A Dubai model has said she was subjected to threats and abuse online after accusing an Egyptian football star of allegedly sending her inappropriate messages.
Merhan Keller, 28, shared lewd comments allegedly made by Amr Warda to thousands of followers on social media. Further similar claims from another woman prompted his suspension from the country's national team. He publicly apologised and was reinstated at the insistence of teammates including star striker and Liverpool ace Mohamed Salah, who told supporters people “shouldn’t be sent straight to the guillotine”.
The 28-year-old British-Egyptian — who has never met Warda or Salah — now said she has been sent scores of highly offensive and threatening messages from social media users.
Speaking to The National on Sunday, Ms Keller angrily rejected his comments, claiming abusive language should never be condoned. She said she had reported the online threats to Dubai Police.
“I was shocked that many verified Twitter accounts had commented on the story; many were national players for Egypt,” she said.
“It was like a locker room conversation. People think I want to ruin Warda’s future, but I do not."
Ms Keller, who has more than 200,000 Instagram followers, claimed the abuse got worse when star Salah stepped in to defend Warda.
“Salah is an important person and very influential. He should have risen above this and not commented at all," she said.
The controversy over Warda’s allegedly abusive remarks began during the second week of the Africa Cup of Nations held in Cairo.
Ms Keller said she received inappropriate messages and content from Warda after she posted an Instagram photo of her boxing in a gym two weekends ago.
When she failed to respond to his online comments, the footballer, who plays for Atromitos FC in the Greek Super League, appeared to take offence.
She shared his comments with thousands of followers online.
“When I did not answer his message, I think he [Warda] got offended and started saying things like ‘do you know who I am?’ and ‘no one says no to me’.
“It was then he began using very offensive words that are not acceptable in the UAE. It was not a normal message that I was sent.”
Several days later, team officials said they were forced to respond after a Mexican woman posted a video online purporting to allegedly show Warda engaged in a sexual act.
The midfielder was dropped from the Egypt squad just hours before his side played their Group A match against the Democratic Republic of the Congo.
Soon after Warda’s alleged behaviour became public and he was dropped, Salah jumped to his defence.
He tweeted that while women must be treated “with the utmost respect”, Warda should be given the chance to atone for his mistakes. Warda was subsequently allowed back on the side.
“We need to believe in second chances, we need to guide and educate,” Salah told his 9.3 million followers on social media.
“Shunning is not the answer. Women must be treated with the utmost respect. No means no. Those things are and must remain sacred.
“I also believe that many who make mistakes can change for the better and shouldn’t be sent straight to the guillotine, which is the easiest way out.”
Ms Keller, however, who is originally from Cairo but has lived in Dubai for the past seven years, said she disagreed.
She claimed Salah’s international profile awarded him huge influence but that his celebrity also came with great responsibility.
His words, she insisted, had the potential to reach millions and that his suggestion that abusive behaviour could be forgiven was the wrong example to set.
"Like any Egyptian, I respect Mohammed Salah," she told The National. "He is a legend and inspiration. Everyone loves him but this issue has nothing to do with him.
“Saying women should be respected and no means no is all beautiful stuff, but to then say someone should not be punished that bad for a mistake is just wrong.
“I am Egyptian and I know the culture, as does Salah, so he should have known that public opinion would be on his side.
“I understand the human side of it, he [Warda] is Salah’s friend and he wants to support him, but he could have done this privately.
“Similar accusations have been made against this guy, it is not one mistake. I just need someone to tell him to stop sending women offensive videos and messages.
“I have now had thousands of hate messages and threatening posts online. The backlash has hurt me.”
Critics claim a culture of sexual harassment continues to be rife across Egypt, despite government attempts to crack down on the issue.
Ms Keller, who runs her own line of clothing and cosmetics, said the support of influential names like Salah was now helping legitimise that behaviour.
It is claimed that Warda has faced similar accusations in the past. In 2017, he was accused of harassing the wives of two teammates while on a short-lived loan to the Portuguese team CD Feirense.
He was also sent home from a tournament in Tunisia in 2013 when playing for Egypt's under-23 side, again allegedly over off-the-pitch misconduct.
Salah, meanwhile, has become a hugely respected figure in Egypt, and is one of the most recognised footballers in the world.
The 27-year-old was voted the 2018 African player of the year and the third best player on the planet by Fifa. His messages of support for Warda have been re-tweeted more than 35,000 times.
Ms Keller told The National that she had reported her alleged abuse to Dubai Police and that they had launched an investigation.
Officers are understood to have briefly taken possession of her phone to examine the contents, before returning it to her the following day.
“People think I am doing this to improve my online followers — that is nonsense,” said Ms Keller.
“Women get abused crossing the street in Egypt. You cannot justify this kind of behaviour.
“[This response from Salah] is telling women not to speak up if they experience this kind of behaviour as they will get scandalised.
“Now I cannot even go back home to visit my family.”