Egypt's bitter politics spill onto the sports field

Egypt's bitter politics spill onto the sports field
Al-Ahly's Ahmed Abdul Zahar gives a four-finger salute during the African Champions League final victory against Orlando Pirates in Cairo, on November 10, 2013

CAIRO - The banning of two athletes for on-field displays of sympathy with outlawed Islamists has seen Egypt's bitter politics cast a shadow over sport - and not for the first time.

Al-Ahly football club banned its forward Ahmed Abdel Zaher from next month's FIFA Club World Cup and intends to sell him over a goal celebration last week that sympathised with supporters of Islamist president Mohamed Morsi, deposed by the military in July.

Abdel Zaher, 28, held up four fingers in a sign called Rabaa (fourth) in Arabic after scoring a goal against Orlando Pirates of South Africa in African Champions League finals, which Al-Ahly won.

The symbol was adopted by Islamists who camped out for weeks in Cairo's Rabaa al-Adawiya Square to protest the army's ouster of Morsi before security forces moved in to disperse them on August 14.

Hundreds of people, mainly Morsi supporters, were killed.

Al-Ahly also fined its prized footballer and known Morsi sympathiser Mohamed Aboutrika for failing to show up at the medals ceremony after the match.

The decision came after Egypt's Kung Fu body banned Mohamed Youssef for two years for wearing a shirt bearing the Rabaa sign while accepting his gold medal in a tournament in Russia last month.

The suspension "constitutes part of an autocratic regime's efforts to control all public space," James Dorsey, an expert on Middle East football and senior fellow at the Singapore-based S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies, told AFP.

"(Abdel) Zaher's suspension moreover highlights the inextricable relationship between sports and politics that both government and sports bodies deny."

When Al-Ahly suspended Abdel Zaher, Egypt's interim minister of state for sport Taher Abu Zeid had urged that he be banned for two years, the "way Kung Fu fighter Mohamed Youssef was."

Egypt has become deeply polarised since Morsi, the country's first freely elected president, was ousted by the military amid massive protests against his turbulent one-year rule.

"There is a complete media blackout when it comes to Islamist views...and anyone who expresses dissent is a potential threat," said Shadi Hamid, director of research at Brookings Doha Center.

"Banning players is a clear political decision."

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