Algerian football success is a double-edged sword

Algeria reached the African Cup final for the first time in 29 years after defeating Nigeria. It can't be divorced from politics back home.

Algeria fans at the 2010 World Cup in South Africa. Image credit Nathan Gibbs via Flickr (CC).

It took Algeria barely two weeks to charge one of its own football fans, Samir Sardouk, and sentence him to one year in jail for harming the national interests of his country. Mr. Sardouk was convicted for shouting “There is no God but Allah, and they will come down” in Cairo, the capital of neighboring Egypt on June 21 during the African Cup of Nation’s opening match. Four other Algerians were given six-month suspended sentences for lighting firecrackers in the stadium.

Mr. Sardouk’s slogan referred to the months-long mass anti-government protests in Algeria that demanded all those associated with the country’s long-standing president, Abdelaziz Bouteflika (who was toppled in April), be removed from office. Sardouk’s sentencing casts a shadow over the Algerian squad’s achievements, reaching the African Cup final for the first time in 29 years after defeating Nigeria.

Autocrats historically have used sports—football in particular—to polish their country’s image abroad or their own image locally. However, if celebrations after Algeria’s wins are anything to go by, an Algerian triumph in the finals, like past football victories in countries like Egypt and Iran, are likely to inspire rather than distract anti-government protesters.

Celebrations after the semi-final win did end up turning into mass anti-government protests. Algerian police reportedly detained a dozen demonstrators. This prompted Said Salhi, vice president of the Algerian League for the Defense of Human Rights (LADDH) to  tweet: “There is a clear desire to prevent peaceful marches in Algiers, the deployed security device says it all.” Algerian fans in France took to the streets in Paris, Marseille and Lyon within hours of Algeria reaching the final. Their celebrations were mired by violence. These events add context to the conviction of Mr. Sardouk as protestors in both countries demanded a “civilian, not a military state.”

Algerian fan violence at the African Cup is not new—a massive brawl between players and fans mired a 2014 Libya-Algeria African Cup qualifier. Algerian psychologist Mahmoud Boudarene’s assessment of Algerian football fans at that time reads as such:

Violence in Algeria has become ordinary and banal. Hogra, the word Algerian use for the government’s perceived contempt for ordinary citizens, has planted a sickness in Algerian society. People feel that the only way to get anything done is to have connections or threaten the peace. It is a system where hogra and social injustice rule. Social violence has become the preferred mode of communication between the citizen and the republic—today in our country everything is obtained through a riot.

It should be noted then, that the violence associated with this year’s tournament was minimal when compared to violence in the past. An apparent shift away from violence by fans gathered in mass can party be attributed to this year’s popular revolt, inspired by lessons learnt from the 2011 popular Arab revolts. The new political environment has emboldened protesters and given them a sense of confidence that is likely to ensure that any potential African Cup final celebrations-turned-protests remain largely peaceful.

On the part of the government, in spite of an increased police presence to control crowds charged up by the political atmosphere at home, the Algerian defense ministry was preparing six military planes to fly 600 fans to Egypt for the African Cup final. The gesture underlined football’s political importance and constituted an attempt by the military to align itself with the Algerians squad’s success.

The significance of football in Algeria for the government and the people makes Mr. Sardouk’s sentencing all the more remarkable. For starters, it sought to draw a dividing line between national honor and protest—the government’s assertion was that his slogan mired Algeria’s march towards football victory. The conviction is also noteworthy because Mr. Sardouk’s protest, coupled with acts of defiance by militant Egyptian football fans, threatened to turn the African tournament into a venue for the expression of dissent. Finally, the sentencing was striking because it went counter to the military’s effort to retain a measure of control over the protests by co-opting them, as well as violated the long-standing unofficial accord with militant football fans that allowed supporters to protest as long as they restricted themselves to the confines of the stadium.

The Algerian military’s attempt to curtail fans and co-opt the team’s success borrows from the Saudi-United Arab Emirates template of squashing dissent. Yet, protesters know that success in the political arena depends to a large extent on their willingness and ability to sustain the protests, even if security forces turn violent. An Algeria that emerges from the African Cup final as the continent’s champion would give the protesters a significant boost. It also constitutes an opportunity to ensure that Algeria does not revert to an environment in which violence is seen as the only way to achieve results. Said, a former senior Algerian intelligence official proclaimed: “We will return to violence if there is no real democratic transition. The African Cup doesn’t fundamentally change that but does offer a window of opportunity.”

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