Rio Gets Its Taste of Middle East Politics


© SkgKirill

August 16, 2016 23:30 EDT

Regardless of how inclined we are to have politics-free Olympics, it seems like an impossible task.

Politically, the Middle East has been a global hotbed of interstate wars, civil conflicts and authoritarian regimes. Socially, it is home to some of the most restrictive social systems and policies. This has made the region an endless source of controversies.

News surrounding Middle Eastern participants at the Olympic Games has been no exception. Middle Eastern players in Rio have made strong political and social statements that have sparked intense debates in their own nations and the entire world.

So far at the Rio Olympics, there have been two critical Middle Eastern moments that hold significance in understanding the region’s political and social realities.

Official Peace and National Rivalry

In Egypt, a country where the Olympics receive little public attention compared to local football matches, one game was particularly gripping. Days before its actual date, the Judo match between the Egyptian Judoka Islam el-Shehaby and his Israeli opponent, Ori Sasson, started classic debates about “normalization” in Egypt. Would the Egyptian player compete with an Israeli? Would the two shake hands after the game?

Now, if you’re unfamiliar with the classical Arab-Israeli conflict, these questions would seem bizarre to you. So, let’s back up to explain the politics behind the game.

In 1978, Egyptian President Anwar el-Sadat and Israeli Prime Minister Menachem Begin signed the Camp David Accords that led to the Egypt-Israel Peace Treaty of 1979. This was a historical moment for the region as it ended a state of war that began with the foundation of Israel in 1948.

Although the agreement received an international round of applause, it received strong opposition from nationalists in both countries. While the peace treaty was taken for granted over time, the “normalization” of the relationship between Egypt and Israel did not. Simply put, “not fighting” never meant befriending.

This led to two parallel types of relationships between Egypt and Israel. Officially, the Egyptian and the Israeli governments cooperate on many military, political and economic issues. Visually, this means lots of handshakes between Egyptian and Israeli officials.

Yet ties between both nations’ citizens are almost nonexistent. Egyptians in Israel are suspected terrorists by the “virtue” of being Arab, and Israelis in Egypt are considered potential spies. In popular culture, on both sides of the borders, different works of art from music to sculpture portray the other as the traditional enemy. Thus, the two peoples never shake hands.

Building on that historical glimpse, one can understand the official and public politics behind the game. Before the match, the Egyptian delegation asserted repeatedly that the Egyptian player would participate, refuting some public demands of withdrawal to avoid “normalization.” On Egyptian social media, there were deep divisions between those who supported the withdrawal of the player and others who pushed for “fighting and winning.”

At the end, Shehaby abided by the official rules and participated. Yet he used his own discretion by refusing to shake hands with his opponents. This is another instance where the divergence between the official and public stances is clear.

After the controversy sparked by the game, the Egyptian delegation criticized Shehaby for his attitude and distanced itself from his actions. Egyptian public opinion, however, was divided on the player’s actions. While many blamed him for “embarrassing” the country, others viewed him as a true representative of the Egyptian people who refuse normalization with Israel.

The bottom line is that the long peace between Egypt and Israel did not bring the two peoples any closer. The Shehaby-Sasson game sums up the reality of the Arab-Israeli conflict today where officials shake hands but the masses do not.

The Oppressed Women of the Orient

It’s safe to say that the veil, or the hijab, is the most debated piece of cloth in our modern times. Laws are enacted in its honor, politicians add it to their electoral toolkit and the media never get bored of discussing it.

Outside the Muslim world and the Middle East, the veil is viewed as a symbol of oppression and hindrance to women. Yet within Muslim communities, it is largely held as a religious practice and a symbol of modesty. In contrast to the dominant Western idea, the majority of Muslim women would not cite the hijab as their main obstacle to empower themselves.

The participation of the “covered” Egyptian women’s team in beach volleyball at the Olympics came to challenge this belief.

The picture of the Egyptian players in “burkinis” facing the Spanish team in bikinis was widely circulated to symbolize a clash of civilizations or a moment of cultural tolerance. Yet regardless of the symbolism behind the photo, it is informative of one important reality about women of the orient: the veil and women’s oppression are barely synonyms.

At the end, regardless of how inclined we are to have politics-free Olympics, it seems like an impossible task. To have a politics-free international event is to have an event with no players or attendees.

Politics shape how we view the world and others. Social interactions define who we are as humans, and sport is one arena where humans interact to reflect their views on their surroundings.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Fair Observer’s editorial policy.

Photo Credit: SkgKirill

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