Egypt and Tunisia, the two Arab countries most successful to date in overthrowing their dictators, have agreed to play a soccer friendly in mid-April despite their longstanding football animosity.
Tunisians were the first in the Arab world to rise in protest, forcing Tunisian President Zine Abedine Ben Ali in January to seek exile in Saudi Arabia. Demonstrators last month ousted Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak after 30 years in office.
The uprisings have sparked a wave of anti-government protests across the Middle East and North Africa that have led to brutal crackdowns in Libya and Bahrain.
Egypt and Tunisia, alongside Algeria, which is also confronting anti-government protests, have suspended all professional league matches to prevent the soccer pitch from becoming an opposition rallying point.
Egypt’s military rulers this week authorized a resumption of the country’s league on April 15. Tunisia has yet to follow suit. Tunisian authorities have ordered the country’s most popular club, Esperance to play their Champions League match against ASPAC of Benin on March 19 behind closed doors.
To avoid protests, the Egyptian-Tunisian friendly will be played in either Britain or the United Arab Emirates. The match will be played in honour of the hundreds who died in the mass protests in both countries.
Egypt last played Tunisia in a match in which they lost 2-0 in 2005. Riots erupted in Cairo when storied Al Ahly SC beat Tunisia’s Esperance 2-1 in October of last year.
“Egyptians and Tunisians have a long history of feuds over football matches; a fact the tyrants exploited to exert control,” said Nawara Najem, an Egyptian journalist and blogger who was a spokeswoman for the anti-Mubarak demonstrators in Cairo’s Tahrir Square, in an article in The Guardian.
James M. Dorsey is a senior research fellow at the National University of Singapore’s Middle East Institute and the author of The Turbulent World of Middle East Soccer blog