- guardian.co.uk, Wednesday 18 November 2009 13.54 GMT
Arab unity faces a severe test tonight ‑ not over attitudes to Israel, Iraq, or any of the usual hot items on the Middle Eastern political agenda, but over the battle between the Egyptian and Algerian football teams for the last African slot in the World Cup. Not surprisingly, it's being dubbed "the mother of all matches".
Passions are running at fever pitch in advance of the qualifier in Khartoum, where 15,000 police are on the streets, braced for trouble. Official calls for sportmanship have been ignored and the fans are being strictly segregated.
The last game, when Egypt won 2-0, was followed by riots in Algiers, where the offices of Egyptian companies were ransacked by mobs and staff evacuated. Before the Cairo kickoff on Saturday three Algerian players were injured when their team bus was pelted with stones. That was condemned as a "massacre" by the Algerian media. Algeria's president, Abdelaziz Bouteflika, called his counterpart Hosni Mubarak twice to discuss the crisis.
Relations between Arab governments are normally couched in the language of solidarity and brotherhood.
Egypt's 1952 revolution and the leadership of the charismatic Gamal Abdel Nasser were sources of inspiration in Algeria's struggle against French colonialism. This makes no difference to the fans, who are ignoring their equally authoritarian governments and basking in what one Arab observer calls "the romanticism of an 'all or nothing' game, with the theme of redemption, of a team rising from the ashes after a series of disastrous qualification games". Mohammed Salah writes in the pan-Arab daily al-Hayat: "These peoples have abandoned politics for football, where they compensate for their difficulties with politicians."
Newspapers and sports websites have seen weeks of furious exchanges. Algerians insult Egypt for having made peace with Israel; Egyptians taunt Algerians for slaughtering each other during their bloody civil war in the 1990s. Others are blamed too: al-Arabiya TV reported today that Egypt has deported an Israeli journalist who came to Cairo to support the Algerians, thus inflaming Arab divisions.
The rivalry between the Maghreb neighbours is notorious: in 1989, when Egypt eliminated Algeria in a World Cup qualifier, an Algerian player gouged out an eye of the Egyptian team doctor with a broken bottle. Algeria has not made it to the World Cup since 1986; Egypt not since 1990.
So the stakes in this "hate match" are high. Still, some are trying to calm things down: Issam, an Egyptian from Alexandria, chose today to announce his engagement to his Algerian sweetheart, Hanan Hajij, "to reaffirm the depth of relations between their two countries".
Some spoilsports see the whole thing as a distraction from the issues that really count. "If an Arab president calls another, the conversation should be about the issues concerning the [Arab] nation and not about a football match," says pundit Jihad al-Khazen ‑ Lebanese, neutral and worried about the political implications. "Egypt, with its position of leadership and its Arab rank, and Algeria, the country of a million martyrs, should be co-ordinating their efforts to defend the al-Aqsa Mosque [in Jerusalem]. Instead, they are preoccupied with the madness of the Egyptian and Algerian publics, distracting them from what is most important."