Sisi reminds Salah who's really King of Egypt

Sisi reminds Salah who's really King of Egypt
Comment: The Sisi regime's treatment of Salah is designed to take him down a peg or two, and reiterate that he's their property, writes Sam Hamad.
6 min read
04 Sep, 2018
Salah received an astonishing one million unofficial votes during the last presidential 'non-election' [Getty]
The Egyptian FA seems hellbent on ensuring Mohamed Salah is made as uncomfortable as possible when playing for the Egyptian national football team.  

The latest showdown between the EFA and Salah centres around concerns he raised regarding the EFA's continuous violation of his image rights and security concerns while on international duty - concerns Salah says have been completely ignored.  

Salah had expected dialogue over the issue following Egypt's disastrous World Cup campaign, but the EFA have reacted with characteristic arrogance.

When it comes to national football, no player deserves special treatment based on their level of worldwide fame, but most national football associations seek to compromise with players who have become famous and have various sponsorship and image rights deals.

Usually, the football associations don't want to upset their best footballing talent, while the players want to play for the country, and there's rarely a problem. When such issues do arise, most most countries would open a discussion with the player in question, nothing even as formal as 'negotiations'.

But this is Sisi's Egypt we're talking about.  

This is not a 'normal' country run by reasonable and rational heads. This is a praetorian kleptocracy run by a would-be Pharaoh and a wider gang of henchmen who do his bidding – and it's these loyalist henchmen who run the EFA.  

Salah is a phenomenon far beyond anything Egypt has ever seen before. Never in Egypt's history has a player emerged to become a worldwide phenomenon in the way Mo Salah has. Though Egyptians love him in their own unique ways, the world seemingly loves him too - he's not just an Egyptian, Muslim and African icon, but an idol to millions of people from all backgrounds around the world.

Sisi is acutely aware of threat posed to him by dissenting celebrities

In a country that is one of the most overcrowded, polluted, corrupt, poor and tyrannical on earth, Salah, at times, seems like one thing Egyptians can uniformly be proud of.

To those who don't like football, this might appear as absurd, but to see a young Egyptian raised on the dusty old streets of Nagrig in the Nile Delta breaking goalscoring records in the world's most watched and arguably toughest league, gives a sense of hope to people who are often forgotten not just by the world, but by their own country. 

As one old humourous Egyptian saying goes, Egypt has millions of messiahs, and at least as many charlatans.  

But unlike charlatans such as Sisi, who enjoyed similar messiah-like status among many during the honeymoon period following his coup, Salah is noted for his modesty. If anything, he seems embarrassed by the fame that has engulfed him since his move to Liverpool, while his charity work in Nagrig and Egypt in general is legendary.  

Though Salah originally contributed to Sisi's propagandistic, 
kleptocratic Tahya Masr fund, his charity work since then has been distributed directly, probably to curtail the pilfering of funds.  

When Salah received an astonishing one million unofficial votes during the last presidential non-election, he instantly became a point of dissent against Sisi - an organic if symbolic rival to the tyrant who did everything in his power to stamp out any genuine political rivals.

Thus the chant of Liverpool fans, now widely used by Egyptians, of Salah as their 'Egyptian King', acquires a subversive meaning for the Sisi regime.

To them, there can only be one Egyptian King, namely Sisi, and he doesn't share power. To anyone who knows the nature of his regime, it can only be concluded that their treatment of Salah has been orchestrated to take him down a peg or two – to control him and reiterate that he, like all other Egyptians, is their property.  

We saw this perhaps most ominously at the World Cup. While most teams pick their base camps pragmatically and geographically, the EFA picked its based on geopolitics. Chechnya was nowhere near the location of any of Egypt's matches, but its despotic leader Ramzan Kadyrov serves increasingly as Putin's link to other despots in the Islamic world.  

While the team should've been focussing on acclimatising and training, Salah was being paraded around a stadium in Grozny with Kadyrov. Egypt's base camp resembled a circus, with obedient media and loyal Egyptian celebrities roaming around freely. For this farce, and Egypt's consequential terrible performance on the field, Salah openly criticised the EFA and threatened to retire from national football.

The balance for the regime is keeping Salah, their best global asset on board, while keeping him in his place.  

During the most recent confrontation, a Twitter account apparently belonging to the Egyptian FA official Khaled Latif tweeted a threat to Salah, saying '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 balance for the regime is keeping Salah, their best global asset on board, while keeping him in his place

Though Latif claimed this was a fake account, one that had been operating for nearly two years without his complaint, there is no doubt that this threat is very real, whether Latif or some elaborate hoaxer stated it openly or not.  

Salah knows all too well that the regime could make life very difficult for his mother and other family members who remain in the country if he chooses to further confront the EFA - or, more directly and unthinkably, Sisi.   

Read more: Egypt puts ex-football star Aboutrika back on terror list

Following the Latif incident, senior EFA official and former Egyptian international Magdy Abdelghani tweeted derogatory comments about Salah, referring to the Liverpool star as a 'pig'.  

Though Sisi would never directly involve himself in these orchestrated confrontations with Salah, he is acutely aware of threat posed to him by dissenting celebrities.

Egypt's second most popular footballer, the now retired Egyptian and also African footballing legend 
Mohamed Aboutrika, has been essentially exiled to Qatar. His assets in Egypt were frozen after he was put back on the 'terror list' and accused of financing the outlawed Muslim Brotherhood, an accusation he denies. If he sets foot in Egypt, he'll face arrest - a reality that kept him away from his father's funeral.

The message is: No one is bigger than, or safe from the regime

His crime? During the brief period of democracy following the January 25 revolution, Aboutrika publicly endorsed Morsi and supported democracy. This is why someone so loved by the public was made such an example of. The message is: No one is bigger than, or safe from the regime. 

All of this points to the grim reality of modern Egypt: Egyptians are not allowed to enjoy anything good. The EFA effectively ruined Egyptians enjoying Salah's performance at the World Cup, while this latest confrontation has occurred a week before Egypt plays it qualifying match for the Africa Cup of Nations this Saturday.

Many will say 'it's just football', but it was football fans who defended Tahrir during an assault on the revolutionaries by the security forces during January 25 - an act for which they paid the ultimate price. But more widely, Sisi's tyranny stunts, distorts and diminishes everything.

If his regime can treat an Egyptian as privileged and celebrated as Salah with such contempt, what chance do those with nothing have?   

Sam Hamad is an independent Scottish-Egyptian activist and writer.

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Opinions expressed in this article remain those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of The New Arab, its editorial board or staff.