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.
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.