Egyptian-born footballer Mohamed Salah hopes to help Liverpool FC to lift the cup next Saturday in the final of Europe’s prestigious UEFA Champions League, arguably the world’s top club competition. As sporting occasions go — FIFA World Cup aside — games don’t get any bigger or more significant than this; it’s a winner-takes-all battle between Real Madrid and Liverpool for supremacy between two of the continent’s great teams.
This will probably be one of the most hotly contested finals for some years as many of the superstars on both sides seek to impress their national team managers and fans ahead of this summer’s World Cup in Russia. Fans around the world will be glued to their televisions for the 9.45pm local time kick off at the Olimpiyskiy National Sports Complex in Kiev, the capital of Ukraine. The stadium holds more than 70,000 fans and tickets have sold out.
Amid all the pre-match excitement, though, the vice president of Egypt’s Salafi Dawah group, Yasser Borhami, has decreed that, according to Islamic Sharia law, Liverpool forward Salah cannot break his fast during the Champions League final, which is taking place during the fasting month of Ramadan, when Muslims around the world refrain from eating and drinking from dawn to sunset every day.
This fatwa is an intriguing story which has gone viral since it first appeared on the Middle East Monitor website. Apparently, Borhami said that football as a sport does not fall into the category of hard work and therefore does not allow Muslims to break their fast during the month of Ramadan.
As a mere convert to Islam I am certainly nowhere near the dizzy heights of being a student of this great faith, never mind a scholar, but I do know that travellers are excused from fasting (as are the elderly, the very young, the sick and pregnant women) and unless Liverpool Football Club has abandoned its home in the north of England to set up in Ukraine, Salah will be allowed to miss the fast because he will be classed — according to the self-same Islamic Sharia law — as a traveller. He can make up for the missed days after Ramadan, it’s not a problem.
That technicality aside, professional football is indeed hard work. It requires discipline, top levels of fitness and the focus of an athlete to be able to compete at the international level that Mo Salah has reached. The ruling from the Egyptian cleric was, therefore, bizarre, but a little bit of research reveals that he seems to have made a career out of oddball (no pun intended) fatwas. In 2014, for example, he issued a fatwa against that year’s FIFA World Cup on the basis that it could distract Muslims from praying during Ramadan.
Egypt’s last Islamist party permitted to exist by the government includes Borhami; it recently backed former General Abdel Fattah Al-Sisi when he ran for a second presidential term. The ultra-conservative Nour Party said that it had no choice but to support Sisi if it wants to survive in Egypt, and it even bused-in supporters to the polling booths to vote for him. Nour broke with the Muslim Brotherhood after it became clear that the 2013 military coup led by Sisi would see off Egypt’s only democratically elected President Mohamed Morsi.
Borhami is a leading cleric attached to Nour’s parent organisation, which provided religious and political leaders to flank Sisi when he went on television to announce the ousting of the Brotherhood’s Morsi. Nearly five years on, the group, which once held 25 per cent of the seats in parliament, but now has only two per cent, is still supporting Sisi.
Why, we must ask, did one of the few Islamists left standing in Egypt choose to target the great Mohamed Saleh? Could it be because he is reputed to have “attracted” around a million votes in the presidential elections when fed up Egyptians scratched out the name of the obscure no-hope candidate who stood against Sisi and inserted Salah’s name instead? Is Borhami and his Salafi Dawah group being used to target the virtually untouchable football icon and living legend? There are, after all, some rumblings that he might be getting too big for his boots after a commercial dispute with Egypt’s ruling football authorities.
Salah was apparently upset that his image was featured prominently on the fuselage of the Egyptian national team’s aeroplane, which was provided by an official team sponsor. Salah has a sponsorship deal with rival telecoms firm Vodafone and it was clear that having his image being used to endorse a rival product threatened to jeopardise his own lucrative deal. The dispute was resolved quickly in a battle which highlighted the influence and power that the 25-year-old Liverpool star wields.
Youth and Sports Minister Khaled Abdel-Aziz was forced to call an emergency board meeting of the Egyptian Football Association and eventually the demands made by Salah’s agent were all met. “I assure everyone that we will stand by him to honour all the contracts he entered in England,” tweeted Abdel-Aziz.
It is clear that Egypt’s World Cup hopes rest on Salah’s shoulders, so for Borhami to take a shot at the star player is all the more bizarre, unless he has been persuaded to try and needle Salah just weeks before he leads his national team in the tournament. It will be Egypt’s first appearance in the World Cup finals since 1990, and the team is scheduled to play in Group A against hosts Russia, Saudi Arabia and Uruguay. Expectations are high and any disappointing performance — on or off the pitch — could prove dangerous for the Liverpool player who is eulogised today as “Egypt’s fourth pyramid” such is his pulling power.
Military strongman and dictator Abdel Fattah Al-Sisi is wary of anyone who receives undue adulation in Egypt. Salah should, therefore, pay attention to the cautionary tale of his confidant and mentor, fellow Egyptian footballer Mohamed Aboutrika, who was adored and feted very much in the same way that Salah is now.
Aboutrika, 39, endeared himself around the Arab world when he removed his shirt after scoring a goal in 2008 and displayed a t-shirt with “Sympathise with Gaza” written on it. He was duly fined by the Egyptian Football Association. Unrepentant, he said that he would want to be buried in the t-shirt. In the aftermath of the notorious Port Said massacre of football fans in 2012 he declared: “This is a war and people are dying in front of us. Is life this cheap?”
Having endorsed the Muslim Brotherhood in elections, Aboutrika had his assets seized after being accused of funding the movement, which is now designated as a terrorist organisation by Sisi’s Egypt. Aboutrika himself was placed on a “terrorist” list last year by the Egyptian authorities.
He is not the only footballer to face Sisi’s wrath. In 2015 Ahmed El-Merghany, who took part in the 2011 revolution, had his contract terminated after he made Facebook comments critical of the Egyptian President. “All we ever get from you is useless words with no actions,” he wrote.
Other sporting heroes have also been stripped of their honours, such as the 2013 martial arts gold medal winner Mohammed Youssef, who at the World Championship in Russia wore a t-shirt bearing the pro-Arab Spring Rabaa salute as he collected his medal. The sight of the four-fingered salute used in support of the protesters who died in the Rabaa Al-Adawiyya massacre ordered by Sisi was too much for the dictator to stomach, especially when the video also went viral on social media. Youssef was sent home from Russia, dropped from the national squad and interrogated before being banned from taking part in further competitions.
While Salah is too big to be used as a puppet by the Sisi regime his performance or comments off the field in the forthcoming FIFA World Cup could see him tread a fine line between icon and fallen hero.
Aboutrika will no doubt have advised Salah about the pitfalls of adulation in Sisi’s Egypt. Once again he found himself this month back on Egypt’s terrorism list along with more than 1,500 other names released by Cairo’s Criminal Court. He is now living in exile in Qatar. While he is still regarded as a local hero by most fans, their adulation is muted these days in a country which already has 60,000 political prisoners living in disgraceful prison conditions courtesy of the Egyptian authorities.
Popularity in Egypt seems like a double-edged sword and not even Egypt’s fourth pyramid is immune from the scrutiny of a paranoid regime. Should the national squad put in a poor performance in Russia, Salah might be better advised to take a direct flight back to Liverpool rather than return to a country where being too popular can land you in prison, or worse. Superstardom is no protection against tyranny, even when your name is Mo Salah.
The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.