Street-level clashes between fans that began over a soccer game
between Algeria and Egypt last week have escalated into an
international diplomatic incident that goes to the core of Egypt's
identity and its waning role as Mideast powerbroker.
Libyan leader Col. Muammar Qaddafi announced today he would
accept an Arab League request to mediate in the escalating conflict
between the two states after Algeria beat Egypt for the last African
slot in next summer's World Cup.
In Algiers, offices of Egyptian businesses were vandalized after
Egypt won the first qualifying match Nov. 14. Following Algeria's
victory in a sudden death playoff four days later, the government-
controlled Egyptian media accused Algeria of "terrorizing" its
citizens, fomenting animosity that culminated in hundreds of
Egyptian rioters descending on the Algerian embassy in Cairo to seek
revenge. Egypt recalled its ambassador to Algiers to protest alleged
attacks against Egyptian fans in Khartoum, though he later returned
to his post.
"Egypt does not tolerate those who hurt the dignity of its sons,"
a visibly angry President Hosni Mubarak told parliament over the
But Egypt's anger goes far beyond the game or how Egyptian fans
were treated, analysts and political observers say. The real issue
is the state's concern over its diminishing regional stature and the
Mubarak regime's continued unpopularity at home. In an apparent
attempt to mask both problems, President Mubarak's government has
tapped into decades-old enmity between Egypt and Algeria to fan the
flames of nationalism.
"The discussion is revolving around honor, dignity, respect, and
Egypt's position in the Arab world and whether or not Egypt should
remain in the Arab world," says Adel Iskandar, professor of media
and communications at Georgetown University in Washington. "Egypt as
a nation-state participates in regional politics very much like an
emeritus professor who ceremonially is accepted into the committees
and sits on them, but in reality has very little authority anymore."
Egypt's identity crisis
Once led by Gamal Abdel Nasser, wildly popular across the Middle
East as the most prominent advocate of pan-Arab nationalism, Egypt
today faces a crisis of identity brought on by heightened feelings
In the days after the game, Mubarak's son Alaa was quoted as
saying: "There is nothing called Arab nationalism or brotherhood,
this is just talk, that doesn't mean anything in reality.... When
Algerians learn how to speak Arabic they can then come and say that
they are Arabs." In colloquial Algerian Arabic many words borrowed
from their former colonial power France are still used.
The question is one of historical identity - and pride. "The
Egyptians would not miss an opportunity to remind the Arabs that ...
we are the masters of the Arab world, which is of course not true,"
says Hossam el-Hamalawy, a prominent Egyptian blogger and political
Criticism from countries such as Qatar, a country with a smaller
population than some Cairo districts whose state-funded Al Jazeera
station openly challenged the Egyptian position during the war in
Gaza last December and January, has made Egypt look weak in front of
both its neighbors and its citizens. …