Cup qualifier turns political football

Published:  29 December, 2009

On November 18 Algeria became the final African country to qualify for the 2010 World Cup in South Africa, beating Egypt in a heated play-off match in Khartoum, Sudan. Rivalry on the pitch was, however, overshadowed by escalating political tension between the countries in the weeks that led up to the match.

At its height, this saw demonstrations and rioting in Cairo and Algiers, with Egypt recalling its ambassador and demanding an official apology and compensation for Egyptian properties that were damaged in Algeria. There was even speculation that World Cup qualification was a catalyst for a much more dramatic power struggle for regional leadership between the Arab World’s two most populous nations.

“You shouldn’t overstate the grievances between the two countries,” says Richard Downie, a fellow in the Africa programme at the Centre for Strategic and International Studies in Washington. “There is a real sense that the authorities are using this game to stoke up nationalism to deflect attention away from their own failings. They are trying to channel public grievances away from the internal failings of their regimes and towards hatred of a foreign country.”

Government tolerance of street protests is telling, he argues. “What was very revealing about this whole dispute was that you had these big demonstrations and semi riots in Cairo. If they were semi-political, or anything directed internally, they would have been dealt with very harshly.”

A similar stance was adopted towards the media, which played a crucial role in inflaming tensions between the two countries, he says, and concludes “I really don’t see this being a long-term political dispute between the two nations.”

The announcement on December 5th that Algeria’s national energy firm Sonatrach was planning a gas joint venture with two Egyptian national companies in a deal worth $15bn suggests that this may be accurate.

Amel Boubekeur, a resident scholar at the Carnegie Endowment’s Middle East Centre in Beirut, argues that the dispute has exposed deficiencies within the political processes of both countries. “In both countries there was a total silence of political parties. They have not been able to say anything about something that the citizens have been very interested in,” she says, arguing that similar silence amongst civil society and the media are symbolic of a lack of political participation in both countries.

In countries where public dissent and political protest are a rare occurrence, the ferocity of the protests surrounding the football match give an indication of the political energy simmering below the surface, she argues. “People went on the street, feeling freedom that they haven’t felt for 20 years.”

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