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Feeble excuses for Egypt's football riots

Don't point the finger at deeper ills. The violence in Cairo was just thuggery cynically fomented by President Mubarak

It really is about football. Local and international media can argue about the underlying reasons for the violence in Cairo that saw the Algerian embassy attacked, hundreds of riot police on the streets and a general atmosphere of fear. But if Egypt had beaten Algeria last Wednesday, instead of losing 1-0, it is clear that the riots would not have happened.

Reports that Egyptians were venting their anger over years of government neglect, corruption and poor living conditions are somewhat right. Egyptians may have plenty of reasons to be depressed, angry or frustrated but to blame that for the violence last week, which saw dozens of large police trucks roll into Cairo's posh Zamalek neighbourhood, would be taking the easy way out.

The real answer is that Egyptians have had little to cheer about in recent years. Only the Cup of African Nations championships – won by Egypt in 2006 and 2008 – brought the country together more than its recent effort to qualify for next year's World Cup finals in South Africa.

The loss left a nation wounded, unable to deal with the fact that even on the football pitch, they cannot achieve success.

It is easy to blame the "other" for what occurred in Cairo last weekend. President Hosni Mubarak attempted to do just that by fomenting anger and hatred toward Algeria over alleged attacks on Egyptian fans in Sudan following Wednesday's match. Actors and other "stars" of Egyptian society went on national television detailing attacks against Egyptians by Algerians. This is what the government wanted: to whip up fear and anger over football. And the media helped them out, with headlines such as "Algerian terrorism" following the loss, and reports of violence in Sudan.

The result was a preoccupation with football and raw nationalism rarely seen in the country. Mubarak and the ruling party took the opportunity to enrage a segment of society that has long been excluded from any political or social advancement. It was a chance to create anger against the "other" (in this case, Algerians) for what may or may not have occurred.

The false sense of nationalism created in the wake of the defeat in Khartoum created a wave of angry supporters who remained at home on Thursday morning, lamenting their national team's failure to secure a place in South Africa. It was about football then. By the evening, when word spread that Egyptians had been attacked by Algerians, all hell broke loose.

As the riots raged, the Egyptian leadership were most likely sitting in their villas smiling, knowing that for now, the Algerian conundrum would occupy the people, take their minds away from the real issues at hand and create weeks of "diplomatic" tension with Algeria.

On Friday evening, when I traversed the "war zone" in Zamalek, the generals were cordial, pointing the direction to go. As a foreigner, I found it easy to slip through the checkpoints at every corner. The Algerian embassy was damaged, but not too badly.

Talking with local shopkeepers, who stood only metres from destroyed windows, what they said was shocking but highlights the entire situation of Egyptian denial. "Nothing happened here, it is all the media's hype trying to show how bad the Egyptians are," said one shopkeeper. This, of course, was said as scores of soldiers blocked the middle of the street.

A number of Egyptians, when the reporting began to analyse the riots, began talking about the need to put it all in the proper "context". They said the mob was responding to the attacks against their fellow citizens in Sudan. Yes, they probably were, but to attack one's fellow citizens, their shops and their property because of reports from celebrities does not seem the proper response.

Many people agree that it was barbaric and childish, but they still want to argue it away as an attack against the government. No way was it an attack against the government. It was simply a riot out of depression for the loss of a football match and the loss of one's perceived honour.

Women's activists rightly object when sexual harassment is described within the context of frustration; the canard of young men and boys harassing women because they "have no other outlet". Similarly, why should a riot against Algeria and Algerians be argued away as the frustration of a people? It cannot and should not.

In the end, observers and analysts, Egyptians and foreign, should put the blame on the people who fomented the anger and hostility, on the government and on the rioters themselves. Police did their job properly on Friday and we should not condemn the heavy hand of the state in this, but we should condemn the government for not openly chastising their own citizens who took the loss of a football match as a chance to lash out at the enemy: Algeria.

By next June, after the anger toward Algerians is spent, Egyptians will be supporting their Arab counterparts for the World Cup: Algeria again.


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Feeble excuses for Egypt's football riots | Joseph Mayton

This article was published on guardian.co.uk at 14.30 GMT on Tuesday 24 November 2009.

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