Violence against Egyptian football fans in Sudan served as a shocking eye opener, writes Shaden Shehab
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A host of film stars and public figures including, notably, actor Omar Sharif, held a brief vigil at the Sound and Light Theatre on the Pyramids plateau on Tuesday to mark their protest of Algerian aggression against Egyptian football supporters in Sudan last week. Denouncing chauvinism and terror, they called for forgiveness and putting the emotional energy resulting from the event to positive use
The scores of people chanting anti-Algerian slogans in front of the Algerian embassy on Friday expressed just a fraction of the rage felt by the Egyptian public towards the events of 18 November in Sudan. The eyewitness accounts of the way Egyptians were attacked in the Sudanese capital following the play-off between the Egyptian and Algerian football teams, unbelievable stories aired on TV of how Egyptian fans were attacked by Algerians wielding knives, nails, daggers, switchblades, scalpels and heavy wooden sticks, continue to reverberate among a shocked public to the extent that losing the match has become a trivial matter.
President Hosni Mubarak was as furious as many ordinary Egyptians. "I get agitated, too, but I exercise self-restraint," he told a joint session of the People's Assembly and Shura Council on Saturday in a speech to mark the opening of the new parliamentary session. "Egypt will never tolerate assaults on the dignity of its people," he said, "for the dignity of our people is the dignity of Egypt."
On 19 October the Foreign Ministry called in Algeria's ambassador in Cairo to express "extreme dismay" over the attacks in Khartoum. Egypt's ambassador in Algiers, Abdel-Aziz Seif El-Nasr, was instructed to return to Egypt for consultations for an indefinite period.
President Mubarak's younger son Gamal, chairman of the National Democratic Party's Policies Committee, who was in Sudan to watch the match with his brother Alaa, said that what happened was an "aggression against Egypt". He insisted that "whoever thought that such an incident against a great country like Egypt will pass is making a big mistake and will pay for the consequences."
But it was Alaa Mubarak who appeared to best capture the public mood. When the president's older son, who has not spoken publicly before, phoned a number of talk shows his spontaneous words reflected what people felt. He stressed that he was not expressing his opinions as the president's son or as someone seeking political office but as an Egyptian citizen, touching the hearts of many to the extent that they claimed were he to run for president he would receive their votes. "I am not qualified to assume any political titles, neither do I want to," was his response.
"Thank God we did not win or else a massacre would have happened," he said, describing the attackers in Sudan as "a group of mercenaries, not football fans, hired to attack Egyptians," the proof being that "they came to Sudan on military airplanes." What happened, he said, was not due to the heat of the moment but was premeditated. He pointed out that Algeria had been verbally insulting Egypt for months in the media. And when the Algerian ambassador to Egypt, Abdel-Qader Hadjar, said there was no need for Algeria to apologise, Alaa Mubarak went so far as to ask: "What are you still doing in Egypt? We don't want you in our country."
He downplayed any aspects of Arab nationalism being involved in the conflict, saying "until they are able to speak Arabic we can't call them Arabs" and also criticised suggestions that there are Algerians who love Egypt. "Where are they?" he asked. "We can't hear their voices."
But how is it that Egypt became the focus of such an outpouring of hate from another Arab country?
Prominent media figure Emadeddin Adib, who is known to have top-level connections in Egypt and abroad, has an explanation. He points an accusing finger at a "Gulf country" as being behind the "conspiracy", insisting that what happened in Khartoum was "premeditated". Adib says he has credible information suggesting the "conspiracy was planned by Algerian political groups and was financed by a Gulf state with the aim of replacing Egypt, which has $6 billion worth of investments in Algeria". He added that the unnamed Gulf state is seeking to undermine Egypt politically and was behind the anti- Egyptian attacks that first began to appear in the Algerian media several months ago.
It is no secret that the Algerian newspaper Ech- Chorouk, which has taken an insulting editorial line towards Egypt, is financed by Qatar. On a related note, the Qatari satellite news channel Al-Jazeera, known to rarely miss news stories, was criticised by observers because it did not broadcast the events in Sudan. Its correspondent justified the omission by claiming he left immediately after the match.
Egyptian responses to events in Sudan, as reflected in the local media, seem to fall into two camps. There are those who are pressing for relations with Algeria to be cut, and others arguing that the crisis should be allowed to blow over.
"Enough is enough," says Mohamed Sherdi, an MP from the liberal Wafd Party. "We need to teach a lesson to all those [countries] that feel free to attack Egypt in words and deeds... if we do not, such attacks will become the norm."
"If our role is to be above such things because we are the mother of all nations," he added, "then we no longer want this role, thank you."
Mustafa El-Feki, chairman of the People's Assembly Foreign Relations Committee, believes that Egypt is in a position to bring great pressure on Algeria. "Egypt's strong diplomatic presence throughout the world could do a lot of harm to the interests of Algeria in Arab, regional and African circles," he said.
Leading commentator Salama Ahmed Salama cautions against any escalation in the dispute. Both Algeria and Egypt, he says, need to be "rational".
"The hurt between the two countries must be given time to heal rather than exacerbated and made deeper," he argued.
Political science professor Mustafa El-Sayed agrees, dismissing suggestions that relations with Algeria be cut as "ridiculous".
"We should admit that we made mistakes because we knew of the aggressive intentions of the Algerians beforehand yet still sent the elite of our society, distinguished media people, celebrities, artists and intellectuals, to face Algeria's armed gangs," says El-Feki.
Salama wonders how it could be that Egypt failed to read the signs, especially after the premises of Egyptian businesses in Algeria, including Orascom Telecom and EgyptAir, were ransacked.
"As long as we are silent towards the insults Egyptians receive abroad, especially in Arab countries, we will be treated as a people without dignity," says Sherdi. "But more important still, only when Egyptian citizens are treated with dignity at home can we expect respect abroad."
El-Sayed believes the sense of nationalism that was expressed by the hanging of so many Egyptian flags before the match would have been a positive sign had it not been about football. Winning games, even qualifying for the World Cup, should not, he says, be the extent of Egypt's aspirations.
"A nation that cannot prevent its citizens being attacked is a weak nation," intoned Lamees El-Hadidi, who attended the match, in the daily Masry Al-Yom. "History has shown us the [Egyptian] people do not accept assaults against their dignity."