The Politics of Soccer: The Algerian-Egyptian Confrontation
In recent weeks possible candidates to inherit power from current presidents found a good opportunity to advertise their faces. Said Bouteflika, the Algerian President’s brother and his special consultant will oversee the Algerian delegation in Sudan. More remarkably the face of a triumphal Gamal Mubarak, the Egyptian President’s son and a powerful contender to replace his father in 2011, was clearly singled out by the cameras of the Egyptian TVs especially after the Egyptian team scored a second goal allowing it the chance to play a third decisive game, writes Tarek Kahlaoui.
Today two of the largest African countries with two of the biggest GDP economies in the continent are entirely taken by only one single desire: to be qualified to the 2010 soccer World Cup. The teams of Algeria and Egypt will face each others, as being frequently described in the local media, in a decisive “battle” in the “neutral” African territory of Sudan. This could have been one of the usual sport events, which fury would overtake soccer fans for few days, but this is not the case.
True none of these two countries with long soccer traditions did not qualify to the World Cup for twenty years. Yet that is not the full story behind the unprecedented tense environment that went beyond the media pundits in both countries who were blowing the horns of the soccer “battle” for weeks now. In fact it would be utterly simplistic as many apologetics seem to do in both camps to put the burden of what should be described without any hesitation the mutual hate between large quarters of the population of both countries only on the shoulders of the pundits.
There seems to be a new situation that is being discovered as we speak. Against the common wisdom in Algeria and Egypt the ties of common official language (Arabic), religion (Islam), and even historical experiences (including military support in times of wars), all of which suggesting mutual respect and even a sense of “brotherhood” (ukhuwwa) transcending the limits of the post-colonial nation statehood, seem to be playing a limited role in shaping the current relationship. During the weeks preceding last Saturday’s game in Cairo, in which only the result putting Egypt two goals ahead that could allow a third decisive game, there was a “digital war” between media outlets but more importantly between the fans including hacking official websites (ministries and national institutions), re-dubbing clips from known movies such as the “Untouchables”, and rap songs targeting both countries. Beginning from last Thursday when the Algerian team was attacked with stones moments before they entered their hotel in Cairo injuring few players (who notably played with bandages on their heads in Saturday), the sporadic confrontations between the fans of both teams in Cairo after the game, and then the attacks in Algeria on Egyptian companies and expatriates, the “digital war” found its way into reality.
The enthusiasm driving these partly spontaneous acts was not limited to soccer rivalry as it would be the case in many other examples. The mutual verbal attacks included from the Egyptian part questioning the solidity of the Arab-Islamic identity of the Algerians, and from the Algerian part challenging the Egyptians’ pan-Arabic policy especially with regards to the Egyptian stand in Gaza characterized as “defeatist”. It should not be surprising that both governments with all their short fallings especially with regards to economic and social policies to promote “soccer victory” as an alternative to policy success. The Algerian government is still struggling with an oil-dependent economy and large unemployment numbers. The Egyptian government is faced with huge social disparities; to mention only a recent example Amnesty International issued a report in September calling the Egyptian government for urgent action to prevent the rock sliding disaster of entire poor quarters in Cairo known by the denigrating name of ashwa’iyyat (random). In recent weeks possible candidates to inherit power from current presidents found a good opportunity to advertise their faces. Said Bouteflika, the Algerian President’s brother and his special consultant will oversee the Algerian delegation in Sudan. More remarkably the face of a triumphal Gamal Mubarak, the Egyptian President’s son and a powerful contender to replace his father in 2011, was clearly singled out by the cameras of the Egyptian TVs especially after the Egyptian team scored a second goal allowing it the chance to play a third decisive game.
The politics, however, of this soccer confrontation seem to be imbedded not simply in such discourses and short term dynamics but more interestingly in other less obvious but also long term aspects. Besides such enthusiasm seems to be genuine involving deep feelings in the streets and not limited to official media manipulation as it would be expected otherwise.
The post-colonial states in Algeria and Egypt were built against the paradox of combining local and pan-Arabo-Islamic nationalisms. As much as the new emerging Egyptian and Algerian “Nationalistic” discourses in the 1950s and 1960s were projecting an Arabo-Islamic ideal transcending their effective nation states, they were hiding another process of solidifying Egyptian and Algerian nationalism. The concept of the Umma (Nation) then was confusingly in conformity with the state structure and against it at the same time. This is even more true in the Algerian-Egyptian case especially with the ascendance to power in Algeria of Houari Boumediene in 1965 and then in Egypt of Anwar Sadat in 1970 during which regional rivalries and the concept of local state-nationalisms will be heavily emphasized. And local state-nationalisms were a solid support for regional pan-Arab policies in both countries. Algeria thought of itself geopolitically as the leader of the Maghreb (stretching historically from modern Mauritania to Libya) and rejected Egyptian influence. Egypt thought of itself even after Sadat eliminated pro-Nasser pan-Arab elements in his government as the leader of the Arabic World but also as the most powerful player in North Africa, which challenges the Algerian definition of the Maghreb.
The contrasting strategic choices of Boumediene and Sadat, with the first being closer to the Soviets and more of a hardliner in the Arabic-Israeli conflict, and the second being closer to the US and signing the Camp David accords did not influence only the relationships in the 1970s (Algeria was a leading player in the Arabic isolation of Egypt by the end of the 1970s). Even though the international and regional greatly changed the culture of the state along with the populist streets discourses seem to inherit in more reflective ways this contrast. The ongoing ruling elite is in both sides reminiscent in terms of individuals and even discourses sometimes from the eras of Boumediene and Sadat. The current presidents, Bouteflika and Mubarek, owe their political ascension respectively to Boumediene and Sadat. And the same could be said about major segments of the ruling intelligentsia in both camps. Thus the most less obvious long term factor shaping this intense politicized confrontation is the triumph of local nationalism. Yet it seems to be the most influential factor since it has been normalized as part of the populist nationalistic discourses. It is may be the most blunt sign of the triumph of the ideology of the post-colonial Arab nation-state.