November 16, 2009
(Give them bread and soccer!)
Egyptian economist Galal Amin once wondered in palpable remorse: "Whatever happened to the Egyptians?!!" Amin traced in the book that bears the same title the devolution of etiquette and gentlemanly behavior among Egyptians. Following the pre-Egypt vs. Algeria World Cup qualifier game, I personally wondered: "whatever happened to the Egyptians?!" Though Egyptians are generally known for their hospitality towards foreigners and strong pan-Arab convictions, Cairo over the last week morphed into an anti-Algerian hub. Egyptians' vexing animosity towards their Jewish neighbors might have just been replaced by anti-Algerian sentiment.
It all comes down to soccer politics (or more aptly sucker politics.) The soccer match held in Cairo last Saturday was going to determine which of the two Arab and predominantly Sunni Muslim nations was going to qualify to the South Africa 2010 World Cup. Both countries have not qualified in at least a decade. A war of words between sports commentators quickly developed into sporadic attacks on Algerians in Cairo, and a stoning of the Algerian national team upon their arrival.
The Algerians predictably cried foul and asked the FIFA to intervene. Egyptian police ludicrously claimed the Algerian players had attacked themselves. Hours later, high-level Algerian officials were on the phone with their Egyptian counterparts. The promise of violence between the two nations' fans loomed large over the game. Luckily for the Egyptians (and perhaps the Algerians who attended the game) Egypt won by two goals.
For those who watched the game on television, another disturbing show was on. Tens of thousands of Egyptians painted their faces in red, white and black, or simply wrapped themselves in their country's flag. They chanted demeaning and offensive songs of their North African counterparts. It was a show of (uncharacteristic) super patriotism and perplexing hatred of Algerians. These displays were uncalled for, to put it mildly. Indeed, a number of commentators found it hard to decipher where this is coming from. Egypt and Algeria have traditionally enjoyed a harmonious relationship, since Nasser aided the anti-colonial liberation movement in Algeria. This support prompted a retaliatory invasion of Egypt in 1956 by France (Britain and Israel partook in the aggression for different reasons) that proved costly.
So, where is this coming from? Let me suggest a couple of possibilities. First, Egyptians' fixation over soccer has little to do with their excessive love for the sport (and it is excessive indeed). Despite a backdrop of growing political oppression, strategic frustrations, economic stagnation, rising unemployment and societal upheaval, soccer offers Egyptians an opportunity to win. In an age when Egyptians feel hopeless, soccer is their only hope; Abu Trika is their new prophet.
Second, keenly aware of its own unpopularity and shortcomings, the Mubarak regime is desperate to use soccer to make itself more palatable. Not only does the Egyptian president proclaim himself the "guardian of Egyptian sports," (a title only cited when Egyptian teams are victorious), but his son, and presumed successor, Gamal attends the game in the stadium to beef up his "ordinary citizen" credentials. If Mubarak's son is to inherit the presidential palace, he has to also inherit the guardianship of Egyptian sports. Every time the Egyptian team scored, the camera would cut into footage of a celebrating Gamal Mubarak. In short, the Mubaraks have a vested interest in the elevated tension and anticipation surrounding the game. It is an opportunity to advertise Gamal Mubarak to as many Egyptians mesmerized to their television sets as possible.
Algerians have counter-attacked by destroying Egyptian properties in Algiers and harassing Egyptian citizens. Little do they know that Egyptians' anti-Algerian tirades emanate not from antipathy, but from exasperation with the prevalent socio-economic and political conditions in Egypt. Soccer riots in Egypt are the continuation of politics by other means.