Abuse of football star Shikabala highlights Egypt's anti-black racism

Abuse of football star Shikabala highlights Egypt's anti-black racism
In-depth: Videos by rival fans mocking black Zamalek footballer Mahmoud Abdelrazek, commonly known as Shikabala, have highlighted the problem of racism in Egypt.
5 min read
09 December, 2020
Star Egyptian footballer Shikabala has been the target of horrific racism. [Getty]
Racist slurs made by fans against black Egyptian footballer Mahmoud Abdelrazek Hassan Fadlala, commonly known as Shikabala, have caused outrage in Egypt and triggered a debate over anti-black discrimination and racial bullying in the country.

Shikabala, a 34-year-old star striker who comes from Aswan in southern Egypt and is the captain of the Egyptian Premier League club Zamalek, was targeted for racial abuse by fans of Zamalek's arch-rivals, Al-Ahly FC, following the African Champions League final at Cairo International Stadium on 27 November.

Al-Ahly won the match 2-1 against Zamalek, with Shikabala scoring his team's only goal.

Al-Ahly fans circulated overtly racist videos on social media targeting Shikabala as well as posts containing racial slurs and abuse. One video showed a black dog wearing a t-shirt with Shikabala's name printed on it, while another video showed fans holding a mock funeral for the star player at a cemetery in the town of Itay al-Barud, 130 kilometres north of Cairo.

Experts and analysts have pointed out that the racially charged abuse of Shikabala is a symptom of a wider, long-running malaise in Egyptian society.

Last September, the Egyptian government approved changes to the Egyptian penal code making bullying a crime. These changes define bullying as "any speech or show of force or control by the criminal against [a] victim or exploitation of a victim's weakness or condition which the criminal thinks causes offence to the victim – gender, ethnicity, religion, physical characteristics, health or mental condition, or social class, with the intent of intimidating the victim or making him the target of mockery or demeaning him or excluding him from his social environment."

Offenders can be imprisoned for at least six months and/or fined between 10,000 and 30,000 Egyptian pounds ($640 - 1,916). In cases where two or more people are involved in the bullying or where the offender has guardianship or some other form of power over the victim, the custodial sentence can be doubled and the financial penalty increased to between 20,000 and 100,000 Egyptian pounds ($1,277 - $6,385).

The new law has already been implemented and most recently used against two people who were found guilty of physically assaulting a Sudanese child in a poor area of Cairo in July. They were sentenced to two years in prison and fined 100,000 Egyptian pounds ($6,377).

Following the appearance of the videos abusing Shikabala, police arrested 15 people under the bullying law. Eleven of them were involved in the "mock funeral" video and the other four were involved in the video featuring the dog. However, they were later released, pending further investigation.

Racist video of a black dog wearing a T-shirt with Shikabala's name written on it was circulated (Warning: Some viewers may find this footage distressing)

After the videos circulated on the Internet, the English language hashtag #Stop_racism_against_Shikabala was used widely on Twitter, with some social media users pointing out that the star Zamalek player had been racially abused throughout his years-long footballing career.

Hazem Emam, a retired Zamalek footballer and current member of the club's board of directors tweeted, "The video of the dog was meant to make fun of Shikabala… but it will remain as a mark of shame for anyone who took part in it, supported it, or laughed at it. There's a big difference between joking around and being racist."

Read more: Egyptian actor silences racist troll by saying he's 'proud to be dark'

Egyptian campaigners and lawyers have praised the new legal penalties, but have also called for more action to stop all forms of bullying in Egyptian society. Many have described the increase in abuse as a "frightening" phenomenon, saying that social media has amplified its extent and harshness. The Egyptian Lawyers' Syndicate says that the penal code's definition of bullying may be too narrow to cover all instances of the phenomenon.

The law's definition, for example, doesn't go quite as far as that adopted by a recent UNICEF campaign to protect Egyptian children from bullying. UNICEF said that "bullying can take multiple forms, including spreading rumours, threatening, physical or verbal assault, engaging in insidious practices such as excluding a child from a group to hurt him/her, or any other gestures or actions that occur in a less visible manner."

There are fears that the Egyptian penal code's definition of bullying may not cover all the insidious forms of racial bullying, cyberbullying, and harassment that Shikabala and other black Egyptians may experience.

The star player has been subjected to implicit racial abuse for a long time. Shikabala's wife, Sarah, an Egyptian-Canadian, is light-skinned, and so is their son, Adam. During the Eid al-Fitr holiday last May, Shikabala posted a greeting on his Instagram account, featuring himself and his family, only to be met with mocking comments doubting Adam's parentage. The footballer was then forced to hide his son's face in the photograph.

Due to the insidious forms that bullying often takes, the penal code's definition of bullying, particularly the part about the intent of the offender, should be revised, according to a sociology professor interviewed by The New Arab's Arabic-language service, who preferred to remain anonymous.

He added that bullying behaviour was a means to an end, which was "character assassination" of a victim, by targeting their reputation, honour, social status and causing them psychological harm.

Shikabala was not the only Egyptian person of colour to suffer abuse recently. In November, authorities investigated the case of a dark-skinned woman and her daughters who were subjected to continued verbal abuse and attacks from their neighbour. The woman was forced to go to the police when her daughters became so traumatised that they could no longer leave the house.

While the video of racial abuse against Shikabala shocked Egyptians, it is becoming more apparent that discriminatory bullying is a deep-seated problem in Egypt and new forms of communication have both abetted the malaise and made it more visible. It remains to be seen whether Egypt, already suffering from authoritarianism, censorship, and poverty, is able to adequately confront the issue.

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