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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.

“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.