into the final phase of the 2010 FIFA soccer world cup, but the swirl of controversy surrounding the two-game confrontation between Algeria and Egypt has yet to diminish. To give but a few examples: Awaiting a formal apology and compensation for losses incurred by Egyptian businesses in Algeria, Egypt recalled its ambassador, suspended its membership in the North African Football Union, and announced it would boycott a meeting of the executive committee of the Arab Football Union. Meanwhile, an Algerian delegation walked out of a meeting of the Arab Lawyers Union to protest the burning of the Algerian flag by Egyptian jurists. There are ongoing discussions about a possible take-over of Djezzy the leading mobile phone provider in Algeria, which estimated the losses caused by the looting of its offices in the tens of millions of dollars. Algerian workers have also demanded the departure of Egyptian workers and managers. Libya’s president Muammar Gaddafi offered his mediation with no visible result yet. Consult this Wikipedia entry or this article for a good recap of the dispute. The Moor Next Door provides an interesting analysis on the British and American media reporting of these events.
Soccer matches between Algeria and Egypt have never been a smooth affair, beginning in 1958 when the newly formed FLN national team (a public relation tool in the war of independence) arrived in Cairo only to find out that the promised game against Egypt would not materialize (the threat of a ban from FIFA competitions may have motivated Egypt’s change of mind.) However, this latest incident carries with it a number of elements worth exploring.
Looking beyond the bombastic rhetoric, it is clear that the regimes of Algiers and Cairo could not, as noted here, pass such an opportunity to manipulate nationalistic sentiments and grab whatever amount of popularity they could from their respective populations. On the Algerian side, the ordinarily inefficient state apparatus mounted, in the limited span of four days, a massive airlift that landed over 10,000 fans in the Sudanese capital. The returning team was given a huge hero’s welcome during which all restrictions on public assembly, imposed by the 17-year old state of emergency, were suddenly lifted. Coming on the heels of the Diar Echems riots, and completely obscuring a strike in the education sector, this euphoria provided a welcome relief for the state.
What could perhaps be the most significant development from this controversy is the shattering, in the eyes of many Algerians, of the myth of Arab fraternity. The stinging comments from some Egyptians about the Berber origins of Algerians (with a not so subtle connotation of “barbarians) and their dismissal as non-Arabs prompted some newspapers to suggest that Algeria should withdraw from the Arab league (ironically, a similar call was issued by some Egyptians). Quite embarrassing for a regime whose official ideology has always rested on the twin pillars of Arabism and some form of Islamism. This could explain the muted official Algerian response in the face of Egyptian criticism. An attitude that frustrated the Algerian public expecting a stronger response. While some expect this crisis to lead to the reawakening of a Berber consciousness among Algerians, others, such Ferhat Mehenni, leader of the Movement for the Autonomy of Kabylia are less optimistic.
The games also led to a vigorous clash in cyberspace. From an Algerian perspective, the anemic state-controlled TV was no match against the powerful array of Egyptian satellite TV channels in the battle for public opinion. This proved to be no obstacle for Algerian fans who flocked to YouTube to share information and make their voices heard. Elias Filali, a UK-based DZYoutuber (as members of the Algerian network on YouTube call themselves) provided blow by blow reporting from Cairo and Khartoum with direct access to members of the Algerian delegation. His first report on the stoning of the Algerian bus received close to a quarter of a million hits and earned him an interview on AlJazeera. Zenda, became a folk-hero for his sharp video responses to Amr Adib, an Egyptian TV commentator Algerians love to hate. In the lead up to the games, the posting of doctored pictures, home-made music videos, and dubbed scenes from famous movies with Algerian commentaries were particularly popular within the Algerian cyber community. The cleverness and the technical quality of some of these products provide a glimpse of what Algerians could accomplish with better access to information technology. The high cost of computer equipment and the poor quality of the network have unfortunately stunted the growth of the Internet in Algeria . Incredibly, instead of plans for improvement of the situation, there is now talk of setting up an Internet filter.
The Algerian press (go here for a good overview) also benefited from this crisis. Echorouk , in particular, was the clear winner when it boasted an incredible 2 million daily copies printed. Echorouk’s reporting has been controversial and even called reckless when it announced the (false) deaths of eight Algerians in Egypt. A good discussion of Echorouk’s brand of journalism can be found here.
With both Morocco and Tunisia eliminated from the world cup, people from the Maghreb have demonstrated their solidarity (also here) with Algerians. Broadcasting from Tunisia, NessmaTV, a new satellite TV channel, celebrated the Algerian victory in Khartoum poking fun at poor Amr Adib. It will be interesting to find out whether this renewed popular affection translates to the political realm where tension, especially between Rabat and Algiers, remains high. A topic of discussion here.
Who said it was only a soccer game?