Egyptians' Arab loyalties to Algeria strained after last year's riot

Algerian fans retaliated to attack by hooligans by attacking Egyptian spectators at the decisive play-off match in Khartoum.

Football fans in Cairo had divided loyalties as they watched Algeria play England at the World Cup in South Africa.
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CAIRO // Luckily for Egyptians, Friday night's game ended in a draw. Otherwise, things might have been a little awkward. Had the game not been so utterly unsatisfying - had either Algeria or England managed to score even a single goal - Egyptians might have been forced to choose between their schizophrenic loyalties: support their "Arab brothers" or curse them for their perceived affronts to Egyptian national identity.

"You're not going to find any Egyptian rooting for Algeria anymore," said Islam Sherif, 19, an England fan, as he watched the game from outside a coffee house on Friday night. "It's not 'Arab' what [Algeria] did to us in November." No one in Cairo has forgotten the events of last autumn, when Egyptian hooligans attacked the Algerian team's bus (although many here still consider the photos and video of the attack a conspiracy to defame Egyptians) before a World Cup qualifying match in Cairo.

Fuelled by an overzealous media, Algerian fans escalated the already tense emotions when they retaliated by attacking Egyptian spectators at the decisive play-off match in Khartoum. The already low level of sportsmanship dipped even lower when, in a late night riot, thousands of angry young Egyptians tried to attack Algeria's embassy in Cairo. But for many, the memory of that violence - and Algeria winning the play-off and a place in South Africa - seems to have fizzled.

"The problems are gone; it's all water under the bridge," said Rahim Abdel Moneim, 25, an accountant who said he watched - but did not participate in - the small riot in front of the embassy in November. "The reaction at that time was anger but quickly the tension just faded away because it's a brother Arab country." Despite the wild-eyed fervour that gripped this city just seven months ago, Cairenes were in a surprisingly amenable mood during the game. For most spectators, talk of Islamic solidarity and pan-Arab brotherhood trumped the trenchant bitterness of last November.

"This is a problem that happens with every country in football," said Mustafa Safwat, 58, a retired army officer who said his loyalties remain coloured by past experiences: he fought alongside Algerian troops during Egypt's 1973 war with Israel. "The media made young people very angry, but the youth have no knowledge about the strength of the relationship between our two countries. It won't be a football match that will make us lose our brotherhood."