Egypt-Algeria: Wagging the Dog?

“Something is being prepared in the dark, on both sides… the only true winners are the regimes of both countries,” wrote an Egyptian Facebook user commenting on the nationalistic hysteria stoked by the media both before and after last week’s World Cup qualifying football match between Egypt and Algeria.

So far, there has been little to suggest the existence of such grand distractions, allegations of which recall the 1997 Hollywood film "Wag the Dog," which tells the story of a US president who distracts the electorate from a pre-election sex scandal by conjuring up an artificial US war on Albania. After all, Egypt’s parliamentary and presidential elections are still one and two years away, respectively.

Such reactions are, nevertheless, revealing. At the end of the day, all the fuss was over a football match — but the subsequent furor was hardly confined to athletic issues, be they the poor performance of the Egyptian team or the future of team coach Hassan Shehata’s career.

On Tuesday, Egyptian state and private media highlighted President Hosni Mubarak’s honorary reception of the national team less than one week after its 0-1 defeat by Algeria. The local press focused on Mubarak’s statement that “the safety and dignity of Egyptians is much more important than qualifying for the World Cup.” It also barely mentioned the LE6 million in financial rewards doled out by the state to team players and managers. Criticism of the defeated team, meanwhile, was conscientiously avoided.

Columnist Fahmy Howeidy of independent daily Shorouk saw Mubarak’s highly-publicized attentions to the national  team as a means of bolstering political legitimacy.

"Unlike US President Barak Obama, who visited Fort Hood to comfort American troops… President Mubarak decided to visit the national team,” Howeidy wrote. He went on to note that the president had failed in the past to commemorate the victims of tragic accidents, such as the 2006 Al Salam ferry boat disaster that claimed the lives of more than 1300 people.

The celebratory atmosphere surrounding the team was spearheaded by Mubarak’s two sons, Alaa and Gamal, described by leading state-run daily Al-Ahram as “the heroes of the popular epic that brought in the victory” over Algeria in the 14 November match — before the team was disqualified four days later in Sudan.

The support of the presidential scions also extended to “mobilizing the [ruling] National Democratic Party’s networks and infrastructure in printing Egyptian flags and transferring fans to Sudan,” reported official daily Al-Akhbar.

Shourouk’s correspondent in Sudan noted that over 2,000 Egyptian fans who attended the decisive match loudly chanted, “Benhebak ya rayes” — "We love you, Mr. president" — as soon as Gamal Mubarak appeared in the stadium’s VIP box.

Shorouk Chief Editor Salama Ahmed Salama wondered why Egyptians are so obsessed with football — to the extent that the sport has become "their only arena for identifying with the nation.” The veteran writer argued that “football — unlike politics — is a fair game, where the result is a function of your competence and cannot be made subject to the will of those in power.”

Columnist Wael Abdel Fattah of independent daily Dostor agreed, noting that football had become “the lone field in which Egyptians can distinguish themselves in the regional and global arena.” Abdel Fattah went on to write that post-colonial Egypt had failed in almost every aspect — political, economic and cultural — and thus football has remained the only venue in which “to show the world that Egyptians can compete.”

He added that football victories “have become the only events in which people can celebrate openly and express their common solidarity without being cracked down upon by security forces.”

In this context, the unsavory behavior of a handful of Algerian football hooligans could easily be transformed into a “government-sponsored act of terrorism” by “Algerian mercenaries,” as some of Egypt’s top officials in the mainstream media — including Alaa Mubarak — chose to describe events.

Alaa’s telephone interviews on certain Egyptian call-in talk shows, in which he aggressively defended "Egypt’s dignity" in the face of Algerian provocations, reportedly bolstered his popularity. The president’s eldest son vehemently insisted that he spoke in his capacity as “a regular citizen and not as the son of the head of state.”

Ibrahim Eissa, vocal critic of the regime and editor-in-chief of Dostor, provided 12 reasons "why Egyptians love Alaa," pointing to the fact that he is “simple, spontaneous and has not exploited his links to benefit materially.”

“If Alaa decided to run in upcoming presidential elections [in 2011], he would secure a landslide victory,” Shorouk opined.

Aside from attempting to bridge the gap between Egypt’s rulers and ruled, the two recent Egypt-Algeria matches have been instrumental in driving home one of the regime’s dearest claims to legitimacy — namely, the need for stability. At a time of rising discontent — with vast swathes of the public believing that the "rule of law" is little more than a rhetorical device, and that the police apparatus is there only to assure the regime’s survival — the matches offered a rare opportunity to alter these popular perceptions.

The message that has been consistently repeated by the media is that Egyptians and Egyptian interests in Algeria were violated, because the Algerian authorities were incapable of controlling the mob. Attacks on Egyptians in Sudan, meanwhile, were attributed to the fact that Sudan is "a dysfunctional state.” News features hastened to depict Sudanese security forces as inept, incapable of preventing attacks by Algerian fans on their Egyptian counterparts.

“Egypt is a secure and stable country in which its people can move safely in the streets, every corner of which is subject to police control,” bragged Abdalla Kamal, chief editor of government daily Rose el-Youssef. “In a region characterized by civil rifts and failed states, Egypt stands out as a bastion of strong security institutions.”

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