Al-Ahram Weekly Online   26 November - 2 December 2009
Issue No. 974
Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875

Start of the second half

Dina Ezzat asks about the future of Egyptian-Algerian relations

"I cannot compromise when it comes to the dignity and rights of Egyptian citizens. Let this be clear." This was how President Hosni Mubarak summed up his position on the recent furore that followed the attacks inflicted on Egyptian soccer fans in Khartoum by Algerian supporters after a football game played in Khartoum on 18 November.

Speaking before parliament, during an annual speech that he addresses upon the inauguration of the legislative session, Mubarak made no direct reference to Algeria. Nor did he refer to the attacks inflicted on scores of Egyptian citizens in Sudan and Algeria as part of the football mania. And when pressed by some parliamentarians to be more specific, the president declined.

"I get agitated, too, but I exercise self- restraint," Mubarak said without further elaboration.

It has not been the easiest time for bilateral Egyptian-Algerian relations. Uproar over the riots and hostilities that led to and followed a soccer game between the national teams of both countries is threatening what had been traditionally -- not withstanding ups and downs -- close and cooperative relations.

Egypt's Ambassador to Algeria Abdel-Aziz Seif El-Nasr, who was recalled by Cairo for consultations over the attacks that targeted Egyptian interests in Algeria, arrived in Cairo on Saturday. And while Egyptian diplomats said off the record that the stay of Seif El-Nasr in Egypt would not be a long one, Hossam Zaki, the spokesman of the Foreign Ministry, said it could be weeks or days.

The official line is that Seif El-Nasr will be sent back to Algeria when enough measures are taken by the Algerian government to suspend what Cairo qualifies as an aggressive media attack on Egypt and the mismanagement of security measures by the Algerian government, and to provide sufficient security to Egyptian citizens and interests in Algeria.

For their part, Algerian officials including Abdel-Aziz Belkhadem, the personal representative of the Algerian president, and Mourad Medlici, the Algerian foreign minister, have expressed dismay at what they equally qualify as an attack on Algeria and its people in the Egyptian media.

Algeria had summoned Seif El-Nasr before his return to Cairo but has not, at least not yet, recalled its ambassador for consultations.

Speaking strictly off the record, both Egyptian and Algerian diplomats preached the need for "wisdom to prevail" in handling what they both qualify as "ultimately a fight among soccer fans" that "was picked up and inflamed by some elements in the media".

Egyptian diplomats insist "Egypt is far from picking a fight with Algeria." In the words of one diplomat who spoke on condition of anonymity, "what we want from the Algerian government is simple and basic: provide adequate security to Egyptian citizens and interests, take legal action against individuals involved in violence against Egyptian interests in Algeria, and provide adequate compensation for the damages sustained by Egyptian companies in Algeria."

Algerian diplomats say that the whole Algerian nation cannot be blamed and insulted for the news printed in some of its little circulated papers -- in reference to the Algerian daily Ech- Chorouk that printed misleading information about the fate of some Algerian football fans who were in Cairo to support their national team in a previous game played on 14 November in Cairo with their Egyptian counterpart.

Ech-Chorouk was one of several Algerian media reports that suggested to Algerian public opinion that no less than 10 Algerian citizens were killed by Egyptian football fans in Cairo in the wake of a football game that both national teams played in Cairo Stadium on 14 November. The news came only four days before the game that was played in Khartoum on 18 November which was then followed by aggressive attacks by some Algerian soccer supporters against Egyptian fans.

Algerian diplomats do not deny that there were attacks against hundreds of Egyptian soccer fans in Sudan. They, however, insist that a video showing hundreds of Algerian soccer fans carrying knives in Algeria and which was shown on many Egyptian TV shows, was not taken in Khartoum. These images, they say, were taken in Algeria a few years ago, prior to a game in the Algeria football league.

Sudanese diplomats who also spoke to Al-Ahram Weekly on condition of background, supported, for the most part, the Algerian account of the "knives video". However, they also supported the Egyptian account that scores of Egyptian fans were attacked in Khartoum. A few, they added, were hurt.

According to Egyptian diplomatic sources, Egypt has a reason to be angry over the attacks in which its citizens were targeted both in Algeria and Khartoum. "It's sad that this came from Algerians who have always had close ties with Egyptians, away from the madness of football," commented a senior Egyptian diplomatic source.

However, according to the same source, this grievance could be addressed and handled through legal and diplomatic channels. "We have no interest in harming our otherwise close relationship with Algeria. We are aware of and sensitive to public sentiment but we cannot be inconsiderate to the strength of relations between Egypt and Algeria," the same diplomat said.

Egyptian diplomats in the UN, New York and Geneva, say that for the most part Egyptian- Algerian cooperation has been smooth sailing. "We coordinate a lot with our Algerian counterparts and they do so with us," said a Geneva- based Egyptian diplomat.

Arab diplomats in these cities that host the UN headquarters and European offices told the Weekly Tuesday that they saw no signs of tension between Egyptian and Algerian diplomats, as such. "There is a vague sense of apprehension due to the media furore but not much, especially that neither presidents [Hosni Mubarak of Egypt or Abdel-Aziz Boutaflika of Algeria] have exchanged accusations," commented an Arab diplomat who spoke from New York.

In Cairo, Egyptian officials refer to the "unmasked support that Algeria lent to [Minister of Culture] Farouk Hosni during his campaign to be elected as director-general of UNESCO. We have to remember that Algeria did not support the Algerian candidate and that it supported the Egyptian candidate. This was no small sign of friendship," said the official who insisted that his name and post be withheld.

Both Arab capitals acknowledge that much harm has been inflicted on bilateral relations that were once exemplary. Egyptian and Algerian diplomats alike say that if the media tumult on both sides is not suspended immediately, things could move towards a seriously negative phase.

So far, very little has been publicly said on either side in defence of Egyptian-Algerian relations. Exactly the opposite has been happening. Egyptian and Algerian actors and artists have been exchanging accusations and rejecting honorary prizes mutually offered between Egypt and Algeria.

Only a few intellectuals have dared to speak up in favour of Egyptian-Algerian relations. And the attempt of the Arab League to intervene to contain this crisis has not been exactly welcomed by either side during the past few days.

"I am committed to keeping up my contacts with both capitals to contain this crisis. Egyptian- Algerian relations are very valuable for the collective Arab interest," said Arab League Secretary-General Amr Moussa. Moussa was speaking on Sunday following a round of contacts with Cairo, Algiers and Khartoum.

A Sudanese diplomatic source told the Weekly that Moussa and Khartoum are jointly working to contain the sensitivities between Algeria and Egypt. According to this same source "the target is very high-level. We need to get the presidents on both sides to communicate and clear the air so that the media on both sides can end this furore."

Arab diplomats in Cairo have expressed dismay over the recent tug-of-war between Egypt and Algeria. Those who said they supported the Egyptian football team and those who said they backed the Algerian football team argue today that the game in Sudan should have been cancelled, or at most played without spectators in the stadium, because the madness leading up to it could have been avoided.

Meanwhile, Libyan diplomats said Moussa had solicited the support of Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi, who will chair the next Arab summit in March 2010, to reconcile Egypt and Algeria.

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