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Egypt's Kung Fu champion evokes memories of the 1968 black power salute

January 27, 2014 at 11:45 am

Wearing a yellow t-shirt with the familiar Rabaa salute, Egyptian Kung Fu champion Mohammed Youssef stepped up to receive his gold medal at the World Championship in Russia this weekend. But what was for him a symbol of solidarity with those violently attacked demonstrating in Rabaa Adawiya square, Egypt, in August this year cost him his place in the team and the right to compete in future tournaments.

The four-fingered sign, made by placing the thumb on the palm of the hand, has been widely circulated on social networking sites in support of the protestors who died at Rabaa. The square is named after the medieval Sufi mystic, Rabia (which means fourth in Arabic), the fourth child to be born into her family.

The sign distinguished anti-coup protestors from those that supported the military, as across the city in Tahrir those in favour of Morsi’s ouster donned the internationally recognised ‘V’ for peace. The sign is thought to have originated in Turkey; footballer Emre Belözoğlu and others have raised the sign after scoring goals in matches.

But unlike the Turkish government, who openly criticise the coup, the Egyptian authorities have come down hard on Mohammed’s protest.

Though a gold and silver medallist, Mohammed was sent home from Russia and dropped from the national team. Upon arrival in Egypt he was interrogated and banned from representing his country in the upcoming Kung Fu World Championship in Kuala Lumpur on 27 November. This was all on the basis that he was not only disloyal, but that he had disgraced Egypt.

It is one more incident among many, part of a frightening crack down on freedom of speech that has swept across Egypt since the 3 July. Al-Sisi and co have arrested over 2,000 Brotherhood members; many journalists have been killed, assaulted, detained and news outlets raided. An investigation had been ordered into TV satirist Bassem Youssef after he made fun of General Al-Sisi on his show last week.

Mohammed Youssef’s experience brings back memories of the 1968 Mexico City Olympics when two Afro-Americans raised black-gloved fists, forming the black power sign, to the backdrop of the American national anthem. The silent protest was to highlight and demonstrate against racial discrimination in the US. Tommie Smith, who won gold, and John Carlos, who won bronze in the 200m demonstrated in the name of hope, resistance and defiance.

Peter Norman, who had won silver in the same race and so stood before them on the platform, wore an Olympic Project for Human Rights (OPHR) badge in support. Smith wore a black scarf, which represented black pride. Both wore black socks with no shoes in the name of poverty.

Afterwards Tommie Smith said at a press conference: “If I win I am an American, not a black American. But if I did something bad then they would say ‘a Negro.’ We are black and we are proud of being black.” Salute, a documentary made by Norman’s son Matt about the protest says that at this time black athletes were being discriminated against whilst playing sports for their country. They were evicted from restaurants and made to use separate toilets.

All those years ago, the crowd booed the players, shouted racist abuse and threw things at them. The president of the International Olympic Committee (IOC) suspended Smith and Carlos from the US team and sent them home where they received death threats.

Perhaps the most famous sportsman who stood for his principles was world boxing champion, Muhammad Ali. On 27 April 1967 boxing authorities stripped him of his passport, his world heavyweight title and banned him from boxing in the US after his refusal to be drafted into the US army during the time of the Vietnam War. He was sentenced to five years in prison and handed a $10,000 fine.

In an interview that can be watched here, Ali said: “Under no conditions do we take part in wars that take lives of other humans.”

In 1971 the US Supreme Court overturned the decision to send Muhammad Ali to prison. In 1998, Tommie Smith and John Carlos were honoured for the role they played in the civil rights movement in America. Whether or not their fans are keener on the roles they played on the field, all three sportsmen are just as famous for the stand they made on human rights and racial justice as they are for the sports they played. Though we don’t know how Mohammed Youssef’s case will pan out, and whether or not he will face a prison sentence, his protest can be understood as an act of solidarity with those facing injustice, not as a sportsman disloyal to his country.

The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.