Cairo's Soccer War

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CAIRO -- After aerial bombing and rent control, I suppose one of the worst things that can happen to a city is acute mania for national sports. This week, Egypt went mad for soccer, as the Egyptian team played Algeria for the Arabs' only place in the 2010 World Cup. They beat Algeria in Cairo Saturday, scoring the decisive goal with seconds to go in stoppage time, then lost to Algeria in the tiebreaker game Wednesday night in Khartoum. I was present for the orgy of celebratory rioting and pyromania after the first match. This morning, after a citywide depressive episode following the loss in the second match, mobs have congregated around the Algerian embassy, and the thrown stones of the morning have the makings of a diplomatic incident by evening.

After and during the Saturday victory, fans set me on fire twice. They were harmless conflagrations, but they reminded me what a blessing it is, in so many ways, not to be the type who wears polyester and flammable hairspray. A man ignited a sparkler next to me, in an area packed so tight we were pressed together, chest to back. By the time he realized his folly, sparks had sizzled through my shirt and lightly scorched my skin. At Tahrir Square, which is Cairo's Times Square, fans shut the place down to traffic and began lighting aerosol cans ablaze. One burnt off the fringe of my hair. Here are photos:

I picked up one of the spent aerosol cans off the ground. It said "PYRO SOL" on it, which leads me to believe there is a brand specifically marketed to rioters who wish to create enormous fireballs in city streets.

It's enough to make one wonder whether victory is preferable to defeat. The previous worst riot in Cairo was a riot of rage: protesters shut down the city center as the US began its assault on Saddam Hussein's Iraq. I was in Tahrir Square then, too, and saw riot police watch passively for the first couple days, then surround the protesters and close in, sending the most dedicated among them to jail. From then on, the response was more severe. The police severely truncheoned the crone who managed the public urinal opposite my apartment in Bab al Luq, because she was too lazy and old to abandon her smelly post when the riot police cleared the streets. But never during those awful scenes did I sense that someone was going to get set ablaze, or ground into the pavement by manic, dancing adults singing "Copa de la Vida," which may well be the most ignominious method of death yet devised by the dark heart of man.

These present riots combine rage with giddiness with disappointment. In 1989, the last time Algeria and Egypt competed in such a charged atmosphere, Lakhdar Belloumi, the Algerians' star player, allegedly gouged out the eye of the Egyptian team doctor with a broken bottle. (His team defended him, and said the goalkeeper did it.) This time, Egyptian fans stoned the Algerian team's bus when it arrived, and Algerian players wore bandages on the field, with some theatrical sense, to cover their wounds. When Egypt won, Algerians ransacked the EgyptAir office in Algiers, and Egyptian fans (see above) lightly tore apart downtown Cairo. These incidents combined to make Egyptians feel nationally aggrieved, in a way that must be taken out on the Algerian embassy here in Zamalek.

Preemptively, Egypt has lined the leafy streets of Zamalek with military trucks, and it lets only foreigners through. It is a strategy that reminds me of the Iranian response to the counterprotests on Quds Day -- clog the streets with metal and police, so that no rioters can even reach the site of the riot. I am now on a balcony of my friend the philosopher Graham Harman, opposite the Algerian embassy, watching roughly a thousand riot police ringing the embassy and preparing for a potential assault, if their deterrence by presence fails. If it does fail, expect photos here.

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Graeme Wood is a contributing editor at The Atlantic. His personal site is gcaw.net.

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