By Mustafa Abdulhalim
During the 2012 London Summer Olympics each country cheered for the success of their athletes, but in Egypt this hope went beyond simply winning. For a country with many societal divides, sports – particularly football – can strengthen social cohesion and national identity.
Egypt’s participation in the Olympics could not be more symbolic of the role sports plays as a means to regain national pride and social unity. Egypt’s Olympic football team was coached by Hani Ramzy, the Coptic Christian player who led Egypt to victory in the 1998 Africa Cup of Nations championship. Despite divisions between Egyptians that have been evident in recent sectarian clashes in many parts of the country, there was unanimous support for the country’s Olympic team. Although Ramzy is the only Coptic Christian on the team, Egyptians praised his work and his team, especially after Egypt qualified for the Olympic quarter-finals with a 3-1 win over Belarus.
Football clubs are spread across Egypt and the sport has the potential to help bridge the gap between Muslims and Copts. However, before this unity can be achieved Egyptians must first acknowledge the social divisions evident in the country’s sporting leagues. Only then can they realize the sports potential to bring diverging groups together.
Hassan Shehata, a Muslim and the former coach of the Egyptian national football team, once said he selected his players for Egypt’s team on the basis of their “religiosity and piety.” The statement caused a massive furor and was taken as a pretext for not including a single Coptic player on the national football team. The Coptic Church, however, has its own football league, open only to members of the Coptic community. The example of religious diversity provided by the recent Olympic team should be replicated nationally.
Egyptians should create sporting leagues across the country in which participation is based purely on skill and not an athlete’s religious or sectarian affiliations. By playing, watching and supporting sports together, the two religious communities could share a mutual and healthier national spirit rather than continue to be divided by group affiliations.
We should think of sports as a common language to bring people together. Everyone in the country can use them to communicate, building a relationship based on shared experience.
This is not a revolutionary idea.
In June 2012 London’s Wembley Stadium was the site of a “faith and football” day that united students from Muslim, Christian and Jewish schools. This event was planned by the Three Faiths Forum (3FF), a UK-based organization dedicated to building relationships between people of all faiths, and the UK Football Association, which officially oversees the sport in the country.
Egyptians could replicate this example by creating nationwide leagues to promote intergroup and interfaith cooperation. These teams could include anyone who wants to participate in the sport and make Egyptians’ shared interest in sports a tool for a more inclusive society.
Sports lessons that promote intergroup unity in schools should be given priority. Everyone should be given a chance to compete for a spot on the national teams, regardless of whether their name is Mohammad or George. Sadly, there are presently few examples of interfaith football teams in the country.
Though these possibilities may seem ambitious and idealistic in the current context there are many such examples in Egypt’s history.
In 1998, Ramzy, an Egyptian Copt and the current coach of Egypt’s Olympic team, scored a goal for Egypt in the championship game of the Africa Cup of Nations. After scoring the goal he traced a cross on his chest in a common Christian gesture of prayer to thank God. When Hazem Imam, Ramzy’s Muslim teammate, scored a second goal he knelt down in prostration, expressing gratitude through prayer. As they celebrated their victory, with Ramzy carrying Imam on his shoulders, not a single member of the team or the audience cared who was a Muslim or a Copt at that moment.
Although the Olympics have ended the spirit of the games should continue. Egyptians need to believe in a future that is inclusive and encompasses all citizens. That’s where sports come in.
Mustafa Abdelhalim is an award-winning journalist who works for Al-Ahram and the BBC. This article originally appeared on Common Ground News Service.