Mohammad “Flex” has been standing for more than an hour in a Cairo coffee shop, craning his neck to see over his compatriots to the projector screen, where Egypt is playing Algeria in the semi-final round of the African Cup. At half time, Egypt is up by one and Mohammad’s hopes are high.
On the streets of Cairo, this is not just another soccer game, but a chance for Egyptian fans to redeem themselves after a crushing loss to Algeria in the World Cup qualifier last November, which set off rounds of street clashes and a diplomatic row that cut at the heart of Egypt’s diminishing regional stature.
“The last time was injustice!” says Mohammad, to the hooting approval of his friends. “If we win we will get our honor back! We should take our honor back, because Algerians are gypsies – they’re nothing and Egypt is the best country in the world!” Pointing to his national-colored red, white, and black hat, Mohammad begins to dance in anticipation.
Mohammad’s prayers were answered: Last night, Egypt defeated Algeria 4-0 and the country exploded in celebration. Although four balls in a goal post will do little to change Egypt’s declining regional presence and deep-rooted economic woes, for Egyptians on the streets, a win against rival Algeria offers the downtrodden citizenry a taste of victory and provides the unpopular Mubarak regime an opportunity to capitalize on surging national pride.
“If Egypt's 1-0 loss to Algeria was akin to the 1967 war (known in Egypt as Al-Naqsa--The Setback), this 4-0 was the 1973 War. For many Egyptians, it was at least a consolation and at most a redemption,” says Adel Iskandar, professor of media and communications at Georgetown University in Washington.
Nationalism in overdrive
When Egypt played Algeria in November, state-controlled media churned out nationalism in overdrive. Public figures and politicians fanned the flames of discord, goading the public into a frenzy. The runup to the African Cup match yesterday, as the two foes faced each other again, was tame by comparison. The regime deliberately promoted conciliatory rhetoric about their "Arab brothers" in Algeria.
“The frustration of the previous loss to Algeria may have showcased the anarchical nature of inflamed public sentiment. What started as an opportunity to win Egyptians' sympathies for the NDP [the ruling National Democratic Party] … soon turned into a pyromaniac act, with various high-level officials playing with fire in the Egyptian state and private media. So, in fear of the anticipated outcome of this particular game, the Egyptian media intentionally avoided pouring salt on the wounds and toned down their rhetoric against Algeria,” says Mr. Iskandar.
But that didn’t stop Egyptians from celebrating their win. Fans flooded the city’s main square, grinding traffic to a halt, dancing on the tops of buses and burning the Algerian flag. “This is for Egypt!” screamed one young woman, manically waving an Egyptian flag at passersby. The celebrations went on into the early hours of the morning with minimal security presence in the police-state.
“The heftiness of the win means that the nationalistic sentiment need not be muzzled since the disposition is positive. In the end, the regime comes out on top as it grasps every opportunity to embrace the victory and take credit for it,” says Iskander.
But at the end of last night, Mohammad wasn’t thinking about regional politics or how the Mubarak government will try to frame the win. After watching the entire 95-minute match standing, he rushed into a crowd of dancing revelers joining the fray, shaking his hat and chanting “Egypt! Egypt!” with everyone else.