Palestine at AFCON

Palestine solidarity was widespread at the 2023 AFCON in Côte d'Ivoire, but the tournament's security apparatus quietly suppressed it.

Abidjan. Image credit Boima Tucker CC BY 4.0 Deed.

No stadium on the African continent offers a more picturesque setting than the Stade Felix Houphouet-Boigny. The 45,000-seat footballing cathedral is nestled in the Plateau district along the banks of the lagoon that runs through the heart of Abidjan, Côte d’Ivoire. At sundown, a score of screeching bats orbit overhead, adding to the percussive soundtrack of the football being played below.

The Egyptian national team has played the entirety of their group-stage matches at the stadium during the ongoing 2023 Africa Cup of Nations. Hundreds of supporters made the trip to Cote d’Ivoire, throwing their full-throated support behind the men’s national football team. Notably, in a continuation of a trend observed since the October 7 Israel-Hamas war, they also expressed support for the Palestinian people. In the first few minutes of each of their matches, Egyptian supporters sang, “Our soul, our blood, we sacrifice for you O Jerusalem!”

Of course, Egyptians weren’t the only set of supporters singing for Palestine. In Bouaké, 400 kilometers north of Abidjan, Algerian supporters made it a point to sing their habitual “Palestine, the (land of) martyrs” chant, which has been a staple at almost every match for decades. The set of supporters who, perhaps, brought the most Palestinian flags and scarves were Tunisians, who were based in Korhogo. Narjes, a young Tunisian woman, currently residing in France, displayed her solidarity by wearing a black Palestinian national team shirt and wrapping a Palestinian scarf around her head. “It’s especially important for me to show solidarity with Palestine right now. I find it sad to come all the way here and not be able to enjoy the Africa Cup of Nations because our brothers and sisters in Palestine are suffering and dying due to Israeli genocide and ethnic cleansing.”

During the half-time pause of Egypt’s match versus Ghana on January 18, Khaled, a young Gazan man donning a keffiyeh can be heard leading “Palestine” chants. “My father was killed a month ago near the Rafah border crossing,” he says “If I’m here in the stadium it’s just so I can amplify our voice and continue telling the world about what is happening in Palestine.”

Although the majority of solidarity displays have come from traveling North African supporters, and Lebanese or Palestinian residents of Cote d’Ivoire, there are also plenty of Ivorians that have lent their voice to the cause. “I haven’t just seen North Africans showing solidarity, people from all over the continent have said words of support.” Khaled insists. For example, Audrey, a mother of two, was holding a Palestinian flag that was handed to her by Egyptian supporters. “Of course, I’ll hold their flag, they are our brothers and sisters.”

Despite supporters wanting to show solidarity with the Palestinian cause, many have been prohibited from doing so at the entrances of the stadiums. Both Khaled and Narjes, who would go on to watch matches in Abidjan, Yamoussoukro, and Bouaké, testified to seeing Palestinian flags and scarves confiscated. “At the stadium entrance they told us that only African flags were allowed,” Narjes said.  Several videos have been posted to social media of Tunisian supporters in Korhogo, complaining about these measures.

“They took the Palestinian flags of the Tunisian public and they said that it’s the decision of the Confederation of African Football,” a  user said on TikTok, while recording a stash of flags held by the Ivorian police outside of the Amadou Gon Coulibaly stadium in Korhogo. “This is not normal, to take the Palestinian flags!” screamed another Tunisian man ahead of Tunisia’s match vs Mali.

Both the Confederation of African Football (CAF) and the local organizing committee were approached for comment, but neither could explain why Palestinian symbols have been confiscated at stadium entrances throughout the tournament. Even after the issue was made public to both organizing bodies, a British journalist was prevented from entering the stadium with his CD Palestino shirt during the round of 16 fixture between Nigeria and Cameroon.

Luxolo September, who manages media relations with the CAF, responded by saying that he is not aware of Palestinian flags being confiscated and that his organization would be investigating it. Jean Tanguy Yapoidou, the spokesperson for the organizing committee, was also astonished to hear that Palestinian flags had been banned from Afcon stadiums. “What I can tell you is that any flags or banners with political, anti-sporting, or hate messages are prohibited by Confederation of African Football. As far as I know, there are not any prohibitions when it comes to flags of countries.”

“Maybe the context explains what is happening,” Yapoidou offered. “The Africa Cup of Nations is a sporting event and with what is happening between Israel and Palestine, that could confuse things.”

The lack of clarity from both organizing bodies and their refusal to assume accountability for the tournament’s security apparatus targeting Palestinian solidarity raises suggestions that directives to suppress Palestinian solidarity may have originated from Cote d’Ivoire’s political authorities. In any case, whoever is responsible for the behavior of the stadium security at this African Cup of Nations has dishonored the tournament’s pan-African, anti-apartheid legacy. And for a tournament that has exuded excellence on and off that pitch, that is a real shame.

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