CAIRO—Outside the International Cairo Stadium complex, there were maybe a dozen policemen on horseback greeting the crowd for World Wrestling Entertainment's first visit to Egypt. Families had brought little kids, and vendors hawked national flags and SpongeBob SquarePants t-shirts.
This was nothing like the legions of black-clad riot police who glare over their batons and plastic shields at the city's notorious soccer spectators, the Ultras. The Ultras, who battled security forces in the Egyptian uprising, favor shooting off flares and chanting "All cops are bastards." But soccer has been suspended since February, when thousands of fans from Port Said stormed the field at a match against Al Ahly, Egypt's most popular club, attacking opposing spectators with knives, clubs, and bottles, leaving 74 people dead as police looked on.
So the WWE Raw World Tour, which came to Cairo for three nights in October, was a more wholesome, family-oriented event. WWE launched a popular Arabic-language site this year and has toured the Gulf region to signal its view of the potential for regional growth. Sheamus, Big Show, and Cody Rhodes made the trip this time, but some bigger names like CM Punk and John Cena stayed away. That didn't deter the fans in line from wearing their green Cena t-shirts, which are available on the occasional street corner in downtown Cairo.
As often occurs when international brands enter the Egyptian market, companies seeking the benefits of the purchasing power of the Arab world's largest population must contend with the disorganization and bureaucracy of a hectic, developing country. A PR rep told the press over the phone to come to Gate 5, a maybe mile-long trek around the complex, an enormous collection of the giant soccer stadium, swimming pools, indoor arenas, and empty trash-filled plots.
After dodging cars, the journalists found a wide, open-air vehicle entrance leading to the concrete bowels of the stadium, past a lit up sign for the room for "Doping Refrees." Forty-five minutes passed there underneath the stadium seats, till music began blasting from above. The scheduled chance to interview the wrestling talent had slipped away. Pete Townshend's amplified voice declared that he was tipping his hat to the new constitution, and taking a bow to the new revolution. Across town, as it happened, deliberations on the actual new constitution were still underway.
The show had started on time—unheard of in a country of perpetual delays—and WWE Diva Lilian Garcia was in the ring. The stadium was maybe two-thirds full. I followed some kids into the nosebleed seats. Among the hundreds of young boys with their families, there were two women in their 20s.
"We wanted to see them face-to-face, for real," said one of them, Noor El-Sherif, 23, an unemployed university grad from Cairo. Her elderly father sat nearby, refusing interview requests with waves of his finger and clicks of his tongue. "There's nothing like this in Egypt," she said.
For much of Egypt, where 40 percent of the population lives below the poverty line, the weekend trio of wrestling shows remained far out of reach. Even the cheapest tickets rang up at almost half an average Egyptian's monthly salary. The crowd largely consisted of elite, upper-class Egyptians, with young boys and their parents seemingly taking up most of the seats. A healthy smattering of young women and mothers stippled the maybe two-thirds full stadium.
Egyptian sports crowds generally comprise masses of working-class men crowding onto plastic chairs in open-air cafes in alleyways and side streets across the country, sipping 16-cent glasses of Lipton tea and puffing on water pipes, their eyes glued to soccer matches on TV.
WWE gained popularity in Egypt in the 1990s when Mamdouh Farag, a former Egyptian wrestler, started broadcasting performances with slangy, colloquial color commentary in Arabic, making matches previously accessible only to more-educated English speakers now available to the general public, according to Ahmed Hamdy, who has covered the WWE for Al-Ahram Weekly, an English-language newspaper.
"During this weekly program, you would find the streets empty just like as if it was a match between Al Ahly and Zamalek," the country's two powerhouse soccer teams, said Inas Mazhar, the head of Al-Ahram Weekly's sports section.
Now wrestling enthusiasts can tune in to at least three satellite stations churning out WWE matches, and most viewers come from the lower and middle classes, who often supplement their regular evening entertainment of soap operas and family meals with a piledriver or two from WWE's greats. Egyptians could not care less about homegrown, non-scripted wrestling, save for a couple stars, according to sportswriters at Al-Ahram.
Housewives in particular have begun to latch onto pro wrestling, Mazhar said; many are stuck at home without work, illiterate, bored, and barred from the coffee shop-socialization normally reserved for men. With a steady stream of televised matches at their fingertips, how could they not fall in love with Dolph Ziggler and friends?
In the upper deck of the stadium, Mohamed Hussein Hassan, from a working-class area of Cairo, looked on as Ted DiBiase and Darren Young smashed each other in the ring far below.
"I'm absolutely obsessed with wrestling. It's beautiful," said Hassan, 28, a kabab cook by day who sold thundersticks by night at the stadium. "People buy satellite TV just to watch wrestling."
I left the nosebleeds and wandered through the largely empty halls below, just outside the arena's center stage. Graffiti ringed the walls, praising the Ultras, in a nod to Egypt's revolutionary fervor.
The slogans stood in stark contrast to the rich attendees munching nearby on KFC and Baskin Robbins, completing an American cultural trifecta of sorts. Lots of upper-class Egyptians have felt less than enthusiastic about their country's revolutionary fervor, as many benefited from the status quo under the toppled President Hosni Mubarak.
In the really expensive seats inside, spotlights splashed through the crowd as the Superstars and Divas emerged from a tunnel under massive screens, prancing around to awkward English chanting from native Arabic speakers.
"Fuck you! No! Yeah! Yes! No! Fuck you!" shouted a moppy-headed 6-year-old boy, in English. He bounced up and down behind me. His father, a pilot, had paid multiple times the average monthly salary of his countrymen for prime seats.
Lilian Garcia climbed onstage sporting a short dress and uncovered shoulder in an outfit not exactly in vogue in a religiously observant country where the vast majority of women wear Muslim headscarves. Coupled with the Divas' bare backs and midriffs and the other wrestlers' tiny outfits, there was probably more uncovered skin in the ring Friday night than on the streets of conservative Cairo the entire weekend.
Most of the announcements were in English, save for a crowd-pleasing effort by The Miz. "Iskut!" he snapped, glaring at the audience. Shut up! "Ashaan ana ismi The Miz, wa ana awesome!" Because my name is The Miz, and I'm awesome!
Ben Gittleson is a freelance journalist based in Cairo. He has lived in Egypt since May 2011 and covered the region for a number of publications, including The Atlantic, The National, EnergyWire, and The Daily Beast. He served as an intern at Al Jazeera English's Cairo bureau from early 2012 through the Egyptian presidential elections.
Image by Jim Cooke.