Sympathy for Gaza Turns Egyptian Footballer Into Hero

Egyptians back athlete warned against displaying political messages.

February 9, 2009, 6:28 PM

CAIRO, Feb. 4, 2008 — -- Abou Trika, the popular Egyptian soccer player, is now a national hero. He won the hearts of Egyptians for displaying a slogan in support of Gaza at the African Nations Cup.

Egypt's midfielder lifted his red national team jersey to show a white shirt with the slogan "Sympathize With Gaza" as he rejoiced scoring against Sudan in an African Cup match.

The African Cup Confederation said the player was warned by an official letter for breaking rules set by the FIFA, the governing body for international football, which has a strict ban on political statements.

Trika's action coincided with the Palestinians breaching a border fence and forcing their way into Egypt to break the Israeli blockade imposed on them.

More than 700,000 Palestinians went on a jubilant shopping spree in the Egyptian city of Rafah and close neighbor Al Arish. The Egyptian president said Egypt allowed the Palestinians in to secure food supplies and blamed Israel for the humanitarian suffering in Gaza.

Articles and editorials praising the 29-year-old star flooded the Egyptian papers. He was described as the "noble knight" and one newspaper in a congratulatory message to Trika wrote, "Your message has reached the world."

The gesture appealed to many Egyptians. Fahmy Howeidy, a prominent political writer, praised the football star in an editorial titled "Thank You, Abou Trika," which appeared in the Al Doustor newspaper.

On the streets of Cairo, people were overwhelmingly proud of Trika's gesture. "He reflects what all of us Egyptians feel," said Hamdi Gaffar, a courier.

"I can't understand why the CAF [African Cup Confederation] warned him. He only displayed a sympathy message with the poor, hungry and deprived people in Gaza. Would anyone have punished him if he had put on 'Sympathize With Israel'?" said Heba Kamal, a banker.

A few voices were critical, arguing that it was an irresponsible move that could have cost the Egyptian team points and incurred fines that could have threatened Egypt's chance to preserve the cup it won in the 2006 African games.

However, they were immediately drowned out by support calls from celebrities proposing to pay any fine imposed.

Trika has been voted the world's most popular footballer in the International Federation of Football history's public vote.

The sympathy in the Egyptian streets toward lifting the blockade on the Palestinians has been met met by growing concern by the Egyptian regime on national security threats.

According to Emad Gad from the Egyptian think tank Al Ahram Center for Strategic Studies, the Egyptians had to allow the Palestinians in because all other options were catastrophic.

"The sympathy was high in the Egyptian streets. However, with newspapers reporting explosives brought into Sinai by Palestinians, attacks on police forces, raising Palestinian flag on Egyptian establishments and the incredible increase in prices, Egyptians are beginning to worry about their own welfare," Gad said.

Meanwhile, Cairo is hosting talks with the Palestinian authorities Fatah and Hamas in an attempt to settle the border conflict.

Egypt and Israel both want Hamas to relinquish control of the border to Fatah forces, something Hamas has been unwilling to do.

So far, the borders are being resealed by Egyptian forces. However, a full siege on Gaza will be hard to impose amid growing protests across the Arab world.

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