This Time, Egyptian Riot Over Soccer, Not Bread

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CAIRO — History has proved that there are two subjects that will move Egyptians to pour into the streets in riotous numbers, crashing windows, burning cars, battling one another and defying an army of club-wielding riot police officers.

One is the price of bread. Another is soccer, as was proved again this week after Egypt’s national team was defeated by its bitter rival Algeria, losing a berth in the World Cup tournament next year and sparking a riot outside the Algerian Embassy in Cairo late Thursday night.

But there was a pronounced difference between the bread riots of 1977 and 2008 and the soccer riot of Thursday night: the government quieted those earlier outbreaks by quickly lowering the price of bread, while this week it stoked outrage against Algeria.

Egypt had defeated Algeria 2-0 in Cairo on Saturday to set up Wednesday’s climactic playoff in the Sudanese capital, Khartoum. After Egypt lost the second match, the government withdrew its ambassador from Algiers and accused Algerians of menacing Egyptian fans after the game. President Hosni Mubarak’s eldest son, Alaa, a wealthy businessman, sounded as if he were calling his nation to war...

... Soccer is a national passion. The only time Egyptians take to the streets in flag-waving celebration is when their team wins. And in soccer terms the North African neighbor Algeria has for years been enemy No. 1. Both nations have waited a long time to get a spot in the World Cup, 24 years for Algeria, 20 for Egypt. The last time Egypt made it was in 1989, when it defeated Algeria.

From the start, the Egyptian government sought to exploit the games with Algeria for political reasons, political analysts said. State radio broadcast nationalist songs. Streets were filled with young men selling Egyptian flags. The president’s son Gamal Mubarak, who is often talked about as a possible successor to his 81-year-old father, attended the two games with other high-ranking party members.

“They excited people, thinking that this would keep them busy from other problems, but in the end it backfired,” said Osama Anwar Okasha, an Egyptian television writer and columnist who blamed leaders in both countries. “It made people here and there explode.”

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