Egypt, Algeria, Take Game to the Streets

The sound of cleats puncturing grass and the crisp pop of the ball being passed from one player to the other still sends my heart racing. The hum of thousands of patriotic fans cheering, flags flickering and horns blaring makes me more intently watch the ball weave from one player to the other. But the sight of blood, the sound of malicious insults and the general violence that followed the match between Algeria and Egypt did nothing to further my love for soccer. In fact, it made me realize that these games are often a catharsis for violent fans, and sometimes a proxy for political issues. And, on another level, it shows that there is nothing that unifies a people like a common enemy. So if the only news that has reached you regarding this game is the stoning of the Algerian soccer team’s bus by Egyptian fans, you have, at the least, been misinformed of the greater repercussions of the game. In fact, media coverage of the entire situation surrounding the game has been rather shameful.

When Egypt beat Algeria 2-0 on November 14, neither team qualified for the 2010 World Cup. Egypt, though the game’s winner, needed to score three goals during the game to secure a spot in next year’s coveted tournament. Regardless, the streets of Cairo were alive with the sound of drums beating and youths chanting. For many in Egypt and Algeria, soccer is an escape from the realities of daily life, from the downfalls of a failed government, and a reminder of what is left of national pride. Egyptians living in Algeria, however, had a different experience.  And as the American and European media streamed Theirry Henry’s hand-ball against Ireland as though it had altered the world of soccer, Africa and the Middle East followed a much more violent soccer-related story.

In the days leading up to the second and deciding match between Egypt and Algeria, Egyptian citizens residing in Algeria reported assaults and intimidation. And although on November 18 Algeria put an end to Egypt’s hopes of attending the 2010 World Cup, beating the rival nation 2-0, it did not put an end to the violence. And in this case, the victors were the assailants. Following the game, Egyptian fans phoned satellite television channels reporting that it was difficult to leave the stadium due to assault by Algerian fans following the game. Despite the promised presence of 1,500 police officers by stadium, none of the officers did anything to calm the escalating tension. This is not surprising, given Sudan’s expulsion of neutral human rights groups. And until the situation diffused, many Egyptians were forced to seek refuge in Sudanese homes.

The violence leading up to the game and following Algeria’s win has been attributed to a propaganda campaign carried out in the Algerian media. Following Egypt’s victory in the first game, Algerian news-outlets repeated claims that nine Algerian nationals had been killed in violence between Egyptian and Algerian fans, spurring further hostility.

Although there was undoubtedly tension between the fans, as in any soccer match, deaths were certainly not the result of the skirmishes. Yet this media propaganda was effective in inciting further violence — this time with Egyptians as the victims. Following Algeria’s initial loss, EgyptAir’s office in the Algerian capital was attacked and looted, as well as Egyptian companies Orascom Telecom and The Arab Contractors. Employees of these organizations were trapped in their homes and offices.

In Marseilles, France, 500 French officers were deployed in response to Algerian youth who reacted to the first game by smashing shop windows, throwing stones and setting fires, prefacing later violence. Local sources in Egypt claim that there had been an increase in knife sales in the Sudanese capital only days before the game. And in the days leading up to the second match, Egyptians residing in Algeria became the targets of hate-crimes. Despite this coordinated violence against Egyptians, the result has been a global media campaign depicting Algerians as the victims.

It is worth noting that media reporting on this particular issue has been conflicting, but many of the reports of violence have come in the form of first-hand accounts of violence uploaded to YouTube. And Egyptian accounts of the violence have largely been limited to Arabic and thus to an Arabic-speaking population. While it becomes difficult to clarify the details of the violence, as Algeria, Egypt, and Sudan are all notable examples of nations with faulty security and minimal oversight, it is hard to overlook the startling accounts of violence for the sake of a sport. And for those of us who love soccer as a pastime and as a sport that unifies people across borders, ethnicities and languages, this is a sad example of meaningless violence.

Frida Alim is a third-year political science major. She can be reached at aabdelal@uci.edu.