There's nothing like the threat of war to mobilize the support of a nation. So perhaps it's not surprising that posturing over a soccer war with Algeria may be the most popular move the thoroughly unpopular Egyptian President, Hosni Mubarak, has made in a long time.
On Nov. 14 and again on Nov. 18, Egypt went head to head with its archrival Algeria in an intense bid for a spot at next year's World Cup in South Africa. It was the first time the two had played a World Cup qualifying match in 20 years, and in the weeks leading up to the first game and the days that followed, everyone from the Egyptian regime to local industries was busy ratcheting up support for the home team.
"[Mubarak] gave the game a sort of political character," says Mustapha al-Sayyid, a political scientist at Cairo University. "Official newspapers depicted the encounter between the two teams as something very decisive, very important."
It worked. In the aftermath, Egyptian and foreign observers alike marveled at a level of nationalist fervor and mass mobilization rarely seen before, and at a time when Mubarak, 81, is facing a rising tide of domestic dissent. On the night of the first game, which Egypt won, thousands of Egyptians flooded into the main thoroughfares of their capital, screaming, dancing and wreaking havoc. After the second game in Khartoum, in which Egypt lost its shot at the World Cup, the emphasis shifted to seeking revenge: hundreds amassed in front of the Algerian embassy in Cairo, burning Algerian flags, and eventually clashing with scores of riot police.
Even when the energy took a dark turn, the wave of emotion may have still served the interests of the 27-year-old Egyptian regime. "Football is the opium of the people," says Hossam el-Hamalawy, a prominent Egyptian blogger, journalist and activist. "Both Egypt and Algeria have been going through severe economic turmoil recently, in addition to political crises. What better way to divert the people's attention than a football war?"
Of course, he adds, attention doesn't stay diverted forever. "You cannot keep fooling people with football. People at the end of the day even after trashing the Algerian embassy are still going to go home on empty stomachs. The economic turmoil is still there," Hamalawy says.
And now there's soccer-related turmoil to cope with. Dozens of Algerian and Egyptian fans were injured in assaults and clashes following the Nov. 14 match. Sudan and Algeria have accused the Egyptian press of unfair treatment. And in a particularly humiliating blow, the sport's governing body FIFA launched formal disciplinary procedures against the Egyptian Football Association last week, in response to an attack by Egyptian fans on the Algerian team bus ahead of the Nov. 14 match.
The Egyptian Foreign Ministry summoned the Algerian ambassador in Cairo last week to hear complaints about violence against Egyptians and Egyptian businesses in Algiers; and Algeria slapped Egyptian telecommunications giant Orascom Telecom with a $596.6 million bill for outstanding taxes, sending Orascom shares a popular Middle East stock tumbling. On Nov. 19, Egypt recalled its ambassador to Algeria "for consultations."
In a televised statement to parliament over the weekend, Mubarak said, "Egypt will not tolerate those who hurt the dignity of its sons" a statement that drew praise from the Egyptian public. But at the same time, Mubarak also seemed to be calculating his retreat. "We don't want to be drawn into compulsive actions," he added.
Analysts say it's unlikely that this North Africa soccer war could result in a lasting diplomatic split. But no one seemed to think it would go this far to begin with.
"My view is that the regime was planning to continue whipping up hysteria, and to try to retaliate diplomatically against Algeria in international and Arab circles whether in the Arab League, or FIFA or the North African Football Association to keep scoring local points," says Hamalawy. "But I guess they reached the conclusion yesterday that they're not really going anywhere with this, since most of the responses from other Arab states, international states and FIFA are like, 'Egypt, please grow up.'"
Had Egypt won its place in the World Cup, soccer pride might have been a boost to a regime under fire. Unrequited, it may ultimately serve to undermine it.