January 1, 2014 Inquiry & Analysis Series No. 1048

Punitive Measures Against Athletes For Flashing Four-Finger "Pro-MB" Sign Spark Controversy In Egypt

January 1, 2014 | By N. Shamni*
Egypt | Inquiry & Analysis Series No. 1048


In August 2013, the Egyptian authorities violently broke up sit-ins by supporters of ousted Egyptian president Muhammad Mursi near the Rabi'a Al-'Adawiyya Mosque and in Al-Nahda Square in Cairo. These events, during which hundreds of demonstrators were killed, sparked controversy in Egyptian society and became a formative event for the Muslim Brotherhood (MB) and its supporters, who recently commemorated them in demonstrations across Egypt marking 100 days after the massacre, as they call it. [1]

After the August 2013 events, the MB and its supporters began making the four-fingered "Rabi'a sign," which has gained widespread popularity as an expression of solidarity with the victims and support for Mursi and the MB. The symbol is particularly popular on the social networks, which are flooded with various representations of it, the most usual of these being a black hand on a yellow background (see below).

Graphic representation of the Rabi'a sign

Recently, the symbol also spread to the domain of sports, after an Egyptian football player and two Kung Fu fighters made use of it during competitions and ceremonies, and were punished for this. These incidents sparked a public debate in Egypt, with some claiming that the authorities had overreacted and thus betrayed the regime's weakness, and others condemning the athletes for making the sign and "mixing politics into sports".

The following are excerpts from reports on the affair and responses to it in the Egyptian press.

Three Athletes Suspended For Flashing The "Rabi'a" Sign

Kung Fu fighter Muhammad Youssef, a gold medalist at the Moscow Kung Fu World Championship in late October 2013, attended the medal awarding ceremony in a T-shirt bearing the four-fingered Rabi'a symbol, and also flashed the sign while receiving the medal. In response, the Egyptian Kung Fu Association suspended him from all competitions at national and international levels for a year, saying that he should have waved the Egyptian flag at the ceremony instead of making partisan political gestures.[2] Furthermore, the Egyptian Sports Ministry stripped him of his medal and announced that he would be investigated for mixing politics and sports and deviating from the national consensus.[3] Youssef said in response that he was not a MB member and that his action had not been politically motivated; rather, he did it out of loyalty to the families of friends who had died in the Rabi'a events. He added that he did not regret his action and was even proud of it.[4]

The second athlete to be punished for a similar act was Kung Fu fighter Hisham 'Abd Al-Hamid, who was also given a one-year suspension for making the Rabi'a sign at an international Kung Fu competition in Malaysia in early November.[5]

Kung Fu fighter Muhammad Youssef, in Rabi'a T-shirt, makes the Rabi'a sign after winning the gold in Russia ( October 28, 2013)


Kung fu fighter 'Abd Al-Hamid flashes the Rabi'a sign at a competition in Malaysia and in pro-Mursi demonstrations (, November 8, 2013, Al-Masri Al-Yawm, Egypt, November 4, 2013)

A week later (on November 10, 2013), Egyptian football star Ahmad 'Abd Al-Zaher, of the Al-Ahly team, flashed the sign after scoring a goal during the African Championship finals. He was arrested and interrogated, following which the Ministry of Sports banned him from representing Egypt in international matches for a year.[6] 'Abd Al-Zaher later apologized for the incident, saying he did not meddle in politics and was not a member of any party, and that he had made the gesture in solidarity with a friend who had lost a son in the pro-MB demonstrations.[7]

Footballer Ahmad 'Abd Al-Zaher making the Rabi'a sign at an African Championship match (Al-Yawm Al-Sabi', Egypt, November 12, 2013)

A Facebook page opened to support the footballer, titled "We Are All Ahmad 'Abd Al-Zaher," currently has over 30,000 fans, who praised the player for his action while criticizing the army and Defense Minister 'Abd Al-Fattah Al-Sisi.


"We Are All Ahmad 'Abd Al-Zaher"; "Thank You Ahmad 'Abd Al-Zaher" (, November 11, 2013, December 1, 2013)

Columnists: Punishing Athletes – An Overreaction Reflecting The Weakness Of The Regime

The punishing of the athletes sparked many responses in the Egyptian press, and, unlike in some other controversies, not only from MB supporters but across the political spectrum.

Egyptian satirist Bassem Youssef argued in his weekly column in the daily Al-Shurouq that the attempts to suppress the use of the gesture only encouraged this practice while weakening the government. He wrote: "There are people in my homeland who think that democracy means 90 million people [must] agree on a single decision... A revolution that broke out for the sake of liberties must not [itself] become a means for suppressing these liberties, even if liberty [means allowing people] to call what occurred [on June 30] a coup... Following the January 25, [2011] revolution, there were many who doubted [the revolution] and presented [all kinds of] conspiracy theories to prove that it wasn’t a revolution or coup, but a diabolic weed, a plot and a betrayal. Nevertheless, we never heard of anyone being imprisoned for hating [the January 25th revolution], or of any athlete being arrested for participating in pro-Mubarak demonstrations...

"The Rabi'a sign truly does not interest me, and in fact there are many who do not think it important or interesting. But the exaggerated response every time somebody raises four fingers is a comical response that conveys great weakness and insecurity. The moment you punish, suspend, arrest or persecute anybody who raises four fingers or wears yellow, you give this gesture much more power and weight than it actually has... The death of our soldiers on the borders is more worthy of response than this gesture... The four-finger [sign] will continue to be used, not because of an upswing in the MB's popularity but due to the fatal errors of the regime, which has shown that a simple and silly gesture is capable of wounding its dignity."[8]

Nader Bakar, spokesman of the Salafi party Al-Nour, condemned the "fascist" measures taken against the athletes. He wrote in the daily Al-Shurouq: "What will the Sports Minister do if two or more players from the Egyptian national football team raise their hands in the Rabi'a sign? Will he abolish the [entire] football federation? If, in post-June-30 Egypt, merely belonging to a political faction constitutes a pretext for banishment from social life, and later perhaps even from life itself, then the numerous visits [by Egyptian officials] abroad in a bid to restore regional and global stability have been in vain...

"Had fascism not been a disease that clouds one's mind and causes one to convulse whenever confronted with a position different from one's own, some of the fascists would have understood... that [allowing people to] make the Rabi'a sign does not do them much harm, but actually portrays them as defenders of democracy and pluralism – as long as things do not [deteriorate] to violence and destructive actions. All in all, we are dealing with a player who brought honor to his country and expressed a humane position – which is undoubtedly his right – by protesting the streams of blood that were spilled during the dispersal of the sit-down strike in Rabi'a square."[9]

Gamal Sultan, editor of the daily Al-Misriyyoun, argued that the sign does not necessarily reflect political support for the MB but rather solidarity with the victims of the Rabi'a events, which he called a massacre: "What happened last night, [when football player 'Abd Al-Zaher caused an uproar by making the Rabi'a sign,] revealed what a terrible nightmare this sign has become for many of General Al-Sisi's supporters, for the MB's rivals, and for the media that favors them... The problem is that no one wants to admit that the sign does not necessarily reflect political identification with the MB, but has become a symbol of popular and humane outrage over the bloody massacre perpetrated by the security apparatuses against citizens protesting in [Rabi'a] square, a massacre unparalleled in Egyptian history.

"It is no secret that there are waves of international solidarity with the victims of this massacre, which have intensified over time, even among circles that know nothing of the MB. I am fully convinced that the Rabi'a sign has a fundamental humane dimension... It goes against human nature to ignore [our] compassion for hundreds of people whose dead bodies – some of them soot-covered – were swept away by bulldozers like dead dogs... Some, overcome by political fanaticism, attempt to attach political significance to the Rabi'a sign, but the simple human truth of this horrifying and unprecedented event in Egyptian history cannot be erased. Anyone who ignores this truth and believes we should punish a citizen, politician or athlete who makes the Rabi'a sign with his hand should thoroughly examine his conscience and his humanity, because he is closer to the world of wild beasts than to the world of mankind."[10]

Columnists: The Athletes Erred, They Should Not Have Mixed Sports With Politics

Other columnists, both supporters and opponents of the MB, chose to criticize the athletes for mixing politics into sports. S'ad Salim, a columnist for the daily Al-Gumhouriyya, wrote: "There is no choice but to punish Ahmad 'Abd Al-Zaher, the Al-Ahly player who made a political sign with his hand after scoring a goal in the course of the game ... [just] as those who committed this mistake before him, in other games, were punished. He got a two-year suspension and was barred from representing Egypt in the future. This will be a lesson to [all] those trying to politicize sports."[11]

Ahmad Al-Bari, a columnist for the daily Al-Ahram, also came out against mixing politics with sports, arguing that an individual representing his country at an international event should not express political opinions: "Egypt is larger than any group, and no person, regardless of his affiliation, is entitled to raise any symbol whatsoever aside from his country’s flag. This is a well-known custom and tradition in all the world’s countries... If everyone has a right to express his political opinion, then [let him do so, but] not while acting as an official representative [of his country] in sports or in any other field. For example, [a person] speaking at a meeting or conference on a political matter may freely express his personal opinions, but [while attending] a meeting or conference as a representative of Egypt, he must bear his country's banner and nothing else."[12]

Journalist Fahmi Huwaidi, known for his criticism of Mursi’s ouster, also opposed the athletes' action, but at the same time condemned the authorities' overreaction and hinted that it was politically motivated. "I hope it will not be thought that I am defending the [football] player's behavior. I am sure he was wrong to forcibly inject a political matter into the domain of sports, and he must pay for his mistake. My comments [refer] to the oddly anxious and emotional behavior of the security apparatuses and sports authorities... I well understand that the player should have kept his positions and political orientations to himself, and I agree with those who said that politics should be handled by the proper people in the proper arenas, and must not intrude into the domain of sports... [just as it] should be kept separate from culture and art. We have plenty of experience with authors and artists who made enormous achievements in their field, but upon entering politics they fell into mistakes and disasters that damaged their reputation and distorted their image in their fans' opinion. I distinguish here between a political opinion and involvement in politics, and argue that an athlete, author or artist has a right to a political opinion [as long as] he keeps it to himself... But when he considers himself a political activist and intrudes into a [field] in which he is not proficient, he falls into the forbidden zone...

"One of our problems today is that some [sports] officials – senior and not so senior – also lost some of their sense of balance when they entered the world of politics. They forgot the experience and knowledge they had accumulated and began to behave like nothing more than security officers. The sport authorities' rebuke, suspension and oppression of Kung Fu champion [Muhammad Youssef] is not the only sign of this, but it is the most recent sign among many we have seen. What would they have done if our friend [the champion] had held up a picture of General Al-Sisi? Would anyone have dared to punish him?"[13]


*N. Shamni is a research fellow at MEMRI.




[2], October 28, 2013;, November 10, 2013.

[3] Al-Quds Al-Arabi (London), October 29, 2013.

[4] Al-Ahram (Egypt), November 2, 2013.

[5] Al-Quds Al-Arabi (London), November 6, 2013.

[6] Al-Yawm Al-Sabi', (Egypt), November 13, 2013.

[7] Al-Ahram (Egypt) November 21, 2013.

[8] Al-Shurouq (Egypt), October 30, 2013.

[9] Al-Shurouq (Egypt), November 8, 2013.

[10] Al-Misriyyoun (Egypt), November 11, 2013.

[11] Al-Gumhouriyya (Egypt), November 12, 2013.

[12] Al-Ahram (Egypt), November 14, 2013.

[13] Al-Shurouq (Egypt), October 30, 2013.

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