Foreign media sees politics, repression in football turmoil

The two recent World Cup qualifying matches between Egypt and Algeria, the source of so much local media hype, were largely attributed to political considerations in the foreign media.

The tension began with the first match on 14 November, when Egypt beat Algeria 2-0. The two teams faced off again  in Sudan on 18 November, where Egypt lost 0-1. Both matches were followed by a rash of alleged violent incidents — in Egypt, Algeria and Sudan — between rival football fans. The days that followed featured a host of tit-for-tat accusations as to which side bore responsibility. Local media in both Egypt and Algeria closely covered the conflict, which soon transcended the realm of football.

The foreign — especially Western — media, meanwhile, covered events from a slightly different angle. For one, many reports focused on alleged escalations perpetrated by both Algerian and Egyptian football fans, suggesting that the conflict had been the fault of both sides. Much of the foreign press saw the incident as a microcosm of both countries’ political ecosystems within the contexts of nationalism and political repression. Foreign reports also criticized the local media’s coverage of events, especially its role in provoking the tension.

While local reporting tended to adopt a nationalistic tone, the foreign media focused on incidents of violence, often attempting to interpret the conflict’s political connotations. 

In one analysis piece, Reuters’ Cynthia Johnson quoted sources as saying that the Egyptian government had incited the conflict so as to divert people’s attention from more pressing economic and political issues. She focused on the state of poverty, inflation and unemployment in Egypt, as well as the anticipated succession of President Hosni Mubarak’s son, Gamal, to the presidency.

"Egypt is approaching a presidential vote in 2011 amid mounting speculation over who will succeed the 81-year-old Mubarak, who has given no indication he will step down when his current term ends," she wrote. "His son Gamal is widely tipped as a likely successor."

Similarly, Omar Sinan of the Associated Press quoted sources attributing the football mayhem to “the repressive nature of the two nations and the lack of healthy outlets for people’s pent-up frustration.” In the report, Egyptian psychiatrist Ahmed Okasha was quoted as saying that the repression under which Algerians and Egyptians live helped contribute to the extreme post-match reactions by both sides.

Sheera Frenkel of The Times Online also interpreted the turmoil as an extension of political and economic frustrations in both countries. “You can’t look at this as patriotism,” one interviewee told Frenkel. "This isn’t it at all. It is desperation. Football is all we have to feel excitement for. But our excitement is an empty bubble; it will explode and then there will be nothing again."

CNN’s Ben Wedeman asserted that the football uproar served to reveal Egypt’s “deceptive appearance of calm and stability.” Wedeman, who claimed he was "assaulted" by police while covering  post-match riots in Cairo, went on to write that the tension had little to do with football. “Rather, there is bedrock of deep resentment among many Egyptians — poor and well-off alike — against an aging, authoritarian regime widely perceived as more concerned with self-preservation and self-enrichment than the general welfare,” he wrote.

Other media outlets suggested the entire affair had been a government-engineered strategy aimed at bolstering popular support for Egypt’s Mubarak regime. Abigail Hauslohner of Time wrote: "Perhaps it’s not surprising that posturing over a football war with Algeria may be the most popular move the thoroughly unpopular Egyptian President, Hosni Mubarak, has made in a long time.” Those interviewed for the article spoke at length about the "politicization" of the game by the authorities.

Such readings of events may go some way towards elucidating the current state of affairs in both countries. But they also betray a tendency by the foreign media to consistently play up the authoritarian nature of political life in the Arab Middle East.

Criticism of local media coverage — and its role in fueling the crisis — was also a common feature of foreign press reports. The French Le Monde wrote about the “war-like declarations” made by both the Egyptian and Algerian media, while CNN’s Wedeman referred to the “nasty media war” between the two sides. Similarly, Samer al-Atrush of the Agence France-Presse wrote that media in both countries “traded invective and circulated rumors of Egyptian and Algerian deaths — despite denials by both governments.”

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