Hoda Osman, a special correspondent for Worldfocus and an Egyptian-American, writes about the diplomatic crisis that followed a World Cup match between Egypt and Algeria on Saturday. She explains the intense emotions surrounding the sport and how the rivalry reflects the strains in pan-Arab relations.
It’s hard to believe, but yes a soccer match is straining relationships between Egypt and Algeria. Unfortunately, I believe this time around the animosity and hostility between the countries’ 115 million people are here to stay.
A bitter history
Egypt and Algeria have a history of soccer-related violence. In 1989, Egypt qualified for the World Cup after winning over Algeria. Riots erupted. The Egyptian team’s doctor lost an eye after being attacked with a bottle by an Algerian player.
Fast forward to 2009. Keywords: the Internet and satellite television channels.
The two countries were preparing for a crucial match in Cairo. Egypt had to win by a three-goal difference to qualify for the 2010 World Cup next summer in South Africa — and by a two-goal difference to secure a rematch.
Emotions were running high ahead of the match. Special songs and commercials were produced specifically for the game. The media in both counties was obsessed. There were some who even blamed the media for inciting hatred.
The Internet also played a big role. It was used intensively by fans of the two teams to attack each other. Edited videos and altered pictures were posted on several websites with the intention of humiliating the other team.
Upon the arrival of the Algerian team to Cairo, Egyptian fans allegedly threw stones at their bus and injured a number of players. FIFA opened an investigation into the incident.
The U.S. warned its citizens in Cairo against being on the streets on the evening of the match.
To calm things down, an Egyptian and an Algerian pop star organized a joint concert.
Egypt won the Nov. 14 match 2-0, thereby securing a rematch with Algeria in Sudan a few days later.
Millions of Egyptian celebrated on the streets across Egypt till the early hours of the following morning. If you saw the pictures you would think the whole country won some global lottery that would solve all their problems.
Violence in Khartoum
Violence was expected in Sudan. Security was intensive. Egyptian interests had already come under attack in Algiers after the first match and the Egyptian government summoned the Algerian ambassador in Cairo over it.
Algeria won 1-0 and secured its place in the coming World Cup. Life goes on, right? It’s just a game.
Unfortunately not. Algerian fans attacked their Egyptian counterparts in Sudan following the game. Some of the Egyptian fans and celebrities who were attending the match called into television programs and said they were trapped and hiding in Sudanese houses. I also got first-hand reports of the violence from people who were in Khartoum.
The Egyptian government reported 21 were injured and recalled its ambassador to Algeria for “consultations.” The Egyptian media also pointed the finger at Sudan, claiming it was unable to protect the Egyptians after the match. Sudan summoned the Egyptian ambassador in Khartoum to object.
In Cairo, security forces clashed with Egyptians who rioted and burned Algerian flags in front the Algerian embassy there.
Arab unity – an unrealistic dream
The events are unfortunate but also interesting on several levels. They elucidated the fragile relations between the two countries on the popular and the state level.
The head of the Egyptian Artists Union announced on television that he would call for canceling Algeria’s membership in the union because its artists were silent about the offenses. Numerous Egyptian celebrities called into a television show Wednesday evening calling for cutting cultural relations with Algeria, announcing they were giving back prizes they won in Algerian festivals and asking that their work not be aired in Algeria. Some media personalities were even suggesting stopping Egyptian investments in the country.
The animosity runs so deep now, that I can’t see how this can be repaired.
Arabs have always dreamed of Arab unity. Although the match was between only two of the 22 Arab countries (Sudan also got caught in the middle), to me, it’s still proof of how difficult accomplishing that goal is. Egypt and Algeria may have been frail to begin with, but relations between most other countries are not that much better.
The power of soccer
If you saw the pictures of the celebrations by the fans of the two countries you’d be amazed. Soccer is big in the Arab world.
I’ve read a lot about the game and found that nobody explained the role soccer plays in the Arab world better than the manager of a Cairo restaurant interviewed by Time Magazine. “Soccer provides an outlet for emotion, both positive and negative, that so many Egyptians so desperately crave, says Maher Gamel, manager of one of Cairo’s most popular restaurants, al-Omda.”
I remember a sociology class I took at the American University in Cairo years back. We were discussing patriotism and agreed it becomes most vivid during soccer matches.
When seeing the pictures of the Egyptian celebrations following the first match and the Algerian celebrations following the second, you might wonder why the people of those countries don’t do the same to remove their dictators or gain more rights. Is it fear? Is it lack of hope? I don’t really have an answer.
But as I was watching the story develop, I wondered about something else. How can this enormous energy be used positively. The people of the two countries are at this moment united around one issue. What if this energy was used to produce something, to build, to educate or to clean the cities? How can they be mobilized that same way, with the same enthusiasm? If we find the answer, we may find the solution to problems many countries around the world.
– Hoda Osman