Grudges borne out of a historic rivalry has festered in the last decade

CAIRO: After Egypt's humiliating exit from the Africa Cup of Nations, their loyal fan base's loyalties are divided between supporting their 'Arab brothers' embodied in Algeria for this Friday's final - or not. The Desert Foxes or Desert Fighters, as they are affectionately known, must beat Senegal to clinch a second continental title on the freshly manicured Cairo International Stadium field.

Ten years ago, the same pitch became a lethal site of violent clashes between Algerian and Egyptian fans. Old grudges borne out of a historic soccer rivalry that has festered in the last decade have opened up again with Algeria showing excellent form throughout the tournament. "In terms of performance, they deserve to be in the final and to win it all," says Mohamed, 32, an accountant who has attended some of Algeria's games. "But I hope they don't win the tournament…because of the bickering".

Egypt was eliminated in the round of 16 losing to South Africa, too much dismay from its fans prompting a wholesale resignation from the country's football association. During the semi-finals, wounds were pricked again after Algerians and Egyptians traded a war of words and shoved each other after Egyptian fans enthusiastically supported Nigeria in the loss.

With decades of taunts and close World Cup qualifiers pitting the North African footballing heavyweights against each other, Cairo Stadium hosted a tense match that descended into chaos. Dozens of Egyptian and Algerian fans violently clashed in a crucial World Cup qualifier. It triggered a diplomatic crisis between both countries. Calls for calm on both sides were not heeded as the respective countries' press and politicians continued to muddy the waters.

'No security issues'

Since the start of the regional competition, Egypt's security presence has been stepped up especially around stadiums. Safety has been a major challenge and priority for the hosts. "So far, there hasn't been any problems, quarrels or security issues," said an Interior Ministry official who requested anonymity. "The celebrations of Algerian fans in the streets took place alongside Egyptians without any visible anger or disturbance," he told AFP.

Despite the generational strains that stretch back decades between the two countries, many Egyptians have also lent their support to Algeria and its soccer stars in the name of Arab unity. "I'll support them because we are all Arabs but in the main I don't really show them love after what happened," said Ali, a 23-year-old student, with little enthusiasm. "I was 13 at the time so I hardly remember - a lot of things happened afterwards," said the Al-Ahly fan, the local powerhouse which has won multiple African club titles.

Ali remembers the deadly violence in Egyptian stadiums in domestic league matches which killed over a hundred fans in 2012 and 2015 respectively. Authorities, which have been accused of instigating the violence when they clashed with fans, have re-instated a total ban on attending domestic games which is still in effect. It has been relaxed recently but authorities must approve fan attendance using their national ID.

'New and positive debate'

"After what happened in the 2009 match, people started cheering for anyone playing against Algeria," sports journalist Hatem Maher recounts. But, he sees the question of whether to cheer for Algeria in the upcoming match shows signs of "a new and positive debate" emerging. "Tensions have markedly fizzled out," Maher explains attributing it to the ascent of a new generation of fans but also the "political changes" in Egypt.

"After the January 2011 revolution, a lot of people started to take a step back and to re-assess the 2009 days saying that Hosni Mubarak and his sons and their loyalist media were really the ones fanning the flames between both countries and their fans". "At the time, there was also a political rivalry between Egypt and Algeria to determine who historically was the leader of the Arab world," said Pascal Boniface, director of the Paris-based Institute of International and Strategic Relations and author of "The Geopolitics of sport".

"Both regimes were in trouble and were counting on their national teams to improve their reputation," he explained to AFP. For many excited Egyptians such as football trainer Mohamed, the Algerians winning would not be so bad. "Algerian fans are here and are happy so why wouldn't we be happy for them?" he said. He dismissed any talk of heated rivalry noting "that's really normal in football". - AFP