Egypt sets aside bitterness with Algeria ahead of soccer match, but national fervor remains

By Hamza Hendawi, AP
Wednesday, January 27, 2010

Egypt, Algeria cool tensions before soccer match

CAIRO — Egypt has dropped the trash talk and is making nice with arch-rival Algeria ahead of a new matchup between their soccer teams Thursday — a sharp contrast to their last meeting, which sparked riots in the streets and nearly led to a diplomatic breakdown between the two nations.

But while the tone is calmer, Egypt remains pumped up on a soccer-fueled wave of nationalism. State TV cranks out patriotic songs, flags flutter from buildings, cars, and even in soda commercials.

The fervor has some Egyptians questioning whether this Arab nation of 80 million people, mired in economic and political stagnation, has anything to rally around besides soccer.

The two sides meet Thursday in a semifinal match of the African Cup of Nations, two months after Algeria beat Egypt in a playoff to qualify for this summer’s World Cup.

The 1-0 loss in November sparked days of anti-Algerian riots in Cairo, fueled by the ransacking of Egyptian companies’ offices in Algeria and unconfirmed reports of machete-wielding Algerians brutalizing Egyptian fans after the match, which was held in Sudan.

Amid the fury, the Egyptian government recalled its ambassador in Algiers. Newspapers stoked the anger with sensational headlines and articles demonizing Algerians. Guests on TV talk shows questioned Algeria’s Arab identity and spoke of the country as steeped in a legacy of blood, hatred and violence.

Even Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak entered the fray, telling parliament Egypt would not tolerate “those who hurt the dignity of its sons.” His businessman son Alaa told Egyptian television: “When you insult my dignity … I will beat you on the head.”

But ahead of Thursday’s match in Angola, Egypt is making an effort to set aside bitterness and emphasize reconciliation. Algerian newspapers reported Wednesday that authorities in both countries had decided to try to tone down the tensions.

“I hope both Egyptians and Algerians appreciate that they are two brotherly peoples whose relations should not be harmed by a football match,” Egyptian Foreign Minister Ahmed Aboul Gheit said in an interview published Wednesday in Cairo’s Al-Gomhuria daily.

Egypt’s Cabinet on Wednesday declared that “people and media in both countries should deal with the match in a balanced way … and its result should not affect relations.”

Even the Cairo-based Arab League weighed in, calling Thursday’s game a chance to “overcome differences” a and show that the two nation’s ties are “far too strong to be affected by a passing crisis.”

Cairo’s newspapers now affectionately refer to the Algerian team by its nickname — The Desert Warriors — and most commentators are lavishly praising its performance Sunday, when it came from behind to beat favorites Ivory Coast 3-2 to reach the Africa Cup’s final four.

“We cannot ignore the pain and suffering (from the November matches) … but safeguarding the good relations between Egypt and Algeria is far more important than anything else,” 1970s star striker Abdel-Aziz Abdel-Shafi said on a TV talk show Monday night.

Not that the competition isn’t still hot. In the Algerian capital, flags waved from many cars on Wednesday, and the leading newspaper said the nation’s reputation was on the line.

“We can’t lose if we are to definitively save face,” it said.

In Egypt, the November loss raised a nationalist craze that has not been seen for years.

Egypt’s red, white and black flag hangs from many buildings, flutters from car windows and graces giant billboards. Television stations repeatedly air new productions of old patriotic songs.

After the squad beat Cameroon 3-1 on Monday to book the semifinal match with Algeria, tens of thousands celebrated in the streets, waving flags, honking car horns and chanting “Egypt, Egypt.”

The enthusiasm may in part be that many Egyptians see little else to lift their spirits.

Economic woes are deepening, hopes for democratic reform are waning. Even Egypt’s diplomatic clout in the Mideast is shifting to players like Qatar and Iran.

Many analysts say soccer is filling a void left by the lack of the compelling national causes that once defined the country — the struggle for independence from Britain during the last century, battles with Israel in the 1950s through to the 1970s, the building of the massive Aswan Dam in the 1950s and 1960s.

“Back in the old days, we sang for the nation’s dreams and battles, even if they were for the construction of a dam,” columnist Hassan al-Mistikawy wrote in Tuesday’s edition of the independent Al-Shorouk newspaper. “Now we sing for the (football) fans.”

AP correspondent Alfred de Montesquiou in Algiers contributed to this report.

will not be displayed