The power of false reporting

 
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 By Osama Diab

Reckless journalism is held responsible for the violence and tensions following the Algeria-Egypt World Cup playoffs.

24 November 2009

If I try to include a statistic or a quote without properly citing it, the article will immediately bounce back to me with the editor politely asking for a proper citation and source for the information.

It is sometimes frustrating to spend hours, and sometimes days, searching the internet and making phone calls to track down sources, studies or reports to back up information that you are already sure is accurate, but it’s the responsible media’s role to respect the reader and go the extra mile to provide them with absolutely correct information.

The Algerian newspaper Echorouk decided, for God knows what reason, to report that eight Algerian fans were killed (the story has since been pulled from their site) on the streets of Cairo during their stay in the Egyptian capital to attend the decisive World Cup qualifier game. There’s no evidence anything of the sort occurred and it’s unclear how the newspaper obtained such information.

The reaction to this report was quite extreme. Thousands of Algerians took to the streets to damage all things Egyptian as revenge for their fellow compatriots who were allegedly “killed”, according to the Algerian daily. Death threats were sent to Egyptians living and working in Algeria and Egyptian businesses were bombarded and set on fire.

In a press statement given by Naguib Sawiris, an Egyptian billionaire who owns Algeria’s mobile operator Djezzy, he said that, according to preliminary estimates, losses could be as high as tens of millions of dollars. Egyptians are fleeing Algeria in large numbers.

The violence and madness was not confined to Algeria. In Marseille, Algerian youths set fire to boats, smashed shop windows and clashed with the police right after the game.  

Unfortunately, both North African teams had to play again four days later. Thousands of Algerians flew to Khartoum full of rage with an unwavering determination to seek revenge for the lives of their brothers that they believed had been cut short by the Misraelis, a portmanteau combining Egypt and Israel in reference to the peace treaty signed between the two countries three decades ago and which is still thought of as a source of disgrace by numerous Algerians and other Arabs. Echorouk referred to Egyptians as Misraelis and the Zionists of Arabia on several occasions.

The Algerian government sent more fans than the stadium could accommodate in the hope of scoring a political victory. For its part, the Egyptian government sent thousands of members of the ruling National Democratic Party, led by the president’s sons Gamal and Alaa, to attend the game along with a vast number of celebrities. Both Egypt and Algeria were hoping for a victory that would divert people’s attention from the chronic domestic problems plaguing their countries, and used every method possible to achieve such a triumph, even recruiting the local media to help.

Egypt lost the game and Cairo, the city that never sleeps, turned into a quiet, sad and empty place. Egyptians were on tenterhooks awaiting a victory against the people they had branded “barbarians”. After the loss, the Egyptian media reported that that at least 20 fans were injured, and that Algerian fans were roaming the streets of Khartoum hunting for Egyptians.

The unfortunate incidents in the Sudanese capital were witnessed by the Egyptian president’s sons. Egyptian celebrities were also hiding from fuming Algerian fans in the office building of an Egyptian advertising agency in Khartoum.

Numerous television shows and newspapers in Egypt devoted intensive and exaggerated coverage to the aggression towards Egyptian fans and celebrities. This led to thousands of Egyptians staging a protest in front of the Algerian embassy in Cairo chanting, “You either kill us or let us in,” to the police guarding the embassy. Three days later, demonstrators were still demanding the departure of the Algerian ambassador.

Egypt now wants to restore the country’s lost “pride” and compensate for the humiliation Egyptian fans, politicians and celebrities experienced in Khartoum by calling for the severing of diplomatic ties with the North African “enemy”. Some went as far as to call for military intervention in Algeria to save the threatened Egyptians residing there. Egypt also threatened to freeze its football activities if FIFA does not react to the Algerian assaults.

This could all have been avoided if the Algerian daily had been more conscientious in its reporting.

Published with the author’s permission.  ©Osama Diab. All rights reserved.

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Algeria and Egypt play political football

 
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By Khaled Diab

Preparations for a World Cup showdown are getting heated, but does the animosity between Algeria and Egypt run deeper?

12 November 2009

Football may be known as the beautiful game but at the international level it often resembles some kind of Great Game in which countries compete for regional and global ascendancy. Overpaid knights in shining bling – backed up by a supporting army of fanatical volunteers – march into battle to defend the honour and prestige of the nation.

Football has a tendency to bring out both the best and worst in people, from friendly rivalry and parties in the stands, to the pettiest forms of jingoism and tribalism. As someone with only a passing interest in the sport, who finds there are goals in life beyond the back of the net, I sometimes find the depth of passions football provokes both baffling and bewildering.

In the African theatre, things are heating up, and the scramble to join World Cup hosts South Africa in one of the continent’s five additional places has sparked a cold war between two of its top footballing nations and archest rivals: Egypt and Algeria. A clash between the Pharaohs and the Desert Foxes for a place among the Titans of football sounds like the stuff of legends and the buzz surrounding the make-or-break qualifier on 14 November has an almost mythical ring to it, especially since the two nations fought almost the exact same battle 20 years ago, in 1989.

With so much at stake, advance armies of fans, journalists, hackers and other patriots have been mobilised to instil fear in the hearts of the enemy. Even that great patriotic Egyptian institution, Coca-Cola, has launched a major propaganda campaign, called “Remember 1989”, to get Egyptians squarely behind the troops.

Both sides have been exchanging allegations of unfair play, and the head of Air Algérie has even accused Egypt of restricting the movement of Algerian fans that have already arrived in the country.

For their part, international observers fear that the clash could spill over beyond the battlefield and claim some civilian casualties. The Egyptian and Algerian foreign ministers have been on the phone to each other to discuss the emerging crisis.

Peace activists on both sides are out in force. In a bid to calm tensions, the Egyptian daily al-Masry al-Youm has launched a controversial campaign called “A Rose for every Algerian”. Earlier this week, a group of Egyptian and Algerian journalists met in Algeria to discuss ways of bridging the widening chasm and, in a gesture of love, solidarity and soppiness, they exchanged red roses.

These pre-match skirmishes raise the question of whether Algerian-Egyptian tensions revolve solely around football or whether the beautiful game is being used as a proxy – a political football, if you like – for deeper animosities.

“Algerians and Egyptians have never warmed to each other, and they seem to like expressing their feelings through football,” speculates Brian Oliver on the Guardian’s sports blog. “Egyptians are seen as snooty and aloof, and there was bad blood between the two countries in the late 1950s, when so many African countries – but not Egypt – were fighting for independence.”

Although Egypt may have been one of the first African countries to gain its independence and had a mild colonial experience compared to Algeria, this was actually not a source for tension between Egypt and Algeria – quite the contrary.

Egypt’s struggle for independence and the support given by Gamal Abdel Nasser’s regime to the Algerian revolutionaries during the country’s long and bloody war of independence against France – which led France to join forces with Britain and Israel to attack Egypt during the 1956 Suez crisis – is greatly appreciated in Algeria. In fact, Nasser is revered to this day by many Algerians.

If there have been political tensions between the two countries, these emerged later, when Egypt made a separate peace with Israel and was left out in the cold by the entire Arab world, including Algeria – but these resentments have faded.

In addition, the fact that Algeria is similar to Egypt in many ways – it too has a secular regimes propped up by the military – but is smaller and geographically more peripheral means that the country sometimes aspires to but has not managed to play the same kind of cultural and political role Egypt does on the Middle Eastern stage. And Egyptians can be quite arrogant about this, which could explain why some Algerians see them as “snooty and aloof”. For their part, Egyptians stereotype Algerians as aggressive and violent – which might date back to the fateful 1989 encounter in which the Algerian players reacted violently to being knocked out.

But, in the balance of things, I think the rivalry is mostly about football and how it impacts on the pride of two troubled nations. Egypt, which has qualified only twice for the World Cup (in 1934 and 1990), wants to overcome its ‘curse of the Pharaohs’ and reflect its unrivalled record in Africa on the world stage. And with what is widely seen as its best team ever, the country should have qualified without trouble, and not be struggling to keep its head above water as it now is.

Meanwhile, Algeria, which was Africa’s most impressive side in the 1980s, wants to regain its former glory after so many years in the wilderness.

This column appeared in The Guardian Unlimited’s Comment is Free section on 7 November 2009. Read the related discussion.

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