The debate around the defeat of Egyptian judoka Islam al-Shehaby to Israeli counterpart Or Sasson, and the loser’s subsequent refusal to shake hands with his opponent, prompted widespread controversy in Egypt on how an Egyptian deals with Israelis. Blown up because the Olympics are watched by the whole world, it followed years of smaller discussions in cafes, on social media and in private spaces about normalization.
Shehaby’s critics and defenders all shared a feeling of shame. Nobody saw him as a hero to be celebrated. Many attacked him, and few sympathized with him. At best, Shehaby invited pity.
The refusal to shake hands was not a moment of national pride — the Egyptian player was not said to be sending a strong message against Israel. It was a moment of shame, especially as the Israeli media gloated about “the defeated Arabs, offspring of hate.”
The shame was fundamentally because of the defeat. If the Egyptian had won, then refused to shake hands, the feeling would have been different. Shehaby would have been able to enact the scene better, with greater confidence. His fans who would have been better able to label his position as a political stance. And the Zionist media would have been limited to anger rather than ridicule.
Shehaby’s facial expressions tell us that he was perplexed after his defeat and didn’t know how to behave. His mind went blank for a second. He didn’t know what to do. Incidentally, it seems to me that many of his critics cannot imagine themselves in the same position. What do you do if you lose to an Israeli in a sport, with the Egyptian flag behind you and the world’s cameras on you?
I pitied Shehaby. I didn’t like the excessive attack on him because I consider him a victim of society. His behavior simply indicates that there’s a problem, one that needs to be thought through and solved.
A simple and logical question recurs: What do I do if I meet an Israeli abroad? Do I ignore them? How? Should I hit them? Should I behave normally? What if I had an Israeli neighbor abroad and they said good morning? Most Egyptians abroad return a good morning to an Israeli just like they would to anyone else because this is how humans interact.
In Egypt, the nationalist discourse offered by influential figures on television and cinema, as well as less influential Nasserist and leftist figures, is aware of this but refuses to acknowledge it, because that would encourage people to open a box it has long monopolized. The nationalist discourse refuses to listen to the question “What would you do in my place?” because that question mischievously unsettles the unified nationalist position.
When the question is asked, defenders of the nationalist discourse sometimes utilize Egyptian martyrs for emotional blackmail, as a substitute for a discussion based on logic and collective thinking. This bears some resemblance to the utilization of Holocaust victims to silence those who point to Zionist crimes. Debate is clogged and questions unanswered.
Thus there is a performance of surprise that Israelis compete in the Olympics.
When it comes to the position on Israel, the general population stand in a completely different place from that occupied by the nationalist discourse. The majority of Egyptians only recognize in the word “Israel” a threat of state security interfering in their lives. Most don’t care about cooperation with Israelis anywhere, and if they do, it’s only the security aspect. Does it put me in danger or doesn’t it? The issue isn’t an ideological one, unlike it is for the elite.
The issue is settled in the minds of the elite, but only on the level of ideology, not detail. The state makes peace and its officials normalize relations with Israel, and the elite has no response except to make people scared of Israelis and scared of dealing with Isrealis. They have no convincing answers — they only spread fear of intruding on holy ground.
What if this ground is no longer holy and people begin questioning it? That’s when the defeat of the nationalist discourse begins, because it has never thought about these questions and their answers.
The nationalist discourse hasn’t engaged with or thought about the possibility of defeating Israel for decades, only with boycotting. For decades, the nationalist mind has been scared to conceive of defeating Israel, because this might mean contact with Israelis: A laughable paradox, but it touches on a real fear among the defeated, the fear of looking into the eyes of the enemy. They prefer to look at the ground or divert their eyes. They prefer to shy away rather than seriously consider the possibility of victory.
Just as the collective nationalist mind has not considered the possibility of defeating the state of Israel, it has not imagined the possibility of defeat to Israeli individuals. Egyptian entertainment has frequently portrayed Egyptian heroes defeating Israelis in various fields, but it has told us nothing about the flipside: What’s the correct behavior of a defeated Egyptian if it’s mandatory to compete against Israelis, because of international or local pressure, because the game entails the possibility of defeat or victory? (What I mean by “correct” here is the behavior that’s most useful for Palestinians and most able to free them — just in case one forgets that this is the main objective of the whole boycott movement.)
This possibility was neglected because no one foresees defeated Egyptians. We don’t accept anything except a landslide victory in any war between an Egyptian and an Israeli. We don’t want to imagine the possibility of defeat, so we don’t know how to deal with it when it happens.
Egypt’s elite frightens the people of the Israelis because they are frightened, and they are frightened because they don’t know. We’re fighting an enemy of whom we know nothing, a ghost in a room. Whomever dares to put on the light to say “this is what the ghost looks like” is accused of humanizing the enemy.
Over the past decades, the elite has been in a state of panic. They are afraid and confused, they don’t know how to behave in relation to Israel. They are defeated and refuse to shake hands — but not with heads held high. They are subdued because their political leaders have been normalizing relations with the enemy, and because they never challenge their leaders — nor Israel itself, of course. They have only challenged individuals engaging in acts of normalization. They have busied themselves with challenging the language of normalization rather than its status quo. Disapprovingly, they have wondered, “Has betrayal become a position?” They only fight betrayal, which can be considered a point of view, by trying to take it out of the remit of a point of view and include it in the realm of treason, which must be fought. This has become the main struggle.
An attempt was recently made by the Campaign to Boycott of Supporters of “Israel” in Lebanon to define what’s meant by normalization. According to the document it produced, normalization refers to participation in any activity that brings together Arabs and Israelis as long as Israel exists. This applies to all forms of scientific, professional, artistic, feminist or youth activity.
The campaign emphasized the term “Israeli” to differentiate itself from the international Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement. It said: “We are not obliged to abide by BDS criteria that demands its international supporters boycott Israeli institutions complicit with the oppressive occupying Israeli regime. In our view, the responsibility for the occupation is not limited to Israeli institutions alone, because there are Israeli Jews who, with the help of Zionist entities and institutions, occupy the lands and homes of Palestinians.”
This campaign has not added anything new to the essence of the nationalist discourse — that Israelis are like Israel, all inherently evil, all inherently frightening, as perceived by the collective unconscious. As a result, both the state of Israel and its role in the region are magnified.
Israel has become an indispensable ally in the war against the Islamic State in Sinai. Egypt and Saudi Arabia are pursuing its friendliness. The warm peace is getting warmer, while Egyptian individuals are afraid of Israeli individuals for legendary reasons. Even when Shehaby refuses to shake hands with his Israeli opponent, he does it with shame.
The normalization debate is only opened when somebody normalizes, to target only this one normalizer. The document referred to above was only written because Lebanese-born French novelist Amin Maalouf gave an interview to an Israeli television channel.
When someone normalizes — by visiting Israel, translating their work to Hebrew or appearing on Israeli media — intellectuals rise against him or her, then other intellectuals rise against those intellectuals. Both parties are not really concerned about normalization, as evidenced by the fact that their debate only occurs when an incident happens. If they have spare time, they don’t spend it contemplating the nature and limits of normalization. The question of normalization is always postponed until an event forces us to address it, and when one occurs there’s no place for a calm conversation, only hysteria, because we’re in the middle of a crisis.
The Judo match was an event, but the Egyptian was not ready. He was besieged by nightmarish possibilities, surrounded by the whole Arab Israeli conflict. Under different circumstances and with a different history of rational conversation about Israel and how to challenge it, he could have been more comfortable with himself. Even refusing to shake hands with the Israeli, he would have been more convincing.
In our region normalization does not acquire momentum and become an indicator of a person’s politics except during political suffocation, when political opposition is limited to Islamists and nationalists.
Egypt has long been burdened with this political suffocation, except for two or three years after the January 25 revolution in 2011. I didn’t hear one accusation of normalization in 2011. We had just come out of a revolution, proud of ourselves and proud of being Egyptian. We believed we could stand up to the world. That year was the year of rising nationalist sentiment in Egypt and other Arab countries. This will be hard to understand for the enemies of the Arab spring, the children of Bashar al-Assad and Gamal Abdel Nasser.
Now, the Egyptian athlete refused to shake hands with his Israeli counterpart. But he did it with his head low, turning a moment theoretically meant to be “a courageous stand against the Zionist entity” into a moment of national shame and self-hate.
Because the nationalist discourse is dull and lacks sensitivity, every day more and more Egyptians dare to declare that they don’t understand the Arab Israeli conflict, and wonder why, then, Israel is bad. This is the moment for the nationalist discourse to announce failure, or at least hear the deep cracks in the walls that exclude people who don’t consider Israel an enemy and do not visualize Palestinians on their map of the Middle East.
It’s true that the boycott of Israel in its traditional form is falling apart and losing its sanctity, and it’s true that I have no hope that what will come will be any better, but I do believe that continuing to be active in this way does matter.