The Africa Cup of Nations kicked off in Egypt earlier this week. The circumstances under which the championship is being held are quite unusual, since it was originally destined for Cameroon.
However, the latter country could not make the necessary preparations, which meant that the Confederation of African Football (CAF) asked for new bids to host the tournament, with Egypt and South Africa applying.
Hosting such a championship requires several prerequisites. Infrastructure is an essential element, as football at this level requires much organisation.
The quality of the stadiums is an integral part of the equation, as is the ability to host the teams, implying significant hotel capacity and the provision of training fields.
This year’s championship is the first to witness the participation of 24 teams, instead of the 16 that have taken part in the Africa Cup of Nations since it began in the 1950s.
Egypt won the majority of votes in the new bid, easily defeating South Africa. The fact that at an earlier time Egypt lost its bid for hosting the Football World Cup to South Africa in 2010 means that Egypt’s sports-related infrastructure has developed significantly over the past few years.
Feedback from the CAF has been very positive, and the organisational and logistical capacities Egypt has laid on for the tournament are proving to be quite exceptional in comparison to other countries in Africa that might have wanted to host the Africa Cup of Nations.
Some might ask why Egypt took on the burden of organising the tournament and bearing the necessary arrangements for hosting a regional football championship. The answer to this question involves interrelated political interests and football as a tool of soft power.
Egypt has been working on its foreign policy towards Africa over recent years and particularly since the political turbulence in 2011 that led to a setback for its role in the continent.
The past couple of years have witnessed a resurgence in Egypt’s role in Africa, and President Abdel-Fattah Al-Sisi has made numerous trips to African countries.
Moreover, Egypt is heading the African Union (AU) this year, a regional responsibility that it has been carefully planning for. Hosting a popular tournament like the Africa Cup of Nations, even though this was not originally planned, is also a way for Egypt to exert its influence in the continent.
Organising the tournament has dual benefits, for both Egypt and the CAF. The latter has found a perfect substitute for its previous choice of Cameroon, and for Egypt hosting the tournament brings it benefits on two levels.
The first has to do with Egypt’s role as the leader of the African Union, with its capacity to host an event followed by millions of Africans being a powerful expression of Egyptian interests in Africa and showing that it is well situated to host African teams on its soil.
The second has to do with the fact that Egypt is using the tools of soft power in its foreign policy, a practice capable of opening up new spheres of influence for Egypt in Africa.
There is also a domestic dimension regarding Egypt’s hosting of the tournament. The return of football fans to the country’s stadiums has been an issue in Egypt since the events at the Port Said Stadium in 2012, after which fans were banned from attending live games.
The participation of Egypt’s national team in the present tournament will help to see the return of fans to football matches, since there is a major difference between supporting the national team and supporting particular clubs.
The national team is a platform upon which all Egyptians can unite. Followers of football will know that this occurred in the 2006, 2008, 2010 and 2017 tournaments when football stirred up enormous national sentiment.
The Africa Cup of Nations in 2019 is expected to give rise to a renewed sense of nationalism the likes of which have not been seen in some time.
Regardless of the results of the tournament, Egypt is setting an example of its infrastructural and organisational capacities and its leading role within the continent by hosting it this year.
Such tools of soft power are becoming major aids to regional influence, and football, with the enormous audiences it can gather, is an essential pathway to such benefits.
Hosting the tournament is a foreign-policy success for Egypt, with winning or losing not taking away from the political gains of holding it. The role of Egypt in Africa needs to be revived by using various tools, and football is certainly one of them.
* The writer is a senior researcher and director of the Programme for the Mediterranean and North Africa Studies at Al-Ahram Centre for Political and Strategic Studies.
*A version of this article appears in print in the 27 June, 2019 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly under the headline: Africa and football: Egypt’s tools of soft power