The latest source of instability in the Middle East isn't the Israeli-Palestinian conflict or Iran's nukes -- it's a bitter soccer rivalry between Egypt and Algeria.
It was described as a "historic opportunity," a "decisive battle," a matter of "divine justice," a question of "dignity." But this was neither a deciding military encounter nor a fraught diplomatic negotiation; it was a soccer match, the bout to determine whether Egypt or Algeria would be the lone Arab country in the 2010 FIFA World Cup. The rhetoric was overheated from the start, but reality more than lived up to it. What started as a soccer rivalry has become a deep diplomatic rift between two erstwhile allies, revealing the shaky self-confidence of two autocratic Middle Eastern governments and the volatile combination of demagoguery and new media.
On Nov. 12, the Algerian national team arrived in Cairo to play a qualifying match for the World Cup. The Algerian team needed a one-point victory to qualify for the 2010 championship in South Africa; the Egyptian team need to win by two goals to earn a rematch, or by three to knock the Algerians out in one blow.
The Algerians and Egyptians had played a similar match 20 years ago, from which Egypt emerged victorious. Violence erupted after that match, leaving an Egyptian team doctor blind in one eye and an Algerian soccer player wanted by Interpol. That was also the last time Egypt gained admission into the World Cup, while Algeria hasn't participated since 1986.
The rematch was hotly anticipated by both countries. Flag sales soared; both the official and the privately owned media focused breathlessly on the upcoming game. The day before, the newspaper Al Akhbar ran the headline: "Eight-four million Egyptians say: Please, God."
Partly because of the history, partly because of the stakes, the cheering was accompanied by an undercurrent of animosity from the start. For weeks, Egyptian and Algerian fans engaged in cyberwars, taunting each other in online forums, trading doctored team photos, provocative homemade songs, and YouTube videos -- and finally hacking each other's websites. Amr Adeeb, anchor of the popular evening talk show Al Qahera Al Youm (Cairo Today) on the Orbit satellite channel, and one of the prime instigators of Egyptian soccer mania, said the night before the match, "What annoys me is the way the Algerians talk ... this provocation, this conceit.... Why do the Algerians hate us so much? We supported them during their million-martyr revolution; we sent them teachers to teach them Arabic." Needless to say, provocative and paternalistic remarks like Adeeb's -- and there were many -- were not well-received in Algeria.
On the night the Algerian team arrived in Cairo, its bus was pursued and stoned by Egyptian fans. Footage quickly surfaced on the Internet of Algerian players arriving, bloodied and indignant, at their hotel. Meanwhile, the Egyptian media claimed the attack was staged and that the Algerian players had smashed the windows of their own vehicle as part of a scam to get the venue changed. FIFA launched an investigation that remains open.
In round one, the Egyptian team beat Algeria 2-0. Ecstatic crowds poured into Cairo's streets, blocking traffic, waving homemade flamethrowers and celebrating until dawn. According to the Egyptian Health Ministry, 20 Algerian and 12 Egyptian supporters were injured that night. Back in Algeria, the accounts were much more dramatic: Algerians had been killed in Cairo's streets; women had been stripped naked; an Algerian supporter was burned alive by Egyptian fans and police. When the Algerian ambassador in Cairo formally denied that any murders had taken place, the Algerian newspaper Echorouk posted a video to its website, showing an Algerian rapper crying over his dead brother, supposedly killed in Egypt (it was apparently a hoax).
Partly in retaliation, Egyptian businesses in Algeria were looted, and Egyptian workers had to be protected by police. The mobile telephone operator Djezzy -- which is owned by the Egyptian company Orascom Telecom -- was a particular target. Customers were reported to have burned their Djezzy phone chips and looted the company's offices, causing, according to Orascom officials, tens of millions of dollars worth of damage.
In this atmosphere of recrimination and growing hostility, the sides prepared for the final and deciding match, held in Khartoum on Nov. 18. Algerian President Abdelaziz Bouteflika sent his personal representative. The two sons of Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak, Alaa and the heir apparent, Gamal, were also present.
Egypt's World Cup hopes evaporated that night. Algeria won the game, scoring the only goal in an unimpressive match. Afterward, buses of Egyptian supporters on their way to the airport were reportedly waylaid, their windows smashed. Panicked phone calls were made to TV talk shows by Egyptians who described themselves as under siege, the victims of a "bloodbath."
In the end, the Egyptian fans left Khartoum shaken but generally unscathed. The Egyptian health minister reported that 21 Egyptians had been injured. Nonetheless, back in Cairo, the escalation continued. The media ran stories of the Algerian government emptying its jails and transporting thousands of criminals to Sudan, of Algerian supporters chasing Egyptians with what Egypt's English-language Al-Ahram Weekly listed as "knives, nails, daggers, switchblades, scalpels and heavy wooden sticks." Crowds of indignant Egypt supporters tried to attack the Algerian Embassy in Cairo; dozens of policemen and fans were injured in the fighting and rock-throwing that ensued. Alaa Mubarak, the president's son, called in repeatedly to TV talk shows to complain of the behavior of the Algerians in Khartoum and to call them "terrorists" and "mercenaries." Elsewhere in the Egyptian media, Algerians have been described, en masse, as "uncivilized," "violent," and "sick."
This virulence has shocked observers, especially considering that historically, the two countries have had good relations. Egyptian strongman Gamal Abdel Nasser was an active backer of the Algerian revolution; in 1973, Algeria sent military equipment and 3,000 men to support Egypt's retaking of the Sinai Peninsula from the Israelis.
But any vestiges of pan-Arab fellow-feeling are in shreds today, and underlying political issues have come to the fore as the soccer fight grows more personal. Alaa Mubarak told TV presenters: "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." This led the Algerian newspaper Liberté to ask whether Algeria should leave the Arab League, an organization that "has always been in the hands of Egyptians," and to wonder: "How is it that the Egyptians today shamelessly proclaim themselves leaders of the Arab world, whose most noble cause, Palestine, they betrayed by being the first to sign a peace and exchange ambassadors with Israel?"
Egypt's relationship with Israel has been the focus of many Algerian taunts. Before the games, Algerian hackers placed a Star of David over the Egyptian flag on the national soccer teams' website. An Algerian newspaper referred to the stadium in Cairo as "Tel Aviv stadium." Egypt has long been one of the leaders of the Arab world and continues to see itself that way. But the government's unwillingness or inability to offer succour to blockaded Gaza, especially during the Israeli bombing in 2008, has done long-term damage to its prestige among other Arab countries.
Far from ending after the game, the rift between Egypt and Algeria has intensified. Egypt recalled its ambassador. Both the Algerian and the Egyptian parliaments have discussed retaliatory measures. A few Egyptian artists have returned prizes from Algeria, and there have been calls to exclude Algeria from Egyptian cultural festivals. Algerian tour operators have suspended trips to Egypt.
Many have pointed out that the soccer frenzy may have served the interests of both autocratic regimes, whose populations might otherwise be striking over living conditions or demonstrating for greater political freedom. An article published on the website Algeria-Watch notes the similarities between Egypt and Algeria: "The crushing of freedoms, daily oppression, misery and despair are the common lot of the majority of both people. Life-long presidents, all-powerful secret police services, large scale predation are the characteristic that the two regimes, which have both kept their people under emergency law for decades, share." The pseudonymous Algerian blogger The Moor Next Door notes: "The cycle of despotism and vulgarity will continue and the ultimate winners are not the national teams or young men in the street, but rather their governments and them alone. Such are the 'politics of sports' in the Arab countries."
The other oft-cited culprit is the media, which in both countries fomented the fight. Of course the authorities could almost certainly have put the lid on this incitement, if they'd wanted to. But though they did their best to direct and profit from the superficial nationalism of cheering soccer fans, the rulers of Algeria and Egypt seem also to have been somewhat overtaken by passions and events. The role played by new media -- Twitter, blogs, cell-phone footage, YouTube videos -- can't be underestimated. It was thanks to this technology that Algerians could see, within hours, amateur footage of their soccer stars displaying their injuries, and Egyptians could watch in horror as their flag was set on fire or desecrated in other creative ways.
In the end, Egypt is the greater loser. The Egyptian overreaction to perceived Algerian impertinence and aggression seems a symptom of a larger crisis of confidence, a sense that its prestige and authority in the region is not what it used to be. The government's lack of legitimacy was highlighted by the chaos in Khartoum; aiding and abetting the crudest nationalism, while blocking all forms of real political participation, is a shortsighted tactic that doesn't address the population's underlying discontent. "The Egyptian regime cheapened the Egyptian citizen in the eyes of the world," wrote Ibrahim Eissa, editor of the opposition newspaper Al-Dustour, holding the government responsible for the attacks on Egyptians in Khartoum. "We've come to have no value, no standing, no esteem, because our government has destroyed our dignity." Are we still talking about soccer?
BERTRAND LANGLOIS/AFP/Getty Images