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August 19, 2016 6:07 pm

Concern for World Image, Not Love for Israel, Drives Egyptian Public’s Criticism of Judoka’s Snub of Israeli Rival, Analysis Finds

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Egypt’s Islam El Shehaby seen snubbing a handshake by Israel's Ori Sasson after being defeated in a first-round judoka Olympic match. Photo: The Israel Project.

Egypt’s Islam El Shehaby seen snubbing a handshake by Israel’s Ori Sasson after being defeated in a first-round judoka Olympic match. Photo: The Israel Project.

The Egyptian public’s reaction to judoka Islam El Shehaby’s refusal to shake his Israeli opponent Ori Sasson’s hand after Sasson defeated him in a match earlier this month at the 2016 Summer Olympics in Rio de Janeiro was nuanced, but largely negative, according to an analysis published by an Israeli think tank on Thursday.

According to the article, written by Institute for National Security Studies research associates Omer Einav and Ofir Winter and research fellow Orit Perlov, much of the Egyptian public criticism of El Shehaby focused on the unsportsmanlike nature of his deed.

“Many regard El Shehaby as having disgraced the sport and the Olympic Games — the epitome of international sportsmanship,” the INSS article said. “His refusal to shake hands, regardless of his opponent’s identity, was interpreted as frustration over his loss and an attempt to divert attention from his professional failure to political controversy, reminiscent of the frequent use by Egypt (and other Arab regimes) of the Palestinian issue to divert attention from their domestic failings. The most common term used to describe the situation was ‘pathetic,’ accompanied by the sense that the Egyptian flag had been disgraced.”

One of the main worries aired by Egyptians was how the incident would affect their country’s global image. “The concern for Egypt’s positive image is regarded as extremely important at the present time, when Egypt needs the world’s support in dealing with its economic distress,” the article said. “Egypt’s image as a peace loving, stable, and advanced country combating extremism, rather than a stronghold of radical Islam, political chaos, and backwardness, is regarded by Egypt’s leaders as a key to attracting foreign investment, rehabilitating the tourist industry, and increasing exports, growth, and development. Egypt’s peaceful relations with Israel constitute an integral part of Egypt’s positive international reputation.

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“In this sense, sports in general, and the Olympics in particular, should have been part of Egypt’s showcase of its favorable qualities, and leverage for rebranding itself as a regional power with an open and tolerant cultural heritage.”

Despite the warming of relations between the Egyptian and Israeli governments since Abdel-Fattah el-Sissi rose to power in Cairo in 2013, normalization “remains a complex and sensitive idea for the Egyptian public,” the article said. “Indeed, most of El-Shehaby’s critics did not criticize him for ignoring his Israeli competitor and were not motivated by a desire for normalization, but by reasons involving sportsmanship and Egypt’s image and international standing.”

However, the article went on to highlight that “the very existence of an open public debate, in which opinions on all sides are heard on an issue considered taboo for many years, constitutes a notable development.”

Given the Egyptian public’s reticence regarding the development of closer ties with Israel, the article said, “Israel should continue to focus on what is common to the leadership of both countries, not what divides the peoples, while maintaining the separation of political, security, and economic issues from more sensitive questions involving cultural and social matters covered by the ‘threatening’ term of ‘normalization.’”

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