Sports violence as political opportunism

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.

“I want to say in clear words that the dignity of Egyptians is part of the dignity of Egypt … Egypt does not tolerate those who hurt the dignity of its sons,” he said, in an address to Egypt’s parliament.

And refusing to let the incident die, Gamal — widely rumored as the top choice to succeed his father in the presidency — also capitalized on the public mood on TV. “Anyone who thinks that this will just pass is gravely mistaken,” he said. “They will also suffer the consequences of Egypt’s wrath.”

The streets around the Algerian embassy remained cordoned off until the end of the month. Riot police and plain-clothed security officials, feared by Egyptians for their brutal tactics, manned the roadblocks.

The government seemed determined to deter any lingering desire to see more bloodshed, while at the same time offering the sort of fiery rhetoric that the Egyptian street has been craving.

Meanwhile, the diplomatic row continues. Egypt recalled its ambassador to Algeria, though he has been since reinstated. Algeria, in turn, slapped Orascom telecom with a tax bill for more than half a billion dollars.

It’s been a rough two years for the Mubarak government. Bread riots in the Delta early last year seemed to startle the ruling party, which brutally cracked down on protestors. Demonstrations swept through Cairo this January in response to Israel’s war in Gaza. Rather than targeting Israel, though, many of the protestors aimed their anger at Mubarak for his support of the Jewish state.

The country again hit a period of turmoil in October, when a train crash south of Cairo killed 18. The pressure forced the president to sack his Minister of Transportation.

This year also marked the first time that many of the opposition parties, which often work at cross purposes, unified in opposition father-son presidential succession.

It is in this context that the government has been so eager to add fuel to the fire of the anti-Algerian uprising.

The government, said Nabil Abdel-Fatah, a scholar at the Egyptian think tank Al Ahram Center, “is trying to use the Algerian case to mobilize people and move them off of the [parliamentary] elections next year and the issue of [presidential] succession the following year.”

Abdel-Fatah said that the state of the Egyptian economy has served as further impetus for the government to distract the people, while also trying to draw some good will from the unfriendly streets.

Soon after the violence subsided, reports emerged that the Arab League had deputized Libyan leader Moammar Gadhafi to step in and mediate the diplomatic confrontation. With Gadhafi’s track record in diplomacy, though, this spat may drag on for quite some time. It’s just what the Mubaraks were hoping for.