CAIRO, (AP) – Angry soccer fans rampaged through a posh diplomatic neighborhood in Cairo over the weekend, smashing shop windows and shouting obscenities in a frenzy fed by venomous headlines that portrayed Algerians as barbaric terrorists with a history of violence.
Egyptians were infuriated by media reports alleging their fans were brutalized by their Algerian rivals after Algeria won a playoff match Wednesday in Khartoum, Sudan, to qualify for the 2010 World Cup.
Egypt’s government — often bemoaned by its people as repressive and indifferent to their suffering under searing poverty — appears to have seized on the furor to demonstrate some unity with its citizens. Instead of the usual crackdown on demonstrations, authorities allowed crowds to surge into the streets near the Algerian Embassy and vent their anger in riots overnight between Thursday and Friday.
While the two teams play each other periodically, the stakes for this match were much higher, with entrance to the World Cup on the line.
The troubles began when crowds in Cairo hurled stones at the Algerian team’s bus before a first match here on Nov. 14, injuring three players. Egypt won 2-0, forcing the playoff. And in the following days, mobs in Algeria ransacked the offices of Egyptian companies.
After the second match in Khartoum, Egyptian newspapers unleashed stirring headlines about Egyptian fans being attacked by machete-wielding crowds — allegations never confirmed. Sudanese police said there were only a handful of light injuries.
“Barbaric attacks on Egyptian fans in Khartoum,” read one headline in the Egyptian daily Al-Masry Al-Youm. “Algerians chase Egyptian fans with knives and machetes,” said another.
“Algeria: a legacy of blood, hatred and a history of violence” read another headline in an apparent reference to the civil war between Islamic extremists and Algerian government forces that killed up to 200,000 people in the 1990s.
One Egyptian TV program invited viewers to express an opinion about whether Algeria might even be in league with Israel. Some Egyptians even claimed Algerians are not real Arabs or Muslims.
One of Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak’s sons, a businessman who rarely speaks in public, took the unusual step of phoning in to a television talk show and delivering a 40-minute rant. Alaa Mubarak, who attended the match in Khartoum, called on Egypt to respond to the Algerians’ “terror, hostility.”
“It is impossible that we as Egyptians take this. We have to stand up and say, ‘Enough,'” he said. “When you insult my dignity … I will beat you on the head.”
The Egyptian-Algerian soccer rivalry — and the violence that goes with it — dates back decades. And commentators had predicted trouble days before the first of their two matches.
A similar face-off in 1989 ended in rioting in the stadium after Egypt beat Algeria 1-0 to qualify for the World Cup. In the melee, an Algerian player seriously injured an Egyptian team doctor with a broken bottle.
This time around, Egypt’s government escalated the dispute to a diplomatic incident. Egypt summoned Algeria’s ambassador to protest the attacks on Egyptian businesses in Algeria after the first match and recalled its own ambassador for consultations.
President Hosni Mubarak even entered the fray, declaring in an address to parliament Saturday that Egypt would not tolerate “those who hurt the dignity of its sons.”
The outpouring of rage in the streets of Cairo was a rare sight in a country where political demonstrations are few and heavily suppressed by security forces.
“The regime is just allowing people to vent their anger … and then basically encouraging the media to vent the anger,” said Hisham Qassem, a leading human rights activist and newspaper publisher. “It’s a very good national distraction.”
More than 40 percent of Egypt’s nearly 80 million people live on less than $2 per day, according to the United Nations Development Program.
Qassem said the soccer flap was a rare opportunity for Egypt’s entrenched one-party leadership, normally accused of ignoring its people’s problems, to show solidarity with indignant fans while ensuring things did not spin out of control.
Some analysts speculated the soccer tensions provided an acceptable outlet for frustrations over the repression by both nations’ governments and the limited avenues for expressing them.
Media outlets and commentators, like the president’s son, talked of the damage Algeria had done to Egypt’s “dignity,” which seemed to point to a broader preoccupation that Egypt’s influence in the Arab world may be diminishing.