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?