Mo Salah: Necessary hero or opium for the masses?

Mo Salah: Necessary hero or opium for the masses?
Comment: Could Mo Salah's megastar status protect him enough to speak out against the atrocities in Gaza? asks Mohamed el-Meshad.
7 min read
23 May, 2018
Salah has been given 37 awards this year alone [Getty]
Egypt has always been a footballing nation. No matter how well other athletes or sports teams perform on the international or local scene, it's the footballers who take all the plaudits.

Every generation since the 1920s has had its icons. Since Saleh Selim (star of the 50s and 60s) footballing celebrities were often able to pivot their success into other - mostly social and cultural - arenas. Selim himself became an actor and later in life, president of the country's largest social/athletic club, Al-Ahly (where he had played), wielding immense influence.  

Today's generation has Mohamed Salah.

The infatuation with Liverpool's forward represents one of those rare moments in Egypt's recent history where everyone seems to be in total agreement about an individual, both inside Egypt an out.

One would be hard-pressed to find a day since August 2017 when you could Google his name and not find a handful of news stories about him, be it from the UK, where he is having a historic season, or in Egypt, where he dragged the national team by the scruff of its neck to its first world cup in 28 years.

His contributions on the field are certainly ground-breaking. He won 37 individual awards just this year, and broke records previously held by the likes of footballing legends Cristiano Ronaldo, Luis Suarez, Alan Shearer and Bobby Fowler.

He is already the first Egyptian player to become a truly elite global footballing superstar. A few years ago, no Egyptian would have foreseen a Champions League Final, where one of their own was not only playing, but going in as the match's marquee player, well one of two, if you insist on counting that Cristiano guy. For fans of the game, Salah is literally making their dreams come true.

Salah is a product of the present, and represents a future that many are desperate to believe in, one that is successful against the odds

His achievements however, are slightly obscuring aspects of the Salah phenomenon in Egypt that go beyond the sociological effects of athletic achievement, or run-of-the-mill celebrity worship.

Egyptians who have never before been remotely interested by football or its personalities are suddenly invested in this figure, some to an alarming degree.

But this does not necessarily mean that football is growing in popularity and gaining fans who want in on the nation's pastime. Rather, it is a testament to Egyptians' growing need for something good from within to happen; someone to unite behind, in any capacity, without it being attached to the tiresome burden of politics or current events.

Read more: Egyptian treasures: Mo Salah's boots get a spot in British Museum

Salah has been living up to the formulaic (and quite capricious) mainstream ideals of a "salt of the earth, conservative son of Egypt". He is always comfortable in his skin, at a time when popular culture seems to be almost constantly outward-looking and insecure.

And he goes about his craft with a singular drive and unshaken ambition, brought from humble beginnings and despite sporting and political institutions in his home country, whose red tape, corruption and poor planning can more often than not be obstructive to this type of success.

Salah is a product of the present, and represents a future that many are desperate to believe in, one that is successful against the odds. The great irony is that he needed to go abroad to do this.

Many find comfort in supporting the success of someone who is so familiar, and at the same time, "safe". He has yet to provide evidence that there is anything potentially divisive about him. He is the vanilla flavour at the ice cream shop of Egyptian public opinion. You can't go wrong with him.

He is the face of an anti-drug campaign, renowned for his generosity and is spoken of glowingly by anyone who has ever met him.

Recently, a commercial dispute between the player, the Football Federation, and a government-owned telecoms company saw Salah pitted against two major government institutions and emerge unscathed, despite early attempts at a smear campaign against him.

His triumph in the matter is a huge testament, given the effects campaigns have had on the lives of other celebrities. Salah's mentor and one-time Egyptian soccer superstar, Mohamed Abu Treka was one such victim.

Despite being "the Salah of his time," Abu Treka is now living in exile while at home the state curiously put him on a 
terrorist list while confiscating his assets, all due to allegations that he sympathises with the Muslim Brotherhood. Abu Treka was far from being outspoken politically, he was just not visibly on the side of the current regime.

Athletes had been routinely expected to run within the fold of the established political regime in Egypt

Athletes had been routinely expected to run within the fold of the established political regime in Egypt. They were expected to be apolitical (unless they were supporting the status quo) and were never to ruffle any feathers.

Popular sports were often deployed as methods of distraction for the general population and a way to let off steam. The moment players stray from this, no amount of individual success will matter to the powers that be.

Indeed, fans of Egypt's first division football league have been 
banned from attending matches since 2012. The state claims it to be the result of the Port Said Massacre, when 74 supporters were killed as a result of clashes during a match.

Many others, myself included, believe it to be due to the fear of authorities from fan clubs of the two major teams (
The Ultras) who had participated in political demonstrations, and have the ability to mobilise thousands of overzealous youths very quickly.

Salah is not ruffling any feathers and is laser focused on his career and charity programmes, which he has every right to. He is giving people positivity in a year that carried with it the some of the highest rates of inflation in the country's modern history, and a repressive political climate, the likes of which hasn't been seen since the 1960s.  

He almost fell in hot water when he refused to shake the hands with opposing players on an Israeli team earlier in his career in Europe. Pro-Israel newspapers in Europe always bring this up as a question mark over Salah's career. He has avoided the topic since then, despite many Egyptians and Arabs finding it to be a commendable act of defiance against the Israeli Occupation of neighbouring Palestine and its brutal treatment of its citizens.

However, during the month of May that saw him crowned with award after award, and as he awaits a Champions League final this weekend, atrocities have unfolded in the region. Israeli brutality mowed down Palestinians demonstrating against the relocation of the US embassy to Jerusalem and Israel's breach of international and humanitarian law vis-a-vis its treatment of Palestinians continued unabated.

Given his past, there is an argument to be made for Salah using his top-of-the-world status and add his voice to the matter, especially at a time when public advocacy groups and independent political action has been crushed by the state. Instead, his last few tweets indicate he is still revelling in his achievements this year.

It is certainly too much to ask a 26-year old soccer player to always make the correct decision on what to say and what not to say, when to speak out and when not to speak out.

However, if he gets it right, there is a chance that his achievements and superstardom become truly transcendent. Just ask 
Abu Treka.

To borrow from the film The Dark Knight, these moments could transform Salah from "the hero that Egypt deserves, to the hero that Egypt needs".

Mohamed ElMeshad is a journalist and a PhD candidate at SOAS, focusing on the political economy of the media. He extensively worked in Egypt, Bahrain, West Africa, the UK and US. Recently, he contributed to the Committee to Protect Journalists’ book, Attacks on the Press (2015).

Opinions expressed in this article remain those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of al-Araby al-Jadeed, its editorial board or staff.