Algeria v Egypt clash is dividing Palestinian supporters

Gazans have switched their backing from Egypt to its rival, while on the West Bank they still support their near-neighbour.

RAMALLAH, WEST BANK // It may only be a football game and it does not even involve their own team. Even so, Palestinians will be eagerly awaiting the Algeria versus Egypt clash tonight in the semi-final of the African Cup of Nations, and support will be divided and highly partisan. The game is a repeat of the two countries' highly charged World Cup qualification games two months ago, when violence flared causing Egypt to withdraw its ambassador from Algeria. The two countries have since mended relations, but a footballing rivalry that dates back decades will not be quelled so easily.

The rivalry has also spread to the Palestinian arena, where politics, as is always the case on the Palestinian street, has played a significant role. "I used to support Egypt," said Mohammad Khaddam, 37, an unemployed engineer from Gaza City. "But since then I've been detained by Egyptian security for eight hours just for being Gazan and Egypt is now building a wall to starve us." Tonight, Mr Khaddam, who spoke over the phone, will be watching the game at the Beach Hotel in Gaza and will be cheering Algeria. He won't be alone, he said.

"Gaza's ties with Egypt go back a long way. These don't disappear overnight," acknowledged Mr Khaddam. "There will be plenty of people supporting Egypt, but in Gaza now, thanks to the Egyptian government's anti-Palestinian policies, more will support Algeria." And where Gaza goes, the West Bank will not follow. In Ramallah, the coffee shops and restaurants are already preparing themselves for full and raucous houses tomorrow. When Egypt beat Algeria in November to ensure a World Cup play-off game, honking cars with flag waving and cheering young men crowded the streets.

When Algeria knocked Egypt out two weeks later, those same streets were conspicuously quiet. "There is bad blood between those teams," said Omar Habboub, 20, an accounting student at Birzeit University outside Ramallah. "And there will be trouble here tomorrow." Mr Habboub will be supporting Egypt. He has always supported Egypt, he said, even though he has never visited the country. He said he understood the political context of the game and why some would support Algeria, especially in Gaza, but he dismissed the reasoning. "The wall [that Egypt is building along its border with Rafah] is the work of the Egyptian government. The Egyptian people have always supported the Palestinians."

Nevertheless, he also said that he expected that more people in the West Bank would support Egypt, partly as a result of growing tensions between Hamas in Gaza and Cairo. "Even in football, Palestinians are divided," said Mr Habboub. It is perhaps testament to the unique situation that Palestinians find themselves in that a football game featuring two foreign teams should not only be politicised, but be polarising and divisive.

When Egypt and Algeria engaged in a full-blown diplomatic row after their last two games, intellectuals across the Arab world derided the governments of both countries for being distracted by such a petty matter. Butheina Shabaan, a Syrian minister, even rebuked the two countries for letting the game divert their attention from the Palestinian-Israeli conflict that, she said, Arab countries needed to unite to resolve.

But football cannot distract the Palestinians themselves, it seems, from their own domestic division. Mohammad Olayam, 20, a fellow student of Mr Habboub's at Birzeit University, said it was hard for Palestinians to keep politics separated from other areas of life. "We live in a political situation," said Mr Olayam, who will be supporting Algeria because it was where he was born. "For Palestinians, everything is politics. So everything, even choosing who to support in a football game, becomes political."

Shadi Ghanim cartoon, page 22; editorial, page a23; Sport coverage, page s2