Abdel Fatah el Sisi's fragile authoritarian rule does not have space for popular acclamations. In Sisi's world, Egyptians' enthusiasm for Mohamed Salah is masked resentment towards the governing elite.

It seems the Egyptian Football Association are 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 made 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. 

It’s perfectly true that when it comes to national football no player deserves special treatment based on the level of their worldwide fame. However, most national football associations seek to compromise with players who have become famous and have various different sponsorship and image rights deals when it comes to using their image. 

This is a problem faced by many football associations around the world and there is rarely a problem – the football associations don’t want to upset their best footballing talent, while the players have a true desire to play for their country.  When these issues arise, most normal countries would open up discussions with the player in question – nothing even as formal as ‘negotiations’. 

But not in Sisi’s Egypt.

Egypt is not a normal country run by reasonable and rational people. It is a praetorian kleptocracy run by a would-be Pharaoh and a wider gang of henchmen who do his bidding – and these loyalist henchmen run the EFA. 

There can only be one king

Salah is a phenomenon far beyond anything Egypt has ever seen before.  At no point in Egyptian history, has a player emerged that has become a worldwide phenomenon in the manner of Mohamed Salah. Though Egyptians love Salah in their own unique ways, the world seemingly loves him too – he’s not just an Egyptian, Muslim and African icon, but a general idol to millions of people from all backgrounds around the world.

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 meaning to people who are often forgotten not just by the world, but by their own country. 

There’s an old humorous Egyptian saying—one that touches upon a form of populist messianism that pervades Egyptian society—that “Egypt has millions of messiahs and at least as many charlatans.” 

But not Salah, he is 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 ever more serves as Putin’s link to other despots in the Islamic world. 

While most teams should’ve been focusing 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 consequent 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’. 

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 will know very 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.  

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’. 

Egypt's new reality 

Though Sisi would never directly involve himself in these orchestrated confrontations with Salah, he is acutely aware of the threat posed to him by dissenting celebrities. Egypt’s second most popular footballer, the now retired not just Egyptian but also African footballing legend Mohamed Aboutrika, has been essentially exiled to Qatar, with his assets in Egypt frozen after he was placed on the ‘terror list’ and accused of financing the outlawed Muslim Brotherhood. If he sets foot in Egypt, he’ll face arrest – a reality that kept him away from his father’s funeral.

His crime? During the brief period of democracy following the January 25 revolution, Aboutrika 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. 

But all of this points to the grim reality of modern Egypt – Egyptians are rarely allowed to enjoy anything good. The EFA ruined Egyptians witnessing the full spectacle of Salah at the World Cup, while this latest confrontation occurred a week before Egypt began its qualification for the Africa Cup of Nations.

Many will say ‘it’s just football’, but it was football fans that defended Tahrir during an assault on the revolutionaries within it 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 Sisi’s regime can treat an Egyptian as privileged as Salah with such contempt, what chance do those with nothing have?  

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