Al-Ahram Weekly Online   19 - 25 November 2009
Issue No. 973
Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875

The wrong war

Dina Ezzat laments the senseless Egyptian-Algerian furore

At seven o'clock on the evening of 18 November, as millions of Egyptians and Algerians were anxiously awaiting to watch the deciding football match between the national teams of both countries, in Sudan, the Opera House theatre was showing an Algerian film as part of a special week dedicated to Algerian cinema by the 33rd Cairo film festival.

The mood in Cairo, however, was not exactly one of paying tribute to Algerian cinema, culture or even to Algeria's historic support for Egypt during its battle against Israeli aggression. Nor was anybody in the mood to recall the years of Egyptian support for the glorious Algerian revolution against French occupation. In Cairo, the overall mood was one of an unmasked and indeed unchecked anti-Algerian sentiment. A similar mood lamentably reigned over the Algerian capital, according to Egyptian expatriates who spoke to Al-Ahram Weekly over the phone from Algiers.

In both North African Arab capitals, if only to judge by the headlines of the papers and the tone in the media, nothing mattered but the football game Wednesday night that was supposed to decide who would go to the World Cup in 2010.

Mobilisation of the masses on both sides had started a week earlier, ahead of the game in Cairo that failed for either side to secure the necessary score required to go to South Africa. As such, the mobilisation continued past the game and into the decider on Wednesday 18 November in Sudan. The game in Egypt took a downward curve as hooligans on both sides -- more in Cairo given that it was the site of the game -- immersed into a feverish state of hostility.

"I was there myself to support the [Egyptian] national team and I saw supporters of the Algerian [national] team being stoned," said Hassan, an Egyptian football fan. A Cairo university student of philosophy, Hassan said that very harsh insults were exchanged between the Egyptian and Algerian fans in the total absence of security.

Typically Hassan blames the Algerian media for initiating the mood. "They insulted us first," he said. Hassan could give no direct reference to a particular article that was run in the Algerian press. He just said that "this is what I heard on every talk show."

"It is the talk shows that are broadcast from Egypt and which have a huge audience that started this crisis. They misled the masses on both sides: aggravating the anger of Egyptians and attacking the Algerian masses," said Fatema, an Algerian resident in Egypt.

Married to an Egyptian and living in Cairo for some 13 years, Fatema, like Hassan, finds the whole episode of the Egyptian-Algerian furore over a football game "very sad". However, unlike Hassan, who is only 18, Fatema, who is nearing her 40s, is well aware of "the long history that the great leaders of Egypt's Gamal Abdel-Nassar and Algerian Houari Boumediène led the two nations to jointly write."

In Cairo, the site of the game and its subsequent clashes, and in Algiers where angry demonstrations targeted a few Egyptian installations and which prompted dozens of Egyptians to rush back to Cairo, it is not very difficult to find citizens frustrated with the current mood of hostility over a sports event. Indeed, on Tuesday there were attempts by some actors and writers to call for a containment of the state of mobilisation.

However, as both nations anxiously followed the news and indeed rumours of insults and counter- insults and of attacks and counter-attacks it became almost impossible for these voices to be heard.

"Those voices -- on both sides -- should have spoken up earlier. If the editor of Al-Masry Al-Yom, Magdi El-Gallad, followed through on his initiative of 'a rose for each Algerian' coming to Cairo to support the national team (of Algeria) things would have been different today, perhaps," said Fatema.

But the past two weeks were not one of much amicability between many Egyptians and Algerians. An inundation of negative qualifications was posted by each side on Facebook and other Internet sites.

The hostility prompted a frequent exchange of contacts between officials of Egypt and Algeria during the past few days. Statements issued on both sides were sensitive to the mood of the masses and they as such tended to stress more the need for the authorities of each country to provide protection for the citizens of the other rather than to call on citizens on both sides to calm down.

On Monday, the Egyptian Foreign Ministry summoned Abdel-Qader Hadjar, the Algerian ambassador in Cairo, in the wake of an attack on the headquarters of EgyptAir in Algiers. Following his meetings at the ministry, Hadjar told reporters that Algerian authorities were doing all that had to be done to secure the safety of all Egyptian citizens in Algeria. And Abdel-Rahman Salah, assistant Egyptian foreign minister, said Egypt had asked Hadjar to keep Cairo posted on the matter.

Meanwhile, the prime ministers of Egypt and Algeria each issued a statement to affirm that the two governments are being ultra-sensitive to the temporarily exaggerated security needs of each side.

On Tuesday, Speaker of the Egyptian Parliament Fathi Sorour called on his Algerian counterpart to plead for an end to incitement.

Moreover, according to an official Sudanese source who spoke to the Weekly from Khartoum, stringent security measures are being put in place by the authorities to secure the safety of the Egyptian and Algerian national teams and their supporters.

Egyptian, Algerian and Sudanese diplomats qualify the situation independently as "a mess" prompted by football. The Sudanese say they feel very awkward because they have to be sensitive to each side. And the Egyptian and Algerian diplomats say they have had a hard time reconciling relations that are generally very good between the two nations.

"Without the intervention of the media in a healthy way and without an end to the mood of incitement that has prevailed in the past two weeks it is hard to think that this hostility will come to an end any time soon," commented Fatema. "I always said that Egypt was the leading Arab nation and that its media are the most pioneering and influential and it is in such capacity that the Egyptian media need to consider ways of leading towards a healthier atmosphere," she argued.

Fatema promptly added, "the Algerian media must also participate in abating this senseless war but to be honest I think that it is the Egyptian media with their much wider influence that has to take the lead."

Fatema and Amal, an Egyptian translator in her late 40s, argued with equal zeal that what Egypt and Algeria have in common is much more profound and much more important than a football game.

"Of course I will watch. I will watch with my husband and a group of Egyptian and Algerian friends as I did last time," said Fatema.

"Definitely, I will watch. I am betting LE100 that Egypt will win," said Amal.

Anxious to support their respective national teams, Fatema and Amal are, however, very concerned about what will come next. Both say they are seriously afraid of confrontations between football fans in Egypt, Algeria and Sudan -- and may be elsewhere among Egyptian and Algerian communities overseas.

"Mosteghanemi? Ahlam Mosteghanemi? Isn't she an Algerian writer? Do you want a copy of her book?" with a clearly surprised tone asked a sales assistant at a reputable Heliopolis bookstore on Tuesday morning. The book was not available and she took an order for a copy with a face that reflected a question mark on the identity of the client: Egyptian or Algerian. "Do you think she's Algerian? Some of them look like us," the sales assistant said to another client.

In her early 20s, the lady at the bookstore said she was not aware that Warda, the Algerian singer who has lived in Egypt for close to five decades and was married to one of Egypt's most reputable composers, Baligh Hamdi, sang one of the most famous national songs of the 1973 War. Nor did she know that Egypt's renowned film director, Youssef Chahine, made the movie Djamila Bouhired that starred leading Egyptian actors Magda and Ahmed Mazhar, in memory of the icon of the Algerian revolution to end French occupation.

In Egypt and Algeria neither of the state-run TV channels bothered to broadcast either production. The current mood is not one of Egyptian-Algerian friendship.

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