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EGYPT: A national catharsis over soccer violence

November 23, 2009 |  7:08 am

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With bruised pride and marred dignity, Egypt is going through a catharsis that has left much of the country sleepless, devastated and angry over the violence that erupted around the national team's recent soccer matches against bitter rival Algeria.  

The chaotic scenes have only come to add to Egyptians' disappointment of failing to secure a place in the 2010 World Cup in South Africa. After a 2-0 late win in the two teams' first game in Cairo forced a playoff in Sudan three days later, Algeria won the Khartoum decider 1-0 on Wednesday.

The Egyptian squad, nicknamed The Pharaohs, has qualified only twice for the World Cup, the last of those came in 1990. Over the years, Egyptian fanatics have somehow grown used to seeing their team miss out on the prestigious competition, so why the unprecedented rage among millions this time around?

Ahmed Al Aqabawi, a psychology professor at Azhar University, believes that the ongoing row was a result of Egyptians' adoption of soccer as a national preoccupation rather than just a sport they love: "What is going on now is a result of years of depression. We are talking about an Egyptian population that is constantly witnessing social, financial and political failure and [soccer] was their only ray of light," Al Aqabawi says.

"In my whole life I've never seen Egyptians focused altogether on one target as they were before the two games, and that is why the loss was such a massive displeasure for millions. Violence also played the bigger part in making the saga hard to forget for both media and fans alike," he adds.

Hostility was triggered when a number of Egyptian fans hurled stones at a bus carrying Algerian players from Cairo Airport to their hotel, injuring three Algerian players and one coach.

Further reports from Algerian media falsely said that 11 Algerian fans were killed during clashes after the Cairo game on Nov. 14. Consequently, some members from the Egyptian community in Algeria, as well as Egyptian-owned businesses, were attacked by furious Algerians.

According to Egyptian media and supporters returning from Sudan, the Khartoum playoff was also followed by "vigorous and systemized" assaults from their Algerian counterparts.

Although very few Egyptians would acknowledge that they are at fault for attacking Algerian players in Cairo, those who admit the incident believe that the Algerian reaction in Khartoum pushed the conflict to a higher, nastier, level.

"Not only did we lost the game, but our fans got beaten and Egyptian residents in Algeria are still suffering from the backlash of the minor assaults that occurred in Cairo," university student Mahmoud Saied said angrily. "The whole world is condemning us although what happened in Cairo is nothing compared to the violations Algerians did against our fans in Khartoum," he adds.

Many Egyptians have already accused Western media of being biased in covering the drama, saying that the press focused too much on the Cairo incidents. Soccer's government body, FIFA, is investigating the Cairo violence and it is expected that the Egyptian Football Assn. will be sanctioned. 

Al Aqabawi is convinced that the absence of guidance from the country's intellectual elite in such critical situation has helped to multiply the entire nation's feeling of injustice. "Masses don't consider things thoroughly before they form a certain perspective regarding situations like the one we are facing. Their emotions were left to be guided by whatever our media is broadcasting," he stressed.

Despite recalling the Egyptian ambassador in Algiers on Thursday, it took Egyptians two days to hear President Hosni Mubarak assure that Egypt does not tolerate those who hurt the dignity of its sons. Many are still expecting a stiff political response as some have already called for cutting all ties with Algeria.

-- Amro Hassan in Cairo

Photo: Angry Egyptians burn Algeria's flag. Credit: Ben Curtis / AP

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