devotees across the continent and diaspora rally behind their national teams, waving vibrant flags while singing populist songs harmonized by a chorus of football aficionados. Multigenerational crowds fill cafes as the smell of coffee and cigarette smoke dissipates to the shouts of spectators’ pulsating jeers and cheers. Embracing their shared Africanness, to enthusiasts it is more than just a game.

The tournament educates children to an inclusive lived history of their continent unbridled by stereotypical narratives of Africa as being ‘backwards.’ Even offering a geography lesson, fans can easily identify countries like Namibia, Mali, or Senegal, nations often overlooked in today’s media. Within soccer circles, African nations are not labeled by their place on the travel advisory list but by their victories.

In the case of Egypt, however, the fervent air of African unity vanishes with the tournament’s end. Egyptian nationalism once again defines and confines what it means to belong, privileging an Arab marker that is both exclusive and incomplete. Arab identity today is deeply entwined in Egyptian nationalism, but it hasn’t always been.

Roots of Arab Nationalism in Egypt

Embracing Arab identity is a modern phenomenon in Egypt. When World War I ended with the dismantling of the Ottoman Empire, Egyptian nationalists took the opportunity to petition for independence from the British who occupied Egypt since 1882. Egyptians failed to get their delegation (Wafd) a spot at the table of world powers during the 1919 Paris Peace Conference, the initial venue where European nations gathered to carve out contemporary Middle East borders from the Ottoman Empire.

In response, for years a range of political and populist groups campaigned for Egyptian independence. They mainly argued, albeit problematically, that Egyptians had a historic continuous presence in the Nile Valley which made their nation unique. They defined Egyptians by geographic proximity in a form of territorial nationalism, not Arab ethnic labels.

It was political and pragmatic. Refusing the Arab label was part of the struggle against post-World War I European land grabs. In the 1920 Mandate system, France and Britain, with the League of Nations support, controlled much of the Arab Ottoman lands. Egypt tried to distance themselves from Arab identity to establish their sovereignty. The 1923 Egyptian constitution affirmed this belief. Arabic was recognized as an official language, but not Arab nationalism or solidarity. Arab identity was fashioned as something bigger than linguistic connections. To early Egyptian nationalists, Egypt shared Arab qualities but was not Arab.

After Egyptian independence in 1952, nationalism changed. Arab nationalism became a liberation ideology that unified many nascent countries in the region. By 1956, Egypt’s constitution officially supported Arab nationalism by affirming Egypt was part of a larger collective Arab struggle. It was a powerful tool that allowed for a sense of empowerment in a region riddled by European imperialism. Yet, the limitations of Arab Nationalism ring most sound when identity links people across the Middle East but marginalizes those within their own nation.

In the case of Egypt, groups like Nubians, Bedouins, Berbers, and Copts, who often reject Arab labels, contort to fit into government molded categories. Egypt’s “Arab Republic” title does little to fully encompass the intersectionality of identity present in its historic non-Arab communities. Many linguistic, cultural and religious identities that exist in Egypt are stifled by policies of marginalization.

Denying different Egyptian communities rebuffs the richness such diversity offers to building a post-colonial nation that does more than just pick up the pieces of its past imperialist oppressors. One such liberation ideology is exemplified in the AFCON experience.

AFCON: A Tale of Decolonization

Only 3 nations participated in the first 1957 tournament; Sudan, Ethiopia and Egypt. South Africa was scheduled to compete but disqualified for apartheid policies—they refused to send a multiracial team. Many African nations were under colonial rule. Sudan, the original hosts, had become independent just one year earlier. Egypt became the first AFCON champion in 1957. This same year Egypt asserted economic sovereignty by nationalizing the Suez Canal, a victory that forged its place as a leader in the Arab world.

In 1959, Egypt defended their title in AFCON. Just one year prior, Egypt established a union with Syria as the “United Arab Republic.” They entered AFCON as a mixed African and non-African confederation, but the players were Egyptian. Many Syrians celebrated the victory as their own, though politically the confederation only lasted 2 more years.

By the late 1960s, most African nations had gained independence and joined the Confederation of African Football. Participation in this Pan-African space solidified post-colonial African nations’ place in the public arena of sport and discourse. Newly liberated nations became victors in AFCON, such as Ethiopia (1962), Ghana (1963), and DR Congo (1968). Increasing AFCON participation reflected the ability for African nations to unite outside of political and economic hardships.

The history of AFCON is a chronicle of African decolonization; a tale of cooperation, competition and difference. A story that showcases how diversity can exist within unity. It’s an emancipation account African governments should welcome and use to reconstruct histories that are inclusive, recognizing our common lived experiences of colonial pasts while empowering communities that exist in the nation today.  With new narratives, we can reject labels of division, like sectarianism, that were tools colonial authorities used to divide and rule.

Consequences of European imperialism still vibrate throughout the African continent. 20th century imperialist policies greatly harmed African nations. It’s not easy to heal the economic, social and political wounds of sectarian systems, apartheid policies, and European power dynamics that occupied and damaged African nations.

Yet, the zeal of football fans demonstrates an alternative lived experience that highlights African victories over imperialism. AFCON gives space for pain and pride, competition and cooperation, commonality and distinction to exist together—within the game and in collective memory.

Egyptian Identity, “Lots of Parts

The games symbolize an empowered African identity that Egypt can adopt outside of AFCON. As a populist event that disrupts Eurocentric sports, it also reclaims the history of an African continent marked with blemishes of colonization. A continental tournament like AFCON complicates our cookie cutter definitions of the Middle East and Africa, challenging beliefs that identities are singular or people bound by borders only built in the modern era.

No nation should be constrained by singularity, it inevitably leads to marginalizing elements of society. Egypt is not only Arab as no individual is only one thing. Being Arab and African are not mutually exclusive labels. Arabs can be African. Egypt’s place in the Arab World does not dislodge it from the African continent; it can exist in both spaces. Privileging one uniform Arab identity does little to empower the religious, cultural, linguistic and ethnic mixture that is all too often overshadowed in Egypt.

Credit: CAF Online

Populist support during AFCON indicates Egypt’s potential for this inclusive framework to exist and thrive. The 2019 AFCON mascot, a child Tut embodying Egypt’s national “Pharaohs” team, visualizes how soccer challenges Egyptian nationalism. Wearing a pharaonic headdress while dressed in red, white and black soccer clothes—Egypt’s national colors—his shirt bears only one image: Africa.

In the AFCON multilingual song, Nigerian musician Femi Kuti sings “Africa, lots of parts.” The lively dancing and diverse cast celebrates Africanness, harmonizing difference with inclusivity, something Egypt should espouse long after the games end. AFCON empowers an African experience that is not uniform. There is no one way to be African. Egyptian identity likewise doesn’t have to be exclusive; it can be lots of parts.

Any opinions or thoughts expressed in this article do not reflect the views of Egyptian Streets’ editorial team. To submit an opinion piece, please email [email protected]

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Mirna is an Egyptian-American Middle East historian. She is currently a PhD Candidate at the University of California, San Diego researching girls’ education, Egyptian nationalism and constructions of female citizenship in contemporary Egypt. She's interested in exploring how education influenced political activism in modern Egypt, while incorporating experiences of women, minorities and subaltern communities into larger narratives of Egyptian history.

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