Friday, November 20, 2009

The beautiful game

Football has developed quickly in many countries because it used to be part of the politics of the pursuit of power and the ideologies it serves. Rapidly, it became the expression of nationalism, patriotism and chauvinism, even before federations were established. More than most sports, it lends itself to tribal feelings: the collective effort, the team colors, the speed, the physical aggression.”

Egypt should bomb Algeria”

My sense of patriotism has always been a bit skewed, I think because there can be no absolutes if your parents come from different countries (or planets, as mine do).

Another factor is the deep sense of bitterness that comes from never really belonging, or being accepted, to both, or either country. That’s a whole other story but in brief my identity is slightly nebulous simply because it’s always been defined (imposed) by where I am, and those around me.

An example: The day before Egypt’s first match against Algeria I went to the Algerian Embassy in Cairo and photographed Algerian fans there. I was approached by a woman who, once she discovered that I work for an Egyptian paper/am partly Egyptian (I never discovered what exactly got her goat) summarily ejected me.

A year ago I was at a protest where a lawyer refused to be interviewed because, he quote unquote, “doesn’t talk to foreigners”. I showed him my national ID card. He remained unmoved. Which reminds me of an incident which happened last week when a secretary registering my details in a hospital said (while turning over my apparently fucking useless Egyptian national ID card in her hand) “heyya el genseyya aih?” (What nationality?)

Which is not to say that I didn’t support Egypt during its World Cup bid. I did. How couldn’t I? Few things match the sense of collective joy I experienced when Egypt won the African Cup, and when Egypt beat Algeria on Saturday. There have been suggestions that an interest in football is a distraction from what really matters, that celebrating a victory by Egypt’s national team somehow gives legitimacy to the ruling regime, or that football fervour is a distraction. I disagree with these sentiments.

In the Egyptian context, football is one of the few areas where the ruling regime has little influence and practically zero relevance, despite the zoom ins on Gamal Kermit Mubarak every time a goal is scored. I also object to the suggestion that a love of football equates to manipulation by the regime, and that football victories are used to let off steam of anger which would otherwise be channeled into political opposition movements. To suggest this is to deny Egyptian football fans agency: some Egyptians actually just love football in the same way that the rest of the world does. It’s also dodgy and highly simplistic, because it links in with the theory that if football didn’t exist to distract the oppressed masses they would all be in their homes plotting the revolution. Where’s the evidence?

Which is not to say that a certain amount of manipulation hasn’t gone on off-pitch. Nationalism is wonderful when it’s positive, but its existence is necessarily predicated on the existence of other nationalities. And mankind likes groups and tribes, and these groups and tribes are necessarily defined by other groups and tribes. And therein lies the danger.

What’s interesting about Algeria and Egypt is that these are two very similar countries in terms of social identity, religion, economic status, oppression, etc. Which means that the Us vs The Unknown Other – the bogey man - element which is so often a theme in the Egyptian media has been more difficult to manufacture this time. The emphasis has been on the violent history of Egypt vs. Algeria encounters and on the suggestion that “our Algerian brothers” have somehow betrayed their Arab identity.

It all started with the allegedly fabricated attack on the Algerian team bus when they arrived in Cairo.

There is a video which shows missiles being thrown at the bus by Egyptian youths. The Algerian team claim that three of their players received head wounds necessitating stitches as a result of the “attack”.

The Algerian team’s claims were almost immediately dismissed as made up by the Egyptian media, and eventually the public prosecution office. I didn’t read a single news item which questioned why – against a backdrop of extreme tension in the run-up to the game – hotheaded fans were allowed to get so close to the Algerian team’s bus. The difference between the team’s entrance to Egypt and their exit from Cairo’s stadium after their defeat was stark, and amounted to about six central security trucks and two riot trucks complete with armed soldiers. The truth about how damage was caused to the team bus is almost irrelevant here. Egypt had a duty to protect the Algerian team. It failed. Whether or not Algeria protected the Egyptian national team when it was in Algeria is irrelevant, because duties are not defined according to the extent to which others fulfil their obligations.

The most interesting thing in all this business was the reaction to the shameful attacks by some Algerians on Egyptian interests in Algeria (Egyptair offices, Orascum employees) after Algeria’s defeat in Cairo.

Egyptians have been fucked over routinely in the Gulf ever since Egyptian migration to the Gulf began. Exploited, abused, vulnerable, unpaid, relieved unwillingly of their passports, injured…Where’s the domestic outrage? I can only assume that there is none because the competitive/chauvinistic element of football is missing. Or perhaps it’s because the Egyptians exploited in the Gulf aren’t Naguib Sawiris, and are voiceless in Egypt anyway.

On Wednesday Egypt was beaten by Algeria. It was a shit match, not only because virtually every single member of the Algerian team insists on throwing himself to the ground “in injury” every time an Egyptian player comes near him, but because the Egyptian team was all over the shop. But the match was irrelevant anyway.

Egyptians who attended the playoff in Sudan returned claiming that they were attacked by hordes of Algerian barbarians flown in by the Algerian government expressly for the purpose of terrorizing them with knives and violence.

Things I find astonishing about this and other developments since:

1. This is a football match being played out against an ongoing feud which began in 1989 and was revived only very recently in Egypt’s defeat of Algeria in Cairo. Violence and football are not strangers. Sudan anticipated violence. It deployed approximately 15,000 soldiers. The international media termed it a “revenge match”. Egyptian fans were apparently the only party “shocked” at the possibility and reality of violence.

2. The On TV channel this morning broadcast half an hour of interviews with Egyptian supporters in Cairo Aiport coming from Sudan, who described scenes of “hell” and “war” and savage attacks by Algerian fans. No Algerians were interviewed. No Sudanese eyewitnesses were interviewed.

3. No videos of these alleged attacks have since appeared despite tens of thousands of Egyptians and their mobile phones flying to Sudan. A video of young men brandishing knives has appeared on Youtube. They are not wearing Algerian team colours. There is nothing to prove where and when this was shot.

4. Nobody has doubted the credibility of claims that Egyptian buses carrying fans were attacked by Algerian fans, while the fact that the Algerian national team necessarily trashed its own bus is not open to debate and a matter of logic.

5. The Egyptian media has entirely failed in its responsibility of uncovering the truth. Truth (where it exists) is composite, and is usually discovered by speaking to people who refute the conclusion you already have in your head when you set out to discover the truth.

6. No distinction is being made between Algeria, football, the Algerian government and the Algerian people. Algeria el sha3b [the people] is now a blow up plastic devil with oxygen supplied by the Egyptian media. As I write this, an Egyptian actress is on a Dream TV talk show telling us that 3,000 Algerian criminals were released from prison and flown to Sudan expressly for the purpose of terrorizing Egyptian fans. She has not provided any evidence for this claim. The presenter has not asked for any.

7. Egypt has recalled its ambassador to Algeria because of the treatment of Egyptians at the hands of Algerians. Apparently, only Egyptians have the right to mistreat other Egyptians.

Samia who cleans my flat and I had a huge argument today about all this. She has concluded that “there’s something not right about Algerians”. I asked her why the Egyptian media has decided not to interview Algerians, to get the other side of the story. She suggested that no Algerian would consent to be interviewed by the Egyptian media, and then repeatedly muttered 7asby Allah we na3m el wakeel under her breath as fans described their experiences on On Tv.


Anonymous said...

Not all these Egyptians are lying. There is something wrong about the Algerians who were in Sudan.

These are not regular football fans. Thet don't wear green or white, they don't wave flags, they wave knives. It's hard to tell if they are Algerian fans at all. But it's easy to expect them to be as after Algerians attacked Orascom and burnt Egyptian flags in the streets.

We, Egyptians, would have never gone this far. They are something else. I agree with Samia.

AG said...

Football and national pride aside, there is something vague--at least vague to me and you--that lets one Egyptian asks another Egyptian if he is really Egyptian. You had your incident with a hospital clerk. Mine was with a member of Egypt's judiciary, in a polling station, on elections day.

He took my ID, instructed the clerks to do their work, gave me my poll, watched me go into the booth, watched me come out, then he posed the question: انت مصري?

I could not bring myself to swallow it and make the usual argument about what makes him think I am not, so I silently gave him a very Egyptian hand gesture: give me that ID now!

Just like Samia and the rest of our folk, he knew there was something not quite right about me too.

Mohammad said...

This is about the most sane response I've read so far.

A friend of mine called 2 am in the morning yesterday and asked about the address of the Algerian Embassy. When I asked him why he started cursing Algeria and Algerians and vowing to take revenge on how they "humiliated and vilated" "us". I think that's relevant to what you're saying.

Oh, btw I don't agree with you on football not being a distraction or a source of legitimacy to the ruling regime. Why else would the regime be holding on to the football industry (the clubs and the league) when it's been selling almost all other industries?

مى said...

Very valid arguments :)

Couldn't agree more.

Sarah Carr said...

Late Night: We'll have to agree to disagree.

Gharbeia you made me laugh :-)

Marooned: You make a good point. I will have to reflect on it.

Mai: Thanks.

Wael Eskandar said...

skewed argument. The extra attempt at neutrality is the main source of its bias.