Shortly before he was assassinated, US President Abraham Lincoln said that it was best to avoid popularity if you want peace. Like so many public figures he realised that being popular can be a double-edged sword, and nowhere is this more obvious than in the Middle East, where paranoid rulers and their supporters can view public affection for others as a threat to themselves.
The most recent example of this is the growing differences between the Egypt Football Association (EFA) and Liverpool FC hero Mohamed Salah. An escalating row between the two took a bizarre twist on Wednesday when the player was reminded that, while he might live in Britain, his mum still lives in Egypt.
The veiled threat came in the form of a tweet from a fake Twitter account set up in the name of @KhaledLateif which gave the impression it was sent by a senior EFA board member, Khaled Latif. However, by Wednesday evening Latif was denying on Arab television stations that he had sent such a message to the football star and pointed out that the offending account, set up in 2016, was fake.
The tweet at the heart of the mystery read: “I’d like to remind @MoSalah that your mother is still in Egypt. You are abroad and can do as you wish. Those who understand, understand.”
The hoax comes on the back of criticism by Salah of the EFA, in which he blamed the ruling body for Egypt’s humiliating performances in this year’s FIFA World Cup in Russia. The spat started on 11 August when the player’s agent, Mohamed Abbas, delivered a list of “non-negotiable demands” directly to the EFA president’s private inbox. Although the full details of the demands have not been made public, they are understood to include the distancing of Salah from PR and marketing activities off the pitch with the national team and federation. The English Premier League player’s personal sponsorship deals are said to be worth millions of pounds and will no doubt prevent him from endorsing or being seen to endorse the products of rival companies.
A few days ago, however, the EFA launched a public attack on Salah’s demands, which it described as “unprecedented”.
Quite how this will play out in Egypt remains to be seen, but the player is idolised across the country. In the March elections, more than 1.7 million ballot papers were reportedly inscribed with his name even though he wasn’t an official candidate. Voters made it clear that they would rather have Salah as their president than any one of those on offer. Despite FIFA’s strict rules against the politicisation of football, the EFA publicly endorsed Al-Sisi’s presidential campaign.
There were signs ahead of the World Cup that Salah was causing waves within the EFA following a commercial dispute with his country’s football authorities. The player 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 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 lucrative deal.
The dispute was quickly resolved in a battle which highlighted the influence and power that the 25-year-old Liverpool star wields. Egypt’s Youth and Sports Minister Khaled Abdel-Aziz was forced to call an emergency EFA board meeting, and 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. Such conciliatory words have long gone, with one member of the EFA allegedly calling Salah a “pig” in a tweet last week, although that too may have been from a fake account.
There were high expectations of Egypt’s first appearance in the World Cup finals since 1990, but the team’s performances were disappointing. Such is his pulling power, Salah was eulogised as “Egypt’s fourth pyramid”, but he wasn’t able to play in every game because of injury.
Recently, he posted two videos on his official Facebook page criticising the EFA following Egypt’s dismal performance in coming bottom of its World Cup group after losing to Russia, Uruguay and Saudi Arabia. In one of the videos, Salah criticised the decision to have the Egyptian team’s training camp in Chechnya, hundreds of kilometres away from the match venues.
Unlike other teams, the Egyptian players were disrupted constantly for photo sessions with Egyptian celebrities and media and were unable to focus on essential training in the build-up to their games. “We had many disturbances at the team’s camp during our participation at the World Cup in Russia,” explained Salah.
In one extraordinary incident, he was apparently disturbed in his room in the middle of the night by visitors wanting to talk to their hero. Salah was also paraded around Grozny Stadium by the notorious Ramzan Kadyrov, Chechnya’s Kremlin-backed, homophobic leader. The high profile photo opportunity prompted several TV companies, including CNN, to report that Salah was considering quitting the national team and was unwilling to be used by the government of Egypt as a political pawn.
In a previous MEMO article, I related the cautionary tale of Salah’s confidant and mentor, fellow Egyptian footballer Mohamed Aboutrika, who was adored and feted very much in the same way that the Liverpool player is today. Aboutrika, 39, endeared himself around the Arab world when he removed his shirt after scoring a goal in 2008 and revealed a t-shirt which had “Sympathise with Gaza” written on it.
He was duly fined by the EFA. Unrepentant, he said that he wants 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 in Al-Sisi’s Egypt. Aboutrika himself was placed on a “terrorist” list last year by the Egyptian authorities.
The former player is not the only footballer to face Al-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 Egyptian sporting heroes have 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 symbol used in support of the protesters who were killed in the Rabaa Al-Adawiyya massacre ordered by Al-Sisi was too much for the dictator to stomach, especially when the video 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 and his agent have made it very clear that the football star is too big to be used as a puppet by the Sisi regime his comments off the field could see him tread a fine line between icon and fallen hero.
“Superstardom is no protection against tyranny, even when your name is Mo Salah,” I wrote in May. The recent tweet may well be a hoax, but even a fake account has to be taken seriously by those who know how dark forces operate under the Egyptian regime.
While it is almost inconceivable that any mother could be harmed because of her children’s activities, Egypt is a country where smoke and mirrors can create an atmosphere of fear and paranoia. It’s worth remembering that the country’s first democratically-elected President, Mohamed Morsi, is languishing in prison facing the death penalty after being removed in a military coup headed by Abdel Fattah Al-Sisi. Fake news or not, popularity of any kind, as Salah knows, is more of a curse than a blessing in today’s Egypt.
The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.