As Algeria struggles to come to grips with anti-government protests on its own turf, soccer is the key to why Algerian leaders are watching with mixed feelings Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak fight for the survival of his 30-year rule.
Proponents of a domino theory in the Middle East identify Algeria alongside Syria, Jordan, Yemen and Libya as next in line to see mass protests rewrite its domestic political landscape. Algeria has witnessed on and off demonstrations for the past month in protest of rising commodity prices and for greater individual and political freedom.
Protests in Tunisia earlier this month ended the 23-year rule of Tunisian President Zine Abedine Ben Ali, who has since gone into exile in Saudi Arabia.
Concern about who may be next to be targeted has gripped leaders across most of the Arab world and is no doubt prevalent in Algeria too.
But soccer has troubled the waters of Algerian-Egyptian relations for the past 30 years and there is not much love lost between the Egyptian and Algerian leaders.
Relations between Egypt and Algeria have yet to rebound after hitting rock bottom as a result of football riots on three continents after Algeria in 2009 defeated Egypt in a match that decided which of the two would progress to the 2010 World Cup finals in South Africa.
The violent clashes brought the world for the first time since the 1969 football war between Honduras and El Salvador to the brink of a soccer-inspired conflict. Egypt recalled its ambassador to Algeria while Algeria slapped Egyptian-owned Orascom Telecom’s Algerian operation with a tax bill of more than half a billion dollars. Some 100 Egyptians resident in Algeria were repatriated because of fears for their safety.
Libyan leader Col. Moammer Gadaffi intervened to prevent the dispute from escalating. Mubarak was quick to fan the flames and ride the tide of emotion to bolster his already tarnished image.
The tension was again palpable when Cairo’s Al Ahly’s Sport Club met Algeria’s JS Kabylie in August of last year in the Algerian town of Tizi-Ouzou. Al-Ahly’s team bus was pelted with stones and the team had to wait in the dressing room for hours after the game until JS Kabylie fans had left the stadium.
In a further indication of strained relations, Algeria initially refused to invite Egypt to the October 2010 Algiers Book Fair, but then decided to allow it one small stand instead of the 70 stands operated by Egyptian publishers at past book fairs in the Algerian capital.
An Egyptian foreign ministry advisor, Mahmoud Afifi told, the US embassy in Cairo in February of last year that Egypt was “seeking to publicly downplay the recent diplomatic row” with Algeria, but “the Algerians continue to antagonize,” according to a US diplomatic cable disclosed by Wikileaks.
Afifi pointed out to a US diplomat Algerian media reports that took issue with Egypt’s relations with Israel and ‘’attacked the political equilibrium and the future of power in Egypt" – a statement that takes on a new relevance in the hindsight of events now unfolding on the streets of Cairo.
Afifi blamed continued Algerian antagonism on Said Bouteflika, the Algerian president’s younger brother, rather than on the Algerian leader himself and said it was likely a function of the North African state’s domestic politics.
Afifi noted that Algeria had yet to respond to Egyptian demands for $60 million in compensation for damages to 14 Egyptian businesses in Algiers caused by the November 2009 soccer riots. The Egyptian official said Algeria was obstructing Egyptian attempts to file insurance claims.
With mass protests threatening to fundamentally change the established order in the Arab world including Algeria, Bouteflika is likely to set aside a sense of glee about Mubarak’s quandary and let soccer bygones be bygones rather than tacitly support radical change in Egypt that could to put his own future in further jeopardy.