Is Egypt beginning to fall out of love with Mohamed Salah?

Egyptians want Liverpool striker Salah to 'agree with them on everything', so it's no wonder he has fallen from grace

A Vender displays masks with pictures of Egyptian national soccer team player and Liverpool striker Mohammed Salah ahead of the opening match between Egypt and Zimbabwe of the African Cup of Nations in Cairo, Egypt, Friday, June 21, 2019.(AP Photo/Amr Nabil)
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As is the case with most heroes, real or fictional, a time was bound to come for Mohamed Salah to show his character flaws.

For years he was a source of intense joy and pride to millions of fans, who thought their hero could do or say no wrong, but Salah has over the past two weeks made a habit of getting things wrong.

The result has been swift and uncompromising in his native Egypt, where he has been mercilessly lambasted on social media, one of the country's handful of free speech forums.

The criticism is chiefly in response to a series of English-language tweets posted by Salah in defence of teammate Amr Warda, who was last week thrown out of the Egyptian national squad over sexual harassment allegations.

Warda, who plays for a club in Greece, has a history of sexual harassment allegations, including a serious incident dating back to 2013 when he allegedly stormed the hotel room of a French woman in Tunisia. Still, Salah demanded that the player be given a second chance and Warda was later reinstated after Salah led something akin to a players' revolt.

"’No’ means ‘no,’” Salah tweeted after the allegations surfaced, saying that women should be treated with respect, but adding that those who make mistakes can change and should not be “sent straight to the guillotine”.

Despite a harsh backlash, Salah’s arrival at the Cairo International Stadium on Wednesday for Egypt’s final Group A match in the African Cup of Nations against Uganda was greeted with applause from fans. But Salah made it known that he was not pleased with the criticism he has received, flashing the crowd a stern look as they cheered his goal rather than celebrating.

Why is he punishing the fans? Your stardom is due in large part to them

Prominent TV personality Karim Ramzy, an acquaintance of Salah's, said his decision not to celebrate was "very wrong".

"That cannot be his reaction, regardless of the criticism he has been subjected to," said Mr Ramzy.

"[Salah’s] support of Warda was a milestone in his relationship with his fans, who had in the past been happy to tolerate anything he does or says. But to support someone known to be a sexual harasser?” said Sabry Sirag, a prominent Egyptian football writer.

“Why is he punishing the fans? Your stardom is due in large part to them.”

Salah's behaviour has not just angered people in Egypt, however, where the sexual harassment of women is rampant and often goes unpunished, despite government efforts to combat it and toughen penalties for offenders. The Warda saga is just the latest in a series of missteps that have betrayed both a lack of judgment and a hint of arrogance. It has attracted global media attention, and none of it has been flattering.

Last month, Salah angrily tweeted that a lack of "professionalism" from photo journalists gathered outside his family's home north of Cairo prevented him from going to the mosque to pray during Eid Al Fitr. His wife and daughter ended up going alone with other family members. Some in Egypt thought he could have handled his reaction to the interest in him better.

In March, he bragged during a news conference in Liverpool that no Arab or African footballer has ever attained the level of status he has, and criticised the work ethic of fellow Egyptians.

Last year, Salah caused offence when he enthusiastically joined the Russian-backed leader of Chechnya, Ramzan Kadyrov, in waving to crowds while holding his hand during a World Cup practice session in Grozny. Mr Kadyrov is a former member of a rebel group who stands accused of gross human rights violations, including extrajudicial killings and torture, according to rights groups.

Salah was vilified by the United Kingdom’s media over the incident, and things did not get any easier when Mr Kadyrov later bestowed honorary Chechen citizenship on him. But he survived the onslaught after it became clear he was not aware of the leader's past and that team officials, according to numerous media reports, had pressured him to meet Mr Kadyrov to avoid a diplomatic crisis.

Egyptians are not used to seeing one of their own attain the kind of global stardom that Salah has enjoyed since joining Liverpool FC in the summer of 2017. Since then, he has been part of a Champions League-winning squad and has been the Premier League's top scorer for both his seasons there. He has also twice been voted African player of the year.

Significantly, a team of Stanford University researchers found that there has been a reduction in Muslim hate crimes in Liverpool since his arrival at the club, and fewer Islamophobic tweets from fans. It has been claimed that Salah was possibly the most popular Muslim athlete since the late heavyweight boxer Mohamed Ali.

In Egypt, where many expect perfection from their heroes, stardom may have been an added burden on Salah.

"We Egyptians are sentimental. Salah to us is no longer just a player — he has taken on so many other roles that prevent him from meeting all the expectations put on him," said Mr Sirag.

"His success is both extraordinary and rare for us Egyptians, but we want him to follow our manual … we want him to agree with us on everything and not have an opinion of his own."