November 25, 2009, 12:04 am

Efforts to Defuse Tensions Between Algeria and Egypt

Updated | 7:43 a.m. As readers of The Lede will be aware, North Africa has been facing a new source of strife in recent weeks — soccer. Last Wednesday, after the Egyptian national soccer team lost its World Cup bid to rival Algeria 1-0 in Sudan, 32 police officers and 21 Egyptian fans were reportedly injured in violence. The next day, Egyptian demonstrations outside the Algerian embassy in Cairo turned violent.

The Egyptian anger was partly a response to anti-Egyptian rioting in Algeria in the days before the match, which was in turn sparked by the stoning of the Algerian national team’s bus at a previous game in Cairo the week before.*

In the days after the most recent match, tensions escalated as the governments of the two countries traded incendiary statements, and Egypt recalled its ambassador from Algiers.

According to Libya’s official news agency, an international leader has now stepped in to attempt to defuse the strife: Col. Muammar el-Qaddafi.

Colonel Qaddafi, known for his bombastic behavior and his iron-handed leadership, may seem an unlikely choice to fill a peacemaking role, but according to a report from the Libyan news agency, he is uniquely qualified to bridge the rift, given “the status the Leader enjoys with both sides.” The agency says that the Libyan leader’s intervention comes at the request of the Arab league, though reports on Tuesday of efforts by the pan-Arab body to find a solution to the feud made no mention of the Colonel.

In fact, Al Arabiya reported on Tuesday that a diplomatic source from the Arab League told the the broadcaster that grandstanding politicians might be part of the problem. According to Al Arabiya, the diplomat said that “one of the main proposals was a bid to ban celebrities and politicians from attending future matches between Egypt and Algeria as it was considered one of the major factors that led to the recent clashes that followed the game.”

Al Arabiya added that “Arab initiatives to solve the problem intensified in the wake of a provocative statement made by Israel and in which it offered to mediate between Egypt and Algeria.”

In recent months Colonel Qaddafi, in his role as the chair of the African Union, has expressed his desire to bring the disparate countries of the continent together. He advocates that the African Union become more like the European Union, with one passport and one currency. The current divide between Egypt and Algeria is a clear obstacle to that goal.

Diplomatic tensions between Egypt and Algeria escalated after last week’s match as each side accused the other of orchestrating the violence surrounding the two games. Observers have suggested that this aids leaders in both countries, since the fervor around soccer has roused nationalist zeal, distracting people from their governments’ shortcomings. Colonel Qaddafi, and by extension the Arab League and African Union, could by trying to redirect the ardent nationalism into a pan-African, pan-Arab enthusiasm. (Although some Algerians deny that they are Arabs at all. One of our readers, who joined the heated debate over the two recent matches between the national teams in the comments threads here on The Lede, wrote: “Egyptians don’t stop denouncing our lack of Arabism. We tried to explain them that we are Berbers.”)

Since the reported attack on the Algerian team bus before the first of the two games, sensationalist news coverage has dominated the airwaves in both countries. Al Arabiya’s report on the Arab League’s efforts to defuse tensions noted, “Another proposal argued that the first step to end the bitter rivalry is to immediately stop the current media campaigns,” in the two nations.

As a result of what has been broadcast in each country, many Egyptians and Algerians are convinced that their side is blameless. We have seen evidence of that here on The Lede, in comments posted by fans of the two nations.

One Egyptian reader of The Lede suggested in a comment posted this week that “this all started when [the] Algerian press wrongfully claimed that 8 Algerians [were] murdered in Egypt in the period after the match that took place in Cairo on Saturday November 14.” That seems to neatly absolve Egyptians of any responsibility for the reported attack on the Algerian team bus before that game, but it is true that some Algerian media outlets claimed that supporters of the Algerian team had been killed by Egyptian fans in Cairo after the first of the two recent games. There still seem to be no credible reports of any deaths after that game, but the rumors sparked violence in Algeria against Egyptian-owned businesses.

After the second game, played last week in Sudan, the Egyptian media was filled with reports suggesting that violence against Egyptian fans who attended that game was worse than has been reported by independent journalists and that attacks on Egyptian fans had been orchestrated by the Algerian government.

To cite one example that several readers of The Lede mentioned, last week, after the Egyptian team’s loss in Sudan, a Lebanese pop star, Haifa Wehbe, called an Egyptian television program to rail against the Algerians. Before calling for the Egyptian team to be given a rematch, Ms. Wehbe said that she has no wish to ever perform in Algeria, because, she said, she prefers to perform in places where people honor other Arabs, not revile them, and where fun is not defined as rioting and violence. She then speculated that if she did travel to Algeria, she might come back missing a hand — a reference to the barbarism she repeatedly accused Algerian soccer fans of displaying.

What seems certain is that in both Algeria and Egypt, a lack of faith in official news sources has led some fans on each side to accept even the wildest rumors about outrages against their own people. Many of the comments submitted to us by readers on this issue have included links to news reports and amateur video posted on YouTube of the mayhem before and after each of the two games. Those videos, readers say, prove that the other side is lying about what happened.

In truth none of the video we have seen so far comes close to proving that one side or the other was uniquely responsible for the violence, but there does seem to be something important in the fact that both sides are searching not their official media sources but YouTube for Zapruder-like proof that they are victims of a conspiracy.

*An earlier version of this post mistakenly stated that the most recent match between Egypt and Algeria had been played last Thursday, instead of Wednesday, and that the stoning of the Algerian team’s bus had taken place last week, not the week before.

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