Algeria v. Egypt: the story of a distraction, written from Cairo

O you who believe, stand up as witnesses for God in all fairness, and do not let the hatred of a people deviate you from justice.

Qur’an, 5:8

Foot-ball is something akin to a religion in many countries. Whether in Liverpool or Algiers, Cairo or Freetown, the game can offer men otherwise without much to smile about a sense of mission and contentment. It can also lead to blind and irrational fanaticism. Thus it has been in struggle between Algeria and Egypt for a place in the 2010 World Cup in South Africa. One can find numerous raps smashing Egypt and Algeria. A clever Algerian bit pledges that Algerians would fly to Cairo as a flock of birds, tunnel underneath the pyramids, swim with sharks and parade through Lebanon and Israel barreling through the Rafaa crossing to bring their national team to victory over the people of the Nile. The Egyptians responded to such disses with generally inferior raps on YouTube. Arab rap in general is in its infancy; the Algerian form is more skillful and developed than the Egyptian one, though. Amateur hip-hop, tour bus stoning, game-time fireworks, poisoned couscous and cellphone shop looting  aside, Antar Yahia put Egypt out of the Cup thirty-nine minutes in. An avalanche of conspiracy theories and indignation is already on its way on the Egyptian side. The Algerian government, headed by the miniature ex-Minister of Youth and Sports, will bask in the euphoria of having sent the national team to the first African World Cup. The Egyptians will be relieved that their people are too distracted with a foot-ball drama worthy of the most trashy serial to think about actual political and social issues. In either case, the cycle of despotism and vulgarity will continue and the ultimate winners are not the national teams or young men in the street, but rather their governments and them alone. Such are the “politics of sports” in the Arab countries.

The rivalry itself is of no great interest to this blog. The coverage it has received in English media is interesting to account for, though. Be they American or British, English news media wrote the qualifiers from Cairo. One can find only a few analyses that incorporate any Algerian perspective in a sincere way, or that even attempt to. The New York Times, generally a rubbish paper in terms of the Maghreb and the Arab countries, put up an unimpressive blog post, from Cairo. It summarized the shenanigans around the match in Cairo. Aside from two links to DailyMotion clips of Algerian players licking their wounds after their bus was stoned by Egyptian hoodlums, it make no reference to any Algerian newspaper, news agency or persona aside from Ministers quoted elsewhere in Western or Egyptian presses. Meanwhile, it makes repeated references to Egyptian sources and papers. The post is more about Egypt than Algeria, either the result of laziness or bias. ESPN, sports professionals, do the story greater justice. Sports Illustrated gives a sound summary of things, as well. Meanwhile, Aljazeera English was unable to find an Algerian to quote.

A later NYT post does somewhat better, but not much. An even later posting, from Paris, is about as close to any of the over the top coverage offered to the Egyptian perspective offered most everywhere else.

The Christian Science Monitor called the ruckus “more than soccer”. Its piece, too, is written from Cairo, without any particular regard for any Algerian voice or perspective. It quotes an English-language blogger, Zenobia, but doesn’t make any reference to either Arabic or French-language Algerian blogs or newspapers. The article informs readers about Honsi Mubarek’s effort to make himself out to be the “patron of Egyptian soccer,” but says nothing of the views of Algerian state officials or party chiefs (of the MSP and el-Islah), who were sure to voice their displeasure with Algeria’s 2-0 loss to Egypt last Saturday. Or that those Islamist party chiefs appealed to the population, which was likely too busy making a mess of Egyptian properties in the country to have paid them much attention, to be civil for the sake of Muslim unity. The popular daily ech-Chorouk, whose subjects generally only cover religion and sports, registered its displeasure that the Egyptian Sheikh Yusuf Qaradawi, who is popular among religious Algerians, accosted only Algerians, but not Egyptians, in his statements on the games. It offers the reader practically nothing as to how the game was viewed by Algerians. Not one source comes from an Arab country other than Egypt. And it is not for a lack of production on Algeria’s part. For the last week all one could read about in the popular dailies — ech-Chorouk, el-Khabar, Liberte — was this match. A quick visit to the website of any major Algerian newspaper would have been enough to make an even handed story. Even worse, the CSM and NYT pieces make only passing references to the sort of ahistorical and ethnocentric ramblings from Egyptian personalities regarding their country’s minor contribution to the Algerian War of Independence, which were widespread. The NYT post mention a line in an Egyptian rap song claiming that Egypt aided Algeria during the War. Algerians are more familiar with a delusional rant by Amr Adeeb, an Egyptian talking head, who asked — weeks before Saturday’s match — “why do they [the Algerians] hate us? We freed them!” It reflected the arrogance and ignorance that infused much Egyptian and Algerian media commentary on the game. Nasserite Egypt’s contribution to the war was minor, and significantly played up by French propaganda in an effort to discredit the FLN, particularly during the Suez Crisis. But in reality, most of the logistical and moral support for the Algerians came from within the country and from Morocco and Tunisia. Libya was a greater contributor than Egypt. Egypt did, though, play a significant role in assisting the Algerians in the 1963 War against Morocco. Yet the Egyptian claim to having assisted in the liberation of Algeria in more than a rhetorical sense is quite misplaced. And most Algerians are indignant and insulted to hear Egyptians claim their war of independence as their own. From these articles, one gets a sense only of the imperiousness of Egyptian nationalism, but nothing of the Algerians’ grievances or hopes for their national prestige and feeling of “coming back” after more than a decade of misery. When one looks out across the Sahara, he is first impressed by how much and how far and how much he can see but in short time by how little, too.

If the previous two articles reveal Egypto-centrism, Aljazeera English’s shows a Levantine consciousness, out of touch with the dynamics or identity, regionalism or politics in North Africa altogether. Like the two American reports, Aljazeera English ignores the Algerian side of it entirely, but injects it with several delusional paragraphs about Gamal Abd an-Nasser’s pan-Arabist agenda, excoriating both peoples for their “narrow nationalism”. “Algeria” or “Algerian” appears thrice in the entire article, the rest dedicated to the author’s, Asad Abukhalil, hagiography of Nasser and pan-Arabism. The trouble, as the writer has it, is the move among leaders and peoples away from pan-Arabism that has “prevailed in Arab politics since the death of Gamal Abdel Nasser, the former Egyptian president.” So the Facebook, Twitter, YouTube and street violence that has marred the matches between Egypt and Algeria is the result of Egypt’s peace with Israel, the promotion of Egyptian peculiarisms over Arabism, a lack of commitment to the common bonds among the region’s peoples. Abukhalil laments the official symbolism of Saddam Hussien’s Iraq, with its allusions to pre-Arab and Islamic civilization and the Phoenicianism of the Lebanese Phalanges (which Abukhalil is right to pan). But all this is quite excessive: Abukhalil could have at least bothered to mention something about Algeria as he wrote about the politics of sporting rivalries. For instance, the notion that the Algero-Egyptian rivalry reflects the loss of Nasser’s leadership after his death is easily discarded if one considers that Houari Bomediene, the president of Algeria from 1965-1978 and a contemporary of Nasser, was well underway in seeking to undermine the Egyptian president during and after the 1967 War. Was it not the Algerians who introduced the concept of a continuous guerilla war against Israel after the war, an idea the Egyptians would eventually adopt and call the War of Attrition? It was. Was it not the case that no Algerian nationalist in a position of authority, or even within the mainstream of public opinion, was interested in the concept of unity with Algeria’s neighbors or other Arab states? It was. And is it not the case that Algeria’s population is close to a third non-Arab and that a pan-Arabist scheme is considered deeply and profoundly alienating and insulting to those Amazigh peoples? He is correct that the whole bluster of the rivalry distracts peoples from important and serious political and social issues, acting as an opiate, like the religious dogmatism it imitates. But one sees that the author did not seriously consider this specific rivalry, between Egypt and Algeria, when he writes: “Sports are a safe distraction for the public; regimes would rather that their people watch sports than follow the daily scenes of oppression and carnage in Palestine, for example.” In this way, is surely thinking only of Egyptian inattention, leaving out, say, the way the matches have distracted the media and people from the riots that took place in Oran in late October when young people were waving flags, more interested in a foot-ball match that would qualify either of two teams unlikely to make it beyond the first round in 2010.

It is impossible to say that the foot-ball fever kept either peoples from thinking about the occupation of Palestine: Algerian rappers and internet hackers deliberately raised Egypt’s close relationship with Israel in their attacks on the Egyptians, and Algerian newspapers ran anti-Semitic cartoons addressing the Israeli issue, too. So the concern here is not Algeria at all. It is an issue associated of Levantine causes and crises. What would Algerian oligarchs rather their people pay attention to? Foot-ball and Palestine or the fact that Oran’s infrastructure (both socially and physically) is literally falling apart, that Algerians are being roped into credit schemes by predatory financial actors, that the protests among health care workers and teachers this month found it hard to compete with foot-ball mania or that impunity and injustice sit at the heart of the present political order? The answer is foot-ball and Palestine. Pan-Arabism, for the average Algerian, is bourgeois notion, a happy ideal that holds no prospect for improving his daily struggle. The Palestinians have their struggle and are in need. But no rational person can say that for a North African, foot-ball serves the sinister purpose of keeping them from thinking about the horrors going on in Palestine, as it is a problem no one in Algeria sees the government as being in a position to deal with. No one in North Africa is oblivious to that problem, and quite often find it analogous to their own sufferings at the hand of the state, and the sentiment is often mutual. So what one ends up with is the imposition of Levantine priorities on a subject whose own matters are better described on its own terms.

The Guardian, too, ignores the actuality of Algeria’s place in the Arab world. Its piece references Nasser and his coup as well as “sources of inspiration in Algeria’s struggle against French colonialism,” and quotes almost exclusively from Jihad el-Khazen (who wants Algeria and Egypt to get together, hug, and liberate al-Aqsa) and Mohamed Saleh’s columns in the pan-Arab papers (in translation). It casts the match as a “severe test for Arab unity,” a concept no longer taken seriously at street level or officialdom anywhere in North Africa, except perhaps in Libya, though interest there is more centered around encouraging limb-hacking and converting pretty women to Islam (for surely, God goes by the idiom of “no more fat chicks”). The Guardian also published a piece presenting an exacerbated Egyptian view of things. No word as to whether Algerians have anything English-speakers might want to know about how they look at the situation; such things are better left up to the Lebanese, apparently. Alarabiya put up an article lamenting how shallow and facile Egyptian nationalism has become, longing for “those good old days … when people were mobilized and united for a cause that was … more important than the Football World Cup.” The same site also published an article highlighting that 2010 will be Algeria’s first World Cup since 1986, a point not made in most other reports outside the sporting scene.

Why the eastern bias on an African sports clash? The answer might be the same reason one finds shoddy reporting from English-speaking journalists writing about North Africa, and why he gets to few opportunities to read about the Maghreb in English in general. Many English-speaking journalists are not proficient in Arabic to boot, or even French, making the Maghreb incomprehensible to them. At the same time, English-speakers have an easier time in Egypt, a place accommodating to English-speakers and whose Arabic dialect is learned widely in the West. Journalists have not a had a good time in Algeria since the Civil War and the community of foreign reporters there is small. Many western reporters who make their way to Egypt, regrettably, adopt many Egyptian assumptions and prejudices about other Arabic-speaking countries. The sad and ignorant trope, for instance, that Algerians and Moroccans do not speak Arabic (or are not Arabs) is often learned in Egypt, Lebanon or other eastern Arab lands where the “source” has likely never even been to the Maghreb. Add to this that the Maghreb factors low on the list of priorities for most Anglophone states and one realizes that the hopeless coverage of things North African is quite likely to continue, save for among those who actually make contact with the region and take the time to digest the region’s matters beyond a side of couscous.


28 thoughts on “Algeria v. Egypt: the story of a distraction, written from Cairo

  1. Fathi Dib [1] in this book “Nacer and the algerian revolution” talks extensively about the role of the Egyptian Nacirite government during the Algerian revolution. Fathi was Nacer’s trustee on Arab relations at the time. In his account he details numerous operations, much was secret to avoid international confrontations, to arm the revolution. He gives details of Egyptian aid through Libya and multiple boats docking mostly to the west of the country (Oran), some of the attempts by the French. He goes at length at some operations he claimed to have headed to buy arms from Eastern Europe. The book has an appendix with scans of Arms orders and the like.

    Worth a look, if only to take the Egyptian perspective of the time. I can’t claim to be able to evaluate the accuracy of his account, certainly the history I had in Algerian schools didn’t mention much about this.


    • Houawari:
      Thanks very much for your comment. My point was not so much that the Egyptians provided no support, which they did, but the general perception of that support among Egyptians and English-speakers is generally exaggerated and informed by Egyptian hyperbole and contemporary French propaganda (which wanted to de-legitimize the FLN by saying it was an Egyptian puppet). I have a copy of Dib’s book, and my understanding is that important parts of it are accurate but it serves over all as propaganda more than record. It is also documented that many Egyptian attempts to get arms to Algeria or to actually furnish other forms of material support were unsuccessful, usually as a result of Egyptian issues or French interception, which Dib writes about, but one sees in other contemporary accounts of the War and from Algerian writers.

  2. Just few rectificatifs:

    1) Algeria is not an arab country! Algeria is Algeria (Dzayer)

    2) Not a single Egyptian died for Algeria during the struggle of Algeria for independence. Not a soul

    3) The Egyptian services sabotaged and hijacked the true freedom spirit of Algerian struggle against France.

    4) Egypt sabotaged and destroyed Algerian education system inherited from France through their lobbying and patronizing efforts.

    5) The silence of Algerian authorities after the violence of Egyptians in Cairo makes me think that the Egyptian serivces still hold some cards in Algerian polity.

    6) Not long ago Algerian authorities preferred to lend support and lobby for an Egyptian as head of UNESCO than support its own son, Mr Bedjaoui

  3. I meant “Some of the attempts foiled by the french”…

    On the question of media pervasiveness, it is clear that the media wars cemented the Algerian Press’s recent rise nationally and on the Arab stage in particular. It is true that internationally they still have a long way to go. However, over the days of the last match the main three arab newspapers printed over 3 million copied in total, and they had played a significant role in fanning a media war that was watched with bewilderment across the Arab world. So along with the perspective governments, I believe the newspapers were some of the biggest winners of the Saga.

  4. simple reason there was not much algeria perspective in the NYT article: algeria makes it very difficult to appoint permanent correspondents, and is more generally a difficult country to work in (still waiting for my visa, o military intelligence people!). what’s to blame is not egypto-centrism, but algeria’s ostrich policy towards the outside world.

    • Arabist:
      It is true that it is difficult to report on Algeria. But even without a permanent correspondent, the NYT could have simply reviewed the many, many Algerian newspapers’ websites and pulled views from editorials or political and cultural leaders who were blithering on about the game. The information was quite available. The know-nothing tone the biggest papers took on over the match (and towards Egyptians at large) would have helped to better inform some of the reporting. If one could quote Egyptian newspapers and Egyptian blogs, how could he not do the same with Algerian ones, which are readily available in Arabic and French? The lack of permanent correspondents aside, in the context of this story in particular, it is possible to work around not actually being able to get inside the country.

  5. The clashes between Algerians and Egyptians in Khartoum was something that I was completely unaware of until I heard the Egyptian government threaten the Sudanese it would send its troops to bring back Egyptian fans if the Sudanese couldn’t protect them.

    I completely agree that the Egyptians have an advantage when it comes to covering their arguments over the Algerians. But what do you honestly think brought about these clashes.

    • what do you honestly think brought about these clashes.

      Arrogance and stupidity on the part of the people, and the manipulation of those instincts by government and media.

      • Plus, the other guys started it.

        Interesting fact: the Danish cartoon protests in either country were nothing compared to this, underlining again that contrary to popular belief, the truly explosive social forces of the Middle East are propelled by football, cheesy Lebanese pop music and Internet porn, rather than Islamist agitation.

        Something to keep mind for next time one hears a rant about how Arabs are really just an Islamofascist hive mind: Mohammed Aboutrika has an infinitely bigger militant following than Usama bin Ladin.

  6. Hello Kal

    Really enjoyed the post. I was actually in Cairo for the game and wrote the Sports Illustrated piece you mentioned. Can you drop me a mail? Cheers! James

  7. I posted this in response to what many of my Algerian and Egyptian friends and family have been propagating online, i hope that you don’t mind me posting it here, you might find it of interest:

    Torn apart

    I don’t think I’ve ever seen this many insults flying around as I have in the past few weeks, and being both an Egyptian and an Algerian, it has been heartbreaking!

    But that’s not what winds me up the most. What’s been particularly irritating is the sudden surge of patriotism on both sides. And hang on, before you get all agitated here, I’m not denying you your right to feel patriotic, by all means be patriotic and care about your country, what I am questioning here, is why is it that over this particular situation so many of you feel so strongly propelled to act upon their sentiments, but in the face of many other more pressing situations, you’re as passive as someone dying in a coma.

    What I mean by other situations is: the atrocities which both of the governments commit towards their own people day in day out that are frankly a lot more outrageous than this incident; I am talking about arresting and torturing innocent people on a daily basis, I am talking about ripping the helpless and the poor off their dignity and their right to basic human rights, I am talking about sitting on billions of dollars in reserve while the rest of the country struggles to afford decent quality food, I am talking about hospitals in which you’re more likely to die of something that you didn’t have when you walked in rather than get treated for what you came in for in the first place; you all know as much as I do that the list goes on and on.

    And the list doesn’t stop with the governments; it extends to what we do to each other on a daily basis. One particular example that springs to my mind is the mass sexual harassment which took place in the streets of down town Cairo last year after Ramadan, when masses of what looked like crazed men, cornered a couple of girls who looked terrified – can you imagine what those girls must’ve felt like? I didn’t see anyone propagating videos or shouting insults on Facebook then!!! An I hope that my Algerian friends will not get all excited over this example; we all know the situation of the Algerian woman in the face of the good old ‘rejla mal placé’ (misplaced rugulah), let me not go there…

    What’s also astonishing is the way in which You Tube videos have become the trusted source of information – how LAZY is that! I can film anything I want, call it whatever I want and post it on You Tube, can you prove me right or wrong? What’s more, is that we suddenly gave into the state-controlled media; since when does the media in un-democratic countries tell you any truth? What about your instinct to question everything that you watch or hear? And even if what you’ve seen is accurate and true, how can you bring yourself to reduce a whole country to the behaviour of a bunch of scum (because anyone who acts like that is scum, I don’t care what the cause is) and pass on such generalising judgments? Has anyone bothered to look into the history of the other country to understand what makes its people so aggressive or so quick to feel victimised?

    One last thing, have you thought for a second that both governments have a hand in this at all? I can’t think of any other entity in whose interest this whole mayhem is. One has been in power ever since I was born and doesn’t miss an opportunity to distract the people from what he’s up to; similarly the other has taken the liberty to amend the only remotely-democratic constitution in the Arab world to allow himself yet another term in power, and God knows what he’s up to as we speak.

    All I’m asking of you is to open your mind and try to see both sides of the argument and if you would like to be a proactive patriot, be my guest, but make up your mind first, will you be patriotic all the way or will you let other people give you the cue and practically brainwash you into it?

  8. since when does the media in un-democratic countries tell you any truth?

    Since when does the media in a democratic country tell you any truth? 🙂

  9. Kal,

    Congrats to you.

    You have written the best piece anywhere (by) far on the “Football war” between these two countries. Yes, it seems that Egypt’s side is getting more press.

    And I thought the Brasil – Argentina rivalry was silly and the Central American soccer war of the 1970s stupid. …

    Sarah also has put the whole issue in proper perspective.

    The fact is that football issue is important because it is one of the few topics over which both Algerians and Egyptians can freely express their opinion. That is why we see true passion — right or wrong — in the streets, in the videos and in the comments. Too bad that energy can’t be channeled into something more important like education, politics or challenging dogmas that oppress these same peoples.


    • Hi Kal and J. Kactuz,

      J. Kactuz, I think you really have a point here where you say:

      ” The fact is that football issue is important because it is one of the few topics over which both Algerians and Egyptians can freely express their opinion.”

      I remember in the UAE an incident where there was a corruption scandal involving the owners ( a sheikh et al.) of a football club in Abu Dhabi. When this club played a club in Sharjah on Sharjah’s turf, the Sharjah fans, after their team made a goal against the Abu Dhabi team, the Sharjah fans started chanting “Bribers, bribers!” They tried to clamp down on them by threatening to halt the game but it continued.

      My point is that even footbal is affected by freedom of expression.

      • Kactuz and John:
        Thanks for your comments. Football certainly serves as a means by which Algerians and Egyptians (and other Arabs, too) express themselves in societies where political and social discourse is heavily controlled. The trouble here, as you both write, is that in this case such frustrations are not being controlled by the people: the regimes — particularly the Egyptian one — have successfully coopted those energies and directed them to the margins of things politically relevant in a genuine way. In this case football’s salience at an emotional and political level has been capitalized on and undermined by the established powers. These football rumblings serve the status quo more than any football violence in either country in recent years.

  10. The way the Egyptians behaved in Cairo was an insult for humankind. How could they receive a visiting team with rocks? Still now, the Egyptian street believes in the version which is given by mad personalities like Amr Adib, who is the official liar of the system Moubarak!

  11. The Danish newspapers too didn’t write much about the football match and the stoning of the Algerian team in Cairo.
    And the Danish journalists didn’t try to cover the background story and the political reasons for the riots at all.
    They just gave the Egyptians’ point of view not a single Algerian was interviewed and not a single Algerian newspaper was quoted.
    I think this lack of knowledge has to do with the fact that most Algerian newspapers are written in either French or Arabic and that therefore it is easier for the journalists to look what the anglophone Egyptian newspapers write.

  12. Egyptians _were_ attacked in Khartoum, presumably by Algerians, as were Algerians in Cairo after the first game despite Egyptian some media denials. Not as much as the Egyptian media claimed, but it happened nonetheless as many have testified to the press. NYT piece stupid, of course, and still not much coverage (outside of Algeria) of the Algerian side, especially in light of all the recent riots there and the economic angle with the regime’s longstanding bitterness about Djezzy’s massive profits and the recent reports of Vivendi and Sonatrach being possible buyers.

  13. What surprises me is that despite the intense media coverage of the game in Khartoum there are no credible pictures or videos (as far as I know) of those alleged attacks. Egyptian media have invited/interviewed a number of Egyptians about that but it would be nice to have third party confirmation. Algerians did indeed inflate the claims of attacks in Cairo (the claim of a death was eventually debunked) but even Egyptian authorities eventually acknowledged a number of Algerian (and Egyptian) casualties. Anything similar for Khartoum?

    The Djezzy story is quite interesting. My suspicion is that there must have been a long-standing plan to try to to take them over and the events of Cairo presented a golden opportunity. It would not surprise me to learn that some “steering” took place to target Djezzy (and Orascom).

  14. What pisses the shit out of me (please excuse my French) is how the Egyptians are willing to send troops to Khartoum to bring their fans back. At the same time, however, their Palestinian brothers were getting massacred by the Israelis and they don’t move a finger.

    Gee … is that hypocrisy?

  15. Just to be “fair and balanced”, an equal amount of blame could be laid on the Algerian authorities. In a country famous for its red tape and its inability to solve the simplest logistical problem, we witnessed an incredibly efficient mobilization over the course of just a few days that resulted in over 10,000 fans being flown thousands of miles away. One wonders what miracles could be achieved if similar zeal could be summoned on a daily basis or had been present during some of the natural catastrophes that occurred these past few years (earthquake in Boumerdes, flooding in Bab el Oued for instance). Now there’s talk of a repeat performance at the African cup of nations in Angola and the world cup next summer in South Africa. 50% discounts are expected in both cases and ferries that will used for transportation and lodging are being requisitioned for SA.

  16. Exceptionally a lot of thanks!
    You are offering fascinating needed studies about the Arab peoples and countries .But you have to take into account that Egypt of our beloved NASSER was not Egypt of these days .People and the political establishment are not the same. You know ,they changed over time .Even during Nasser’s days I think there was only NASSER himself. He was a great man .Probably he was not an Egyptian .He was with the ALGERIAN CAUSE but men who were around him I do not think so. That is why the Algerian leaders took their government from Cairo and run away to Tunisia other ways Algeria became other Palestine. This is my opinion .That is what I am !


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