Sports in Egypt, football particularly, has become a matter of national interest and a part of recently developed state strategies. The Egyptian state has taken several decisions to embark on investing in the infrastructure of the sports industry. To some, the issue might not warrant interest, but looking at long-term infrastructure strategies presents many justifications for such directions. How the state is dealing with the sports industry at this time? The industry of sports has a dual role that could provide the Egyptian state with socio-political services that the industry could provide.
Investing in the sports sector has various targets at this point. During 2019, we saw the organisation of two regional football championships in Africa, the African Cup of Nations last summer and the African Under 23 Youth Cup of Nations that is a portal for qualifying for the Olympics in 2020 in Tokyo. Here one has to wonder, what is the benefit that Egypt gains from being in charge of such events with their financial responsibilities?
We can divide between local benefits and regional benefits, since interests and benefits are different on both levels. Domestic activities of football and other sports in general have been somewhat problematic since February 2012 and the events that took place in Port Said Stadium, where 74 Ahly fans fell as a result of a violent confrontation between fans in the stadium. Sports, and football in particular, suddenly became a very contentious issue that the state watched closely. Politics, collective action and necessary intervention by the state into the sports sector were all combined together to create a very unstable scene.
Overcoming this period required structural changes within the perspective through which the state views the sports industry. There was a need for implementing more organisation and discipline within a realm that attracts thousands, and sometimes millions of fans. After the events in Port Said Stadium, judicial authorities ordered that sports will not be active again unless structural reforms are completed on the facilities fans flock to. There were specific requests, like installing monitoring cameras, having some sort of record of the fans who attend matches, and developing a mechanism that fuses both law and security interests in overseeing such activities. The state of political upheaval that was taking place at that time (2012-2013) was indeed a major factor in creating that discourse and these policies.
Due to these policies, Egypt managed to revive the sports industry while addressing security concerns regarding fans. After a period on hold, the football industry came back to life with new security modes of organisation. What needs to be taken into consideration at this point is the fact there are thousands of Egyptians who make a living out of the sports industry; again, football particularly. Therefore, in that context, football in Egypt at this time is no longer a mere sport, but has transformed into one of the dimensions of the economy, making it more crucial and powerful. Thousands work in the logistical and support fields in football. Football also has administrative aspects that provide for a huge sector of citizens. There are, of course, those who engage directly with the sport itself, and they also constitute a significant slice of society. Recently, Egyptian football was introduced to sponsorship, a phenomenon that wasn’t present before. The intervention of corporate organisations into football raised the financial value of the whole industry. The prices of players increased over the past couple of years, broadcasting rights also increased in value, and media that covers football activities also increased in presence and in wages. Hence, the development of sports activities created various economic benefits domestically due to reforms enacted earlier.
Regionally, specifically on the African platform, the issue is a little bit different. Egypt has been trying to re-engage and revive its role within the African continent. Football has been used as a tool of soft-power to prove that Egypt surpasses in its sports infrastructure any other African country. This approach could be considered as means to return to African leadership, which has been announced by the Egyptian state. The development that took place in Egyptian stadiums and sports infrastructure has a dual effect. On the one hand, Egypt could be recognised as the most privileged actor within sports infrastructure on the continent. On the other, the events that took place during past this year may attract more investment, from Africa or the Arab world, into the Egyptian sports industry. It is indeed a comparative advantage that Egypt needs to capitalise on.
Sports recently has become a pathway to political and economic gains. Having the capacity and the means to organise a regional championship could be more beneficial than other political tools. Dealing with the continent of Africa at this time, and considering the revival of Egypt’s role within it, requires relying on tools of soft power, and being the core of the sports industry in this context is indeed very beneficial, politically and economically.
Investing in sports is in the end an investment in a necessary sector of infrastructure. It is about time that Egypt adopts multiple tools within the realm of investment. What has been accomplished within the sports sector was quite significant, and we can now authentically say that there is an economy for sports in Egypt. However, there are bureaucratic and legislative conditions that need to be reformed in order to increase the benefit of investing in the sports sector.
The writer is director of the Programme for the Mediterranean & North Africa Studies at the Al-Ahram Centre for Political and Strategic Studies.
*A version of this article appears in print in the 14 November, 2019 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly.