CAIRO — Egypt is gearing up for a different kind of sports rivalry, one in which it will compete to keep its own athletes from "defecting" to other countries.
Under the auspices of the Egyptian government, Banque Misr launched Feb. 18 the Egyptian Sports Fund to support athletes in Egypt and help them reach the forefront of international competitions. The fund will help build modern facilities and finance sports workshops for 70 athletes in the first three years.
So far, the fund has 5 million Egyptian pounds ($283,350) in paid capital contributed by Banque Misr. In March, the fund will launch an initial public offering (IPO), hoping to raise 250 million pounds in the first half of 2018 and 1 billion pounds within the next 18 months.
The fund was announced a few days after parliament's legislative session, in which the Youth and Sports Committee as well as the Foreign Relations Committee participated. During that Feb. 12 session, parliament called for action to retain Egyptian athletes, who are being recruited to become naturalized citizens and play for other countries, mainly Qatar.
Banque Misr Chairman Mohamed el-Etreby said during a Feb. 18 press conference that the IPO's success will depend mainly on Egyptian and foreign banks and institutions, as well as investors. The IPO funds will help Egypt support and train athletes to compete internationally and in the Olympic Games.
During the parliamentary session, Farag Amer, the chairman of the Youth and Sports Committee, warned against Qatar’s policy of naturalization to get Egyptian athletes to play on its national teams. Taking a jab at the United States and Qatar, he said naturalized athletes are usually the ones who win international competitions for their host countries.
Every now and then, the Egyptian media reports on Qatar naturalizing Egyptian players, which is seen as an extension of the ongoing political conflict between the countries.
Cairo and Doha have been embroiled in a diplomatic row since the time of late Egyptian President Gamal Abdel Nasser. Back then, Qatar boycotted the 1964 Arab Summit meeting in Cairo. The dispute dragged on until the era of late Egyptian President Anwar Sadat, as Qatar officially rejected the Camp David Accord with Israel in 1978. Then under former President Hosni Mubarak, the Egyptian regime opposed Doha for supporting Hamas and for its rapprochement with the Iranian regime.
In June 2017, Cairo decided to sever diplomatic relations with Qatar as part of the Arab Quartet (Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, Egypt and the United Arab Emirates) decision to boycott Qatar. Cairo accused Doha of antagonizing Egypt, supporting terrorist groups (namely the Muslim Brotherhood) and harboring Brotherhood leaders who allegedly carried out terrorist operations against Egypt.
Though Qatar isn't the only country benefitting from the prowess of Egyptian athletes, many prominent athletes recruited from Egypt play on Qatari national teams, including the handball, basketball and soccer squads. Qatari hammer throw standout Ashraf Amgad Elseify, a gold medalist in the 2014 World Junior Championship, is of Egyptian origin. Discus thrower Muaz Mohamed, who represented Qatar at the 2016 Summer Olympics in Rio de Janeiro, is also of Egyptian origin. This is in addition to Fares Hassouna, a naturalized weightlifter in Qatar, who won the silver medal for the 94 kilograms competition at the World Weightlifting Championships in Anaheim, California, in December.
Sharif al-Arian, the secretary-general of the Egyptian Olympic Committee, is entrusted with organizing sports in Egypt. He told Al-Monitor the committee does not have any concerns about the naturalization of Egyptian athletes.
“This phenomenon is part of the Egyptian 'brain drain' to countries abroad, [as athletes search] for better opportunities — which isn't considered a political crisis in the eyes of the Olympic Committee,” Arian said.
“This is a matter of becoming an international athlete. It has nothing to do with Qatar in particular, as Egyptian athletes look for better opportunities around the world — not only in Qatar. It is true that Qatar has managed to attract several athletes from Egypt to represent it and play on its different national teams in international competitions. But the reason behind this is the lack of good sports opportunities that meet the athletes' expectations in their homeland,” he added.
Sports critic Yasser Ayyoub told Al-Monitor, “During the Youth Olympic Games of 2014, the Qatari national handball team was mostly made up of Egyptians. When Qatar competed against Egypt, it was like a bad joke. Egyptians were playing against each other.”
He added, “What is worse is that Egyptian athletes now are somehow pressuring the heads of sports unions and clubs into accepting their many conditions, or they would accept Qatari offers. This is undoubtedly a good opportunity for Qatar to seize. But Qatar is not only fishing for good Egyptian athletes, but for other players of different nationalities.”
Ayyoub doesn't expect the new government measures to stop Egyptian athletes from playing for other national teams. “Egypt cannot compete with Qatar’s lucrative offers to athletes,” he said.
Mohammed Shiha, an agent for several athletes in Egypt, told Al-Monitor, “This is not even remotely close to a political matter. Parliament is blowing things out of proportion. Qatar is not the only country to naturalize players, and it will not pay these huge amounts out of political spite. Qatar sees potential in these players and invests in them.”
Tariq Khouli, the secretary of the parliamentary Foreign Relations Committee, has a different view.
“We are aware of Qatar’s attempts to snare Egyptians. The naturalization of a large number of Egyptian sports talents is part of a political plot,” Khouli told Al-Monitor.
As Egyptian players leave their national teams to join Qatari teams in search of better opportunities, Cairo is pinning its hopes on the newly established fund to retain its athletes.