The tribalistic violence that followed World Cup defeat to Algeria was fuelled by a genuine set of grievances
-Taken from the Guardian's 'Comment is Free'
-Cairo - November 2009
The chauvinistic brand of nationalism that swept across Egypt last week – the violent fringe of which saw riots outside the Algerian embassy in Cairo – really isn't about the football, despite what Joseph Mayton says in his Cif article yesterday.
The spark was a football match, certainly, but Mayton's contention that depressed Egyptians were simply "unable to deal with the fact that even on the football pitch, they cannot achieve success" does not tell the whole story.
Mayton appears to want to condemn the flag-burners, congratulate the police, slam President Mubarak, and move on. The reality is far more nuanced, and far less heartening; an irresponsible and sensationalist media in two countries mobilised a particularly poisonous form of latent tribalism among some Egyptians by fixating on – and exaggerating – a very genuine set of grievances over the way Egyptians were being treated abroad.
The first point to make is that Algerian attacks against Egyptian targets in Algiers were real, and the fact that they were allowed to occur in a exceptionally security-conscious state, suggests there was some government complicity in them, indirectly at least. One observer witnessed 200 youths vandalising the offices of Orascom, an Egyptian communications giant, while riot police looked on; the same firm has now been hit by a $600m bill by the Algerian tax authorities in a move that suggests Algeria is willing to jeopardise its entire foreign investment infrastructure for the sake of firing another salvo at its Arab neighbours. Embellishments and fabrications are two-a-penny in this mess, but not to recognise that Egypt was provoked in any way is disingenuous to say the least.
Second, it's all very well to denounce those who allegedly threw bricks and lobbed Molotov cocktails around in Cairo; you'd be hard-pressed to find anyone who'd endorse that sort of xenophobic rampage. But righteous disapproval doesn't take us any closer to understanding the sentiments of tens of millions of non-rampaging Egyptians who were also furious with Algeria and expressed their outrage in other ways.
Like most post-colonial countries, Egypt is a "nationalistic" state. Combined with poor education levels, low standards of living and the inevitable sense of disenfranchisement arising from systematic oppression (which is helpfully meted out to Egyptians daily by their own government), such patriotic fervour ensures the spectre of tribalism – the retreat into an exclusionary group identity – always bubbles just below the surface.
Egypt is hardly unique in this respect; there are countless examples of African and Asian countries where ethnic tensions are high and forms of tribalism more visible. But it does exist here, even if it remains largely subterranean; after all, there is usually little opportunity for proud flag-waving under a regime that has overseen the decline of Egypt's role on the international stage, the rise of relative poverty among its people and the murder of innocent civilians by police sporting the national symbol of an eagle on their armbands. Football, of course, is an exception: the "romanticism of an 'all or nothing' game" offers the perfect outlet for a bit of brazen nationalism, relatively untainted by the government-induced disarray the rest of the country is lying in.
The key characteristic of tribalism is that it is aggravated far more by external actions – because it involves an image of the self that is inherently based on some conception of "the other" – than it is by threats at home. In fact the dignity and rights of Egyptians are assaulted a great deal more often, and to a far greater extent by Egypt's own elite than they have been by Algerians or any other recent outsiders; as Hossam el-Hamalawy, a local journalist and activist, pointed out recently, "Hosni Mubarak's thugs have beaten and killed more Egyptians than any hooligans."
But to many Egyptians, that wasn't the point; the attacks in Algiers were perceived as an extraneous peril that deserved an extreme response. The conditions were set for an explosion, and somebody just needed to light the fuse.
Enter a phalanx of pampered actors, singers, TV personalities and other assorted celebrities who quickly saw a chance to jump on a populist bandwagon and regale all the talk shows with lurid accounts of their near-death experiences while attending the playoff match in Sudan. There is an epic chasm between the lives of the (mainly) upper-class Egyptians who could afford to journey down to Khartoum for the game and the world of the masses who watched it in their living rooms and in shisha cafes, a chasm that the former attempted to bridge through a hypocritical and exploitative campaign of disinformation.
No matter that most of these individuals have now quietly recanted their claims of bloodletting in the stands; the media were only too happy to whip up the hysterical tales of these two-bit phonies who thought they could grab some grubby stardust by singing along with lies and distortions to the patriotic tune. The same process, by the way, was also under way in the Algerian press, where the poisonous al-Chorouk newspaper printed fake story after fake story in an attempt to stoke tension.
This confluence of chauvinistic nationalism and media hyperbole lay at the heart of last week's chaos. That's not an excuse, just an explanation (and an incomplete one too, as nothing this wide-ranging affair can be pinned down to a single cause). The government played a key role in fanning the flames, and they certainly tried to exploit the crisis for political gain – although I'm inclined to think Mubarak's clique decided somewhat belatedly to surf the wave of popular anger, rather than playing any part in initiating it.
As one Egyptian friend recently put it to me, Egypt's ruling class are "half-bright bureaucrats and armchair statesmen"; in the international arena they prefer to keep their heads down and avoid making enemies, which is why Egypt has so shamelessly sold out the Palestinians in Gaza and also failed to stand up to Libya or Saudi Arabia over the well-documented mistreatment of Egyptian migrant workers.
Indeed, the only good thing that might possibly emerge from the past fortnight would be a growing awareness of the duplicity of Egypt's political leaders, who are now promising to unleash "Egypt's wrath" on those who flout the rights of Egyptians. Championing those rights in recent years has involved arresting peaceful demonstrators, torturing dissidents and presiding over a state so corrupt and dysfunctional that recent train and ferry accidents have killed more than 300 and 1000 Egyptians respectively (tragedies, incidentally, that Mubarak did not think warranted a presidential visit). Tribalism may search for antagonists beyond the borders, but the real enemy of the Egyptian people lies closer to home.