Al-Ahram Weekly Online   10 - 16 December 2009
Issue No. 976
Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875

Dangerous games

The dust is slowly settling on the furore surrounding the Egypt-Algeria World Cup qualifying match. Dina Ezzat wonders how long it will take for the wounds to heal

"To be perfectly honest I am Algerian. I am."

Zoubida's admission was met with a smile by her doctor at a Cairo clinic. An Algerian who has worked and lived in Cairo for the past three years, Zoubida was suffering from stomach pains. She booked her appointment through an Egyptian friend, having minimised her levels of communication for the past two weeks.

"Since the game in Khartoum I have felt uncomfortable about speaking to people I don't know because of my Algerian accent," she said.

At the clinic Zoubida had to speak up, if only to explain to the doctor how the pains in her stomach have been accompanied by a wave of depression. Both coincided with the mutually antagonistic campaigns the Egyptian and Algerian media have launched against each other in the wake of the disturbances that followed the two nations' qualification matches for the 2010 World Cup. The doctor, who laughed at Zoubida's concern about revealing her identity, perhaps not surprisingly put down her complaints to stress.

"But of course I was stressed out. It was unprecedented. I always felt at home here then suddenly I was driving around Zamalek [site of the Algerian embassy] encountering Egyptian protesters chanting 'Algerians go away'."

Zoubida's distress over the deterioration in relations between the two countries was shared by both her Egyptian and Algerian friends. It is a sentiment that has also been expressed in Algeria by Egyptians expats and Algerians.

Thankfully, the media war has almost entirely abated. The orders, say official sources, were given at the highest level. Parallel mediations by Libyan Leader Muammar Gaddafi, current chair of the African Union and next chair of the Arab Summit, and Sudanese President Omar Al-Bashir, whose country hosted the ill-fated play-off between Egypt and Algeria that saw Algerian fans attack Egyptian supporters after the match, managed to secure promises from both President Hosni Mubarak and his Algerian counterpart Abdel-Aziz Boutaflika to end the war exactly where it started -- on TV channels and in newspapers.

Slowly but surely things have been getting back to normal, on the surface at least. Egyptian workers who fled Algeria are now preparing to return to their jobs and houses. Algerian officials and parliamentarians who were supposed to come to Cairo to participate in Arab League and other meetings arrived as scheduled.

In Cairo and Algiers, diplomats speaking off the record say they are relieved the furore is almost over.

"We never wanted to get into a confrontation with Algeria, that was never the intention, but we could not have ignored public anger over the incidents that followed the game in Khartoum," said one senior state official. He added that Egypt will be sending its ambassador back to Egypt "sooner rather than later."

Abdel-Aziz Seif El-Nasr, Egypt's ambassador to Algeria, was recalled two weeks ago to demonstrate Cairo's dismay at the behaviour of Algerian soccer fans in Khartoum and attacks on Egyptian interests in Algeria.

Algeria refrained from recalling its ambassador, though its president was reportedly advised to do so.

Egyptian and Algerian diplomats alike say there is much work to be done before the damage to the traditionally good relations between the peoples of Egypt and Algeria is mended. However, they express confidence that bridges can be repaired. They are already encouraged by positive statements being made by Egyptian officials.

During the past few days Minister of Foreign Affairs Ahmed Abul-Gheit stressed that Egypt is keen on its Arab relations; Minister of Culture Farouk Hosni insisted that "of course" Algeria would be invited to the Cairo Book Fair; Minister of Trade and Industry Rachid Mohamed Rachid expressed commitment to continued trade and investment cooperation between Egypt and Algeria and Minister of Gas and Natural Resources Sameh Fahmi announced a new cooperative project with Algeria.

"Algeria is a sister state and I want no problems with Algeria," President Hosni Mubarak said on Sunday. It was his first direct remark on the matter. During the inauguration of parliament 10 days ago Mubarak had declined to comment on the matter.

Likewise, Mohamed Barrah, Algerian presidential adviser, spoke of the need to overcome the tension between Egypt and Algeria. Barrah qualified the situation as "an artificial crisis prompted by regrettable incidents". He insisted that "the joint will of Egyptians and Algerians" could help navigate bilateral relations off the crisis shores.

Outside officialdom, however, the wounds are deep.

"Yes, it is true that some of our fans attacked some of your fans in Khartoum," said Zahra, an Algerian civil servant in her early 40s speaking from Algiers. "But even so, do you think that this a reason for your media to refer to our people as the nation of the 'one million whores' [a reference to the million martyrs who died during the war of liberation against the French]?"

"How do you think that I felt when I saw the Egyptian flag being burned and spat on by Algerian fans in Khartoum. How was I supposed to feel and react?" asked Mohamed, a high school teacher in Cairo, in his late 30s.

Egyptian and Algerian diplomats concede both Zahra and Mohamed have reason to be angry. But, as diplomats on both sides add, getting angry is one thing and driving close, if sometimes competitive, relations asunder is another.

No one can predict exactly how long it will take for people like Zahra and Mohamed to overcome the mutually perceived insults to national pride that followed the football game, nor when Zoubida will feel once again sufficiently comfortable to scream back at a driver whose speeding scratches her own.

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