Street-level clashes between fans that began over a soccer game between Algeria and Egypt last week have escalated into an international diplomatic incident that goes to the core of Egypt's identity and its waning role as Mideast powerbroker.
Libyan leader Col. Muammar Qaddafi announced today he would accept an Arab League request to mediate in the escalating conflict between the two states after Algeria beat Egypt for the last African slot in next summer's World Cup.
In Algiers, offices of Egyptian businesses were vandalized after Egypt won the first qualifying match Nov. 14. Following Algeria's victory in a sudden death playoff four days later, the government-controlled Egyptian media accused Algeria of "terrorizing" its citizens, fomenting animosity that culminated in hundreds of Egyptian rioters descending on the Algerian embassy in Cairo to seek revenge. Egypt recalled its ambassador to Algiers to protest alleged attacks against Egyptian fans in Khartoum, though he later returned to his post.
"Egypt does not tolerate those who hurt the dignity of its sons," a visibly angry President Hosni Mubarak told parliament over the weekend.
But Egypt's anger goes far beyond the game or how Egyptian fans were treated, analysts and political observers say. The real issue is the state's concern over its diminishing regional stature and the Mubarak regime's continued unpopularity at home. In an apparent attempt to mask both problems, President Mubarak's government has tapped into decades-old enmity between Egypt and Algeria to fan the flames of nationalism.
"The discussion is revolving around honor, dignity, respect, and Egypt's position in the Arab world and whether or not Egypt should remain in the Arab world," says Adel Iskandar, professor of media and communications at Georgetown University in Washington. "Egypt as a nation-state participates in regional politics very much like an emeritus professor who ceremonially is accepted into the committees and sits on them, but in reality has very little authority anymore."
Egypt's identity crisis
Once led by Gamal Abdel Nasser, wildly popular across the Middle East as the most prominent advocate of pan-Arab nationalism, Egypt today faces a crisis of identity brought on by heightened feelings of inadequacy.
In the days after the game, Mubarak's son Alaa was quoted as saying: "There is nothing called Arab nationalism or brotherhood, this is just talk, that doesn't mean anything in reality.... When Algerians learn how to speak Arabic they can then come and say that they are Arabs." In colloquial Algerian Arabic many words borrowed from their former colonial power France are still used.
The question is one of historical identity – and pride. "The Egyptians would not miss an opportunity to remind the Arabs that ... we are the masters of the Arab world, which is of course not true," says Hossam el-Hamalawy, a prominent Egyptian blogger and political activist.
Criticism from countries such as Qatar, a country with a smaller population than some Cairo districts whose state-funded Al Jazeera station openly challenged the Egyptian position during the war in Gaza last December and January, has made Egypt look weak in front of both its neighbors and its citizens.
Compounding the problem is that the 81-year-old president has yet to name a successor. After 28 years at the helm of an authoritarian government, Mubarak's departure could unleash decades of frustration if the succession does not go smoothly. But in the Algeria spat, his regime finally found a way to drum up public support for his unpopular son Gamal as a possible replacement.
Playing to the Egyptian street,
Gamal Mubarak attended both matches and later gave a televised interview in which he stated "Egypt is a major power that should not be taken lightly."
"We know very well that he's not popular in Egypt, so supporting the Egyptian side and speaking about Egyptian dignity, he is trying to build some support or some popularity," says Emad Gad, political analyst at the Al Ahram Center for Political and Strategic Studies, which is partially funded by the government.
Roots of Algeria-Egypt enmity
The roots of the animosity between Algeria and Egypt go much deeper than those of the grass on the soccer pitch. It dates back to the Algerian revolution, when then-Egyptian President Nasser supported Algeria's efforts to throw off French colonialism. When Nasser's ally Ahmed Ban Bella was elected president "many Algerians felt Egypt was too intrusive as the popular choice for president [revolutionary leader Houari] Boumediène was overlooked... For decades, Egyptians have forcefully stated that the Algerian revolution would not have been possible without Nasser's contribution, which has irked Algerians," says Dr. Iskandar of Georgetown. "Additionally, Algerians are disappointed that their support of Egypt in the 1967 and 1973 wars against Israel are nowhere to be found in history books or public discourse."
Tension has escalated over the years and came to a head in 1989 after Egypt beat Algeria in a World Cup qualifier.
Some see this latest eruption as a solely a domestic agitation to distract from the woes of poverty and stifled politics. "Both regimes are dictatorial; they do not enjoy much legitimacy amongst their public.... What's a better way to divert the public attention other than going flag-waving on the street?" says Mr. Hamalawy.
Either way, all agree the regime has tried capitalizing on Egyptian football fever to cast the ruling National Democratic Party (NDP) and the Mubarak family as the protectors of Egyptian national identity against their primary opponents: the outlawed but tolerated Muslim Brotherhood, an Islamist political organization.
"The government has to convince the Egyptians that we are out there for you, we will protect your dignity, forget about everything, let's just rally around the flag," says Hamalawy. It remains to be seen if the Egyptian public heeds the call.