Page last updated at 12:03 GMT, Saturday, 28 November 2009

World Cup exit highlights Egypt's deeper frustrations

Egyptian soccer fans clash with anti-riot police during a demonstration near the Algerian embassy in Cairo (Nov 20, 2009)
A violent demonstration took place near the Algerian embassy in Cairo

Violent clashes hit the Egyptian capital after the national football team lost a World Cup qualifying match to Algeria. Christian Fraser looks at how Egypt's failure on the pitch has exposed deeper frustrations inside the country.

You cannot say that the residents of Cairo's diplomatic quarter enjoy the quiet life - after all this is officially the world's noisiest city.

But the island of Zamalek, in the middle of the Nile, has the feel of an upscale enclave, with its embassy compounds and security guards, the sprawling villas, sushi bars and French patisseries.

Which made the violence that erupted in the aftermath of Egypt's defeat in a World Cup eliminator all the more shocking to the people that live there.

Surprising reaction

The morning after a sleepless night, the talk at the Anglican cathedral's Christmas bazaar - among both Egyptians and foreigners - was of little else.

They had watched crowds of Egyptian men surging upon the Algerian embassy - the police mounting just about enough resistance to ensure the compound walls were not breached.

Nearby, cars were overturned and shop windows smashed by gangs marauding along one of Cairo's busiest streets. The residents feared for their safety.

In a country where demonstrations are routinely broken up well before the first sign of trouble, the violence was surprising.

Local Algerian newspapers printed photos of injuried members of the Algerian football squad (November 13)
At an earlier game Algerian players were hurt by Egyptian fans

The local residents demanded to know why the police had not intervened more quickly, suspecting that initially they had been directed to look the other way.

"It suits the government that people unite around a football match," said one resident. "Now the attention is focused on Algeria. It diverts the attention from Egypt's real problems."

Cynical, perhaps, but politicians from Egypt's ruling party have certainly fuelled the flames of anti-Algerian nationalistic fervour in recent days. What began as the fallout from a testy football game, escalated into a diplomatic slanging match between two neighbours.

Wild claims

The violence started during a crucial qualifier in Cairo.

My ribs are still bruised from the brick hurled by an Egyptian fan who mistook me for an Algerian - but that was nothing compared with the bloody head wounds sustained by three of the Algerian players whose bus was pelted with stones.

What is going on now is the result of years of depression
Ahmed Al Aqabawi
Psychology professor in Cairo

The Egyptian media still claim the players' injuries were self-inflicted - by the window hammers they had found on the bus.

It was the first in a series of increasingly wild claims and counter-claims among politicians and television pundits, readily accepted by the man-on-the-street.

The result in Cairo - a 2-0 victory for the home side - set up a decider in neutral territory five days later.

One of President Hosni Mubarak's sons, a businessman who rarely speaks in public, took the unusual step of phoning a television talk show and delivering a 40 minute rant.

Alaa Mubarak, who attended the match in Khartoum, called on Egypt to respond to the Algerians' "terror and hostility".

They came with knives and cudgels, he alleged.

"They are treating us as if we are Jews killing people in Gaza," was one of his more incendiary comments.

Egyptian soccer fans burn an Algerian flag in the street (November 20)
Egypt has accused Algeria of orchestrating a campaign of violence

The frenzied Egyptian media joined in. There were reports that Algerian prisoners had been released and flown in on military aircraft to mete out punishment.

Friends told me they had been forced to remove their Egyptian tops as they left the stadium and to dance with the Algerians in order to avoid being beaten up.

At diplomatic level, respective consuls have been summoned and ticked off. I have even received a letter from the Egyptian embassy in London - which is clearly under orders to spread its version of events.

At the local level, nasty reprisal attacks are still being carried out. An Algerian teacher I know of at a school in Cairo has sent his family back home after receiving anonymous death threats.

Ray of light

Egypt and Algeria should have - and do have - much in common. Both are largely Muslim, Arab, African and battling religious extremism.

They share a history of foreign occupation and revolution. They fought side by side in the 1973 war against Israel. And yet relations could hardly have turned more bitter.

Of course, both countries have their grievances - which must be investigated properly, but perhaps there is something deeper socially that has been happening here.

"What is going on now is the result of years of depression," said Ahmed Al Aqabawi, a psychology professor at the Al Azhar University in Cairo.

He explained that we were talking about an Egyptian population that constantly witnesses social, financial and political failure, and football was their only ray of light.

"I have never seen Egyptians focused all together on one target as they were before these two games, and that is why the loss was such an enormous disappointment for millions," he added.

In the next few days, football's international governing body Fifa will begin their own independent investigation - and perhaps we will all learn the dispassionate truth about what really happened - and crucially who was to blame.

Yet today football is incidental to the war of words that continues. We can only hope that the mood might now turn less bellicose.

Muslims everywhere have been celebrating the second festival of Eid - a time of sacrifice, of listening only to the eternal voice of Allah, and renouncing their more mundane concerns.

The only problem, of course, is that for millions of Egyptians this is anything but mundane.

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