“Mo Salah, Mo Salah, Mo Salah, running down the wing! Salah la la la la, the Egyptian king!”
This chant greets Egyptian football star Mohammed Salah every time he steps out on the field.
The 25-year-old footballer born in a small village in Egypt’s Nile Delta has accomplished what Egyptians, and much of the world for that matter, thought was impossible.
Last week, Salah surpassed Portuguese football player Cristiano Ronaldo as Europe’s top football scorer. Just days earlier, he was voted the Professional Footballers’ Association’s player of the year – one of the highest football honours in England.
But beyond foreign achievements and accolades, he has captivated the entire Egyptian population. His influence at home has grown so much that political and security analysts have started writing articles about him.
After years of instability and severe polarisation in Egypt, Salah has become a rallying point for Egyptians, as they’ve come together to celebrate his achievements with happiness and pride.
Amid those celebrations, however, there has been increasing concern about what the future might bring. After all, in recent years, Egypt has become a country where success and popularity could bring trouble.
Since the July 2013 coup that toppled former President Mohamed Morsi and brought to power military strongman Abdel Fattah el-Sisi, it has become clear that there is little space in Egypt for Egyptians who do not loudly, publicly and boisterously applaud the dictatorial military regime ruling the country with an iron fist.
“Mohamed Salah is not just a football player any more … He must shave his thick beard that doesn’t match his age or fame, and almost puts him … in the same basket with radicals, extremists, if not with terrorists and their sympathisers,” wrote Salah Montasser, one of Egypt’s well known regime loyalists, in a March column published by the state-owned Al-Ahram newspaper.
His comments infuriated many Egyptians and the backlash he faced, prompted Montasser to elaborate on his remarks further: “I am advising him because Egypt is in a true battle against terrorism, why would he raise concerns under such conditions”.
Abu Trika and Egypt’s terror list
Such comments, and many others from Sisi’s regime loyalists, certainly bring back memories of the shocking fate of Mohamed Abu Trika, four-time African Footballer of the Year and the only other Egyptian football player who captured the hearts and minds of Egyptian and Arab people in such a way.
Abu Trika, known as El Magico among football fans and ultras in Egypt, was a public supporter of former President Mohamed Morsi and remained so even after the July 3 coup that toppled him. His political views infuriated the regime which saw him as a threat because of his international fame.
It was Abu Trika’s public condemnation of the Rabaa Massacre in August 2013, during which close to one thousand pro-Morsi protesters were killed in the streets of Cairo, that broke the camel’s back.
Immediately after, the top TV personalities on various pro-regime channels all declared him an enemy of the state. Since then, there has been a systematic and ruthless campaign against the footballer – who at that time was the national team’s top scorer – accusing him of siding with terrorist organisations against Egypt.
In 2015, the regime formalised these allegations by freezing his assets and later in January 2017, putting Abu Trika on its official terror list. On April 30, a Cairo court ruled to relist him as a terrorism sponsor for another five years.
Unsurprisingly, Abu Trika no longer lives in Egypt.
Escaping Egyptian politics
Mohamed Salah is in no way immune to such mistreatment in the future. If he does not toe the regime’s line, he will be dealt with like any ordinary Egyptian.
He is defenceless in the face of a military dictatorship that shows no respect for the law or constitution, and certainly shows no mercy to anyone who might stand in the way of its interests.
Today, it is the interest of Sisi’s regime to have Salah applaud and promote it. In fact, it seems that the Egyptian authorities have already taken upon themselves to use Salah in their self-promotion attempts without even asking him.
In late April, a scandal erupted after an advertisement company, linked to Egypt’s General Intelligence Directorate, decided to use Salah’s photo for campaigns they run on behalf of the Egyptian national team and a telecommunications company. The Egyptian military is known to be financially involved in the telecommunications business in Egypt.
Salah did not authorise the use of his photo, which, in fact, breaches advertisement contracts he already has with other companies. He complained to the Egyptian Football Association, which, according to him, did not respond well to his request.
“Unfortunately, the way I was treated was extremely insulting. I was hoping for it to be more civilised,” he tweeted.
Many of Salah supporters took to social media to express their support for him with the hashtag “I Stand with Salah”, which ranked first across the Middle East for more than 24 hours.
This dispute might seem as a simple business disagreement that could be resolved within days, which would have been true if it hadn’t involved companies owned and run by the Egyptian military and its intelligence directorate, now headed by Sisi’s office manager and personal confidant Abbas Kamel. For Egyptians, this is quite concerning.
“I really hope Mo Salah never, ever, says anything about politics. Especially Egyptian politics. Right now, that just won’t go well, whatever he says,” tweeted HA Hellyer, senior nonresident fellow at the Atlantic Council and the Royal United Services Institute, echoing what many across Egypt and the Middle East think.
But even if Salah doesn’t say anything political, that might not be enough to save him from the harm Egyptian politics under Sisi could inflict on him.