Mohamed Aboutrika and Mohamed Salah command great respect and adoration in Egypt, the Arab world and the sporting fraternity at large. But they don’t always use that power for good.
In the pantheon of Egyptian football gods, Mohamed Aboutrika is almost untouchable. A great playmaker with gossamer skills, Aboutrika achieved hero-like status, playing a decade for Al Ahly and Egypt.
In 2006, his last-minute strike crowned the Cairo giants African champions and, two years later, his goal from the penalty spot helped Egypt defeat Cameroon in the final of the Africa Cup of Nations (Afcon).
The rise of Mohamed Salah has prompted debate over who is the best Egyptian player ever. Salah dazzles at Liverpool in England where he won the Uefa Champions League. His last-gasp penalty against the Democratic Republic of Congo in 2017 led Egypt to their first Fifa World Cup finals since 1990. His credentials are impeccable, his skills commanding and his aura second to none.
“Salah has achieved what we had never seen before,” says Tarek Talaat, managing editor and sports journalist at Kora Plus in Egypt. “We never imagined that there would be an Egyptian player that can be compared with Cristiano Ronaldo and Lionel Messi.”
The pair of Egyptian stars have a lot in common. In a public display of faith, they kneel(ed) after scoring goals. They have taken up humanitarian roles: Salah donating to charity in Nagrig, a village in the Basyoun district, his place of birth; and Aboutrika becoming a United Nations Development Program goodwill ambassador in 2012. At home and across the Arab world, they command huge audiences. On Twitter and Instagram, Salah enjoys a combined audience of 62.1 million; Aboutrika, 12.1 million. The latter is also a pundit for beIN Sports, the main sports network in the Middle East and North Africa region and a vital cog in the global football broadcast industry.
But they use those audiences differently. Salah’s tweets are textbook and anodyne. Aboutrika is often more outspoken, opinionated and controversial. In many ways, he has always been different. A philosophy graduate from Cairo University, he came out in support of the Palestinians in the Gaza Strip. At the 2008 Afcon final, he wore a T-shirt with the words: “Sympathize with Gaza.” He was also very supportive of the ultras of Al Ahly who were front and centre of the Tahrir Square uprising in the Arab Spring a decade ago, which led to the overthrow of the long-standing dictator Hosni Mubarak.
The military quickly took over from Egypt’s only democratically elected president Mohamed Morsi from the Muslim Brotherhood. Suddenly, Aboutrika found himself on the wrong side of the political debate, accused of ties to the Muslim Brotherhood. His assets were frozen, his passport revoked and his name added to the terror list. Aboutrika has always denied any wrongdoing and fought to clear his name in courts, to little avail. He fled to Qatar.
A religious man
On beIN Sports, he hasn’t held back either. He said that Norway supports Zionists in Israel, criticised Israeli judokas and appealed for a boycott of French products. His views, mostly, expressed his support for Islam.
“He is someone who has never really hidden his empathy to Islam,” explains James Dorsey, a senior fellow at the S Rajaratnam School of International Studies at Singapore’s Nanyang Technological University. “You know, that’s who he is.”
However, in October, he invited global scrutiny when attacking the LGBTQIA+ community. “Our role is to stand up to this phenomenon, homosexuality, because it’s a dangerous ideology and it’s becoming nasty, and people are not ashamed of it anymore. They (the Premier League) will tell you that homosexuality is human rights. No, it is not human rights; in fact, it’s against humanity,” Aboutrika said in the beIN Sports studios.
The coming out of Australia player Josh Cavallo and the Premier League Rainbow Laces campaign prompted Aboutrika’s rant. A torrent of support followed – from Algeria fans at the Arab Cup, to Jordan’s Mahmoud Al-Mardi, a member of the Al Thani family and Egyptian Twitter where #WeAreAllAboutrika trended. A Qatari MP wrote: “I will never allow perverted, sick groups to threaten the sound values of our conservative Muslim society.”
“Everyone is entitled to their views and Aboutrika represents a widely held view in Qatar and in the Muslim world at large,” says Dorsey. “That is not the only view. You’re seeing also more liberal expressions, but the dominant view that’s expressed is one that is hostile to LGBT.”
Aboutrika’s homophobic rant and Salah’s support of Amr Warda, reportedly one of the voices calling for his return to the national team after he was expelled for sexual harrasment, showed that these two Egyptian greats don’t always use their voices for good. Because of their power and popularity, their words are taken as gospel by many people and when they support problematic behaviour they inadvertently give their followers licence to perpetuate that.
In statements, the Premier League and beIN Sports condemned Aboutrika’s words, but no sanctions followed. The Egyptian legend is also an ambassador for the 2022 World Cup. Local organisers have always maintained that members of the LGBTQIA+ community will be welcome for the global finals but that public displays of affection should be refrained from. In Qatar, homosexuality is a criminal offence, punishable by a prison sentence. Egyptian law does not explicitly criminalise homosexuality, but Human Rights Watch has reported that Egyptian police and National Security Agency officers arbitrarily detain LGBTQIA+ people and torture them.
“It has left the Supreme Committee, the organiser of the World Cup, in a difficult position,” says Dorsey. “If they want to maintain and emphasise that they’re serious about a ‘live and let live approach’, they should drop Aboutrika as an ambassador because he clearly doesn’t represent that projection of Qatar and the World Cup. But if they were to fire him as an ambassador, there would be a backlash. They basically have to satisfy two audiences: the international audience that would take issue with his views, and [some parts of] the Muslim audience, which is much more conservative. They are caught in a catch 22.”
In that respect, Aboutrika and Salah, who both hold great social significance, satisfy different audiences as well. The former represents a world that is more conservative whereas the latter is a bridge between Islam and the Western world, even if he, in general, shies away from any comments or controversy. Aboutrika doesn’t mind. He often claims the last word, regardless of the impact or harm it might cause.