Algeria victory in Africa Cup fuels protest movement

With Algerians continuing to protest the political elite, the state tried to win points by co-opting the national fervor over soccer, which is intrinsically linked to the Hirak movement, subsidizing travel to shuttle fans to see the national team play in the Confederation of African Football final in Cairo.

al-monitor Algerians celebrate winning the Africa Cup of Nations 2019, Algiers, July 20, 2019. Photo by REUTERS/Ramzi Boudina.

Jul 25, 2019

In Algeria and around the world, fans of Algerian soccer boisterously celebrated the team's 1-0 victory over Senegal in the Confederation of African Football (CAF) final, held in Cairo July 19. Fireworks, car horns and occasional clashes with police dominated numerous city centers.

Tensions had run high ahead of the final game, not least among the core of fans and demonstrators who have propelled the country’s protest movement from the terraces of Algerian soccer stadiums to the streets, where it established itself as the dominant theme in Algeria’s political discourse. Opposing them stood an embattled government that after weeks of U turns and concessions appeared eager to either co-opt the national fervor as it manifested in support of the soccer team or at least generally deflect the worrisome political angle from its doorstep.

Some 4,800 Algerians were expected to arrive in Cairo ahead of the final game via subsidized chartered flights and military planes provided by the government. In Algeria, fans traveled in legions to stadiums to watch live broadcasts of the game on big screens, amid cheers for their team and songs of revolution.

The link between soccer and Hirak — the popular protest movement sparked by former President Abdelaziz Bouteflika’s initial decision to seek a fifth term — has been clear since the movement took root. The Algerian midfielder Adlène Guedioura made the link tangible when he dedicated the team’s victory to the peaceful demonstrators of Hirak.

“Seeing our national soccer team getting so far in an international competition has brought pride and joy to everyone here,” Anys Mezzaour, who has taken part in the protests, told Al-Monitor ahead of the final.

Buoyed by the team’s recovery after a prolonged dry spell, Mezzaour described the scenes that had accompanied the team’s progress through the tournament. “People spontaneously gathered in big cities’ main places [like Grande Poste square] in Algiers] and began to chant, to light fireworks, to dance, etc.”

He also noted, “There are mostly men and kids but also many women and families. It's really genuine, and it brings happiness to everyone. The last time the country was this unified by soccer was in 2009, after the win against Egypt for the 2010 World Cup qualification.”

For a base of support that has come to be defined by its opposition to the government and its apparatuses, the risk of an explosion in nationalist fervor are evident. The Hirak protest movement was all but birthed to the sounds of “La Casa del Mouradia,” an overtly political song detailing the stages of the gradual deterioration of Bouteflika and his successive mandates.

Celebrations rocked Algiers through the night of July 19, with fans rejoicing and reveling in the moment. As one woman put it succinctly, “We dropped a president and won a cup in the same year!”

Hirak's ambitions, vague though they may be, were projected onto the national squad with the numbers seven and eight, worn by Riyad Mahrez and Youcef Belaïli, portrayed on social media as the embodiment of Articles 7 and 8 of the Constitution, establishing that national sovereignty and constituent power rests with the people.

In this light, government attempts to co-opt the national mood were inevitably met with suspicion. Mezzaour remarked, “The government tried to hijack the [team's] success for political purposes by taking populist measures like subsidizing plane tickets to send supporters to Cairo.” 

With poor organization and with tickets being diverted to friends and family of officials, according to Mezzaour, there was little to bring the people closer to a government that they have long accused of endemic corruption. Poor planning also marked fans’ return, with a shortage of places available on Air Algeria’s flights from Cairo sparking violence in departure lounges in the Egyptian capital.

Soccer has long served as a safety valve for dissent across much of North Africa, with fans often permitted latitude in their chants that would typically see them swiftly arrested if on the street.

“They sing about everything — drug addiction, desperate social conditions and politics,” Chloe Teevan, an independent researcher and analyst said. “It’s an outlet for predominantly young people to establish some form of unity [among] themselves. I think the state likely saw the games as a way of containing that, but it’s failed. It spilled out onto the street and spread.

“I think even now the state is trying to use soccer as a means of distracting people from the political situation,” Teevan said. “With the military planes to Cairo and what I’m told are heavily subsided, possibly even free tickets [to the match], what we’re seeing is the state essentially trying to buy peace once more.”

Teevan concluded, “This time I’m not even sure that’ll work.”

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