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.