Sunday, December 20, 2009

Do Algerians Hate Us?

The football-mania that preceded and followed the Egypt-Algeria match in Sudan for the 2010 World Cup qualifiers started with hostile internet and media campaigns, and developed into rioting and stone-throwing of players and fans, then morphed into a social and political battle that included harsh diplomatic statements and demands for cutting diplomatic ties.

Egyptians have been particularly alarmed at the amount of hatred and contempt of Egypt that could be felt from the words of the Algerian press (and Algerian fans online) and the huge amount of stones and knives thrown on thousands of Egyptians fans in Khartoum.

The mass media in Egypt dealt with this unpleasant incident in two ways. The first was to ignore the problem altogether, emphasizing instead on the many political and cultural bonds that connect the two nations together. Hate speech that could be abundantly found online was dismissed by referring to the fact that its perpetrators are merely irresponsible teenagers. This approach failed to answer a crucial question: why do Algerian teenagers harbor such ill-feelings towards Egypt in the first place?

The second approach did the exact opposite. In an act of chauvinism, it spilled oil on fire by generalizing the misconduct of the opposite party. So a bunch of Algerian youth burning the Egyptian flag or shouting anti-Egyptian slogans meant for sure that all Algerians "hate and envy Egypt." In the meantime, Egyptian misconduct towards the Algerian team was totally ignored.

Neither of the two approaches is constructive; the first evades important questions through denial, the second offers prejudiced and chauvinistic answers. The question remains: Do Algerians indeed hate Egypt? If so, why?

Because Arabs share many things, such as a common language, culture, and history, they are seen by many as forming one nation, something that prompted some politicians and political parties to build castles in the air about a constitutional unity among all Arab states from the Persian Gulf to the Atlantic Ocean. This dream did not materialize because of myriad regional and international hurdles, but the idea of cultural unity and social harmony among Arabs was entertained, and strong proof of its existence was certainly evident.

The recent history of Egypt and Algeria in particular witnessed periods of mutual cooperation during some of the two countries' brightest moments of glory. For example, Nasser's Egypt provided substantial support to the Algerian rebels in their fight against French occupation, and a few years later, the Algerian leadership provided generous military assistance to Egypt during the 1973 war against Israel. However, in the quest for understanding the mounting tension between both peoples, these examples do not count much, simply because official policy does not necessarily reflect public temperament.

The social, cultural and economic differences between the populations of the nations that make up the Arab League are huge. In fact, the Arab world is, as one analyst explained, an "anthropologist's paradise." What is common, for example, between a Lebanese Maronite, a Southern Sudanese from the Dinka tribe and a wealthy Kuwaiti businessman?

It is naïve to believe that the tension that predated and followed the key game between Egypt and Algeria was generated by football alone. The intense competition was just an opportunity that revealed, or revived, the animosity and ill-feelings that are customarily hidden behind the sweet "Arab brotherhood" talk. The curse of football is usually blamed for the untamed transgression of its fans, but the recent volatile situation was a blessing in the sense that it was an eye-opener to Egyptians, revealing the diluteness of Arab feelings and highlighting the ill-feelings of some Arab people towards Egyptians.

It is perplexing to understand why many Algerians see Egypt merely as a puppet of the state of Israel. And why do our brothers in Islam and Arabhood today so joyfully rag Egyptians about their humiliating defeat against Israel that occurred some forty years ago? And how can one reconcile the warm feelings of brotherhood with the cold, bloody assault on Egyptian fans in Sudan?

Answers point to the cultural differences between the two populations, the impact disapproval of Egyptian foreign policies, particularly towards Israel and the Palestinian problem, may have had on the way Egypt and Egyptians are perceived in the Arab world, and the alleged "haughtiness" of Egyptians vis-à-vis fellow Arabs.

In all cases, the frequent mistreatment of Egyptian citizens in oil-rich Gulf States, and the frictions that usually erupt during inter-Arab sports competitions led many Egyptians to believe that the notion of "Arab nationalism" is nothing but a big mirage; it only exists in the rosy fantasies of idealistic leaders.

Nael M. Shama

* This article was published in Daily News (Egypt) on December 3, 2009.

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