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Sports violence as political opportunism

A World Cup qualifying match between Egypt and Algeria brought out the worst in Egyptians, starting at the top.

Egypt President Hosni Mubarak's sons Alaa Mubarak, right, and Gamal Mubarak attend the 2010 World Cup qualifying playoff soccer match between Egypt and Algeria in at Al Merreikh stadium in Khartoum, Nov. 18, 2009. (Amr Abdallah Dalsh/Reuters)

CAIRO, Egypt — It’s not often that the Mubarak clan gets to boast being on the side of popular outrage. Rockslides, train crashes, food shortages and political arrests have all, in the past several years, led to rumblings about the aptitude of aging President Hosni Mubarak.

Over the past month, though, the president and his brood have found themselves on the right side of public dissatisfaction. And they’re taking full advantage.

The target? Algeria. The reason? Soccer.

The streets are quiet now, but the spat led to a rocky November in several capitals throughout North Africa.

It all started in late November when the Algerian national soccer squad arrived in Cairo to play the Egyptian team in a World Cup qualifying match. Egypt and Algeria have a long and tense rivalry over Africa’s beloved sport, and Egyptians had been talking for months about the thumping they hoped to administer.

Egypt won the game, but several Algerian players took to the field wearing head bandages, saying their bus had been assaulted by Egyptian thugs. It’s a claim Egypt denies.

In response, Algerian fans ransacked the offices of Egyptian telecom giant Orascom in Algiers.

Egypt’s win forced a tiebreak game, played in Khartoum. Algeria prevailed. After the game, partisans clashed on the streets of Khartoum long into the night, leaving many wounded on both sides.

The next afternoon, Egyptians attacked the Algerian embassy in Cairo, smashing store windows and fighting with riot police that were hastily dispatched to the scene. It was a show of force uncommon in a country that has seen little violence in the past decade. Authorities here contained the unrest, though, and the wave of violence subsided.

Rather than letting the incident die, however, Mubarak and his two sons saw an opportunity. Marking a striking departure from their usual calls for calm over any sort of public unrest, the Mubaraks waded into the fray, offering incendiary rhetoric and taking the conflict from the street level to the halls of government.

The president’s oldest son, Alaa, a Cairo businessman and soccer enthusiast, threw the first stone in the diplomatic spat.

"It is impossible that we as Egyptians take this. We have to stand up and say 'enough,'" he said on television. "There should be a stance. We have had enough."

"When you insult my dignity ... I will beat you on the head," he warned in the same interview. Father Hosni went next. Stepping back from the violence-laced words of his son, the president nonetheless took a swipe at Egypt’s North African neighbors.