CAIRO — In the year of Mohamed Salah's rise to fame as one of the world's best soccer players, his every move and success has been well documented across the globe, no more so than in his native Egypt. Here, the cult of personality around him runs much deeper, hitting at the heart of struggles the country has faced for many years.
Salah's story is well rehearsed by his most ardent fans. The "rags to riches' tale of a humble boy growing up poor in the governorate of Gharbiya to become soccer's darling resonates with many young people with similar backgrounds across Egypt.
Such hope and belief in a better future was encapsulated by the 2011 revolution, in the protests that drew millions across the country to bring down the authoritarian regime of former President Hosni Mubarak. With a palpable sense of despair now felt across Egypt, levels of oppression under President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi are even worse than under Mubarak, and in this context, Salah is a shining beacon of perseverance, struggle and success.
There is widespread awareness of the social capital linked to his name, and Salah's face has been used to sell everything from soft drinks to a government run anti-drugs hotline. Such association with national heroes and icons, from renowned actors and actresses to revolutionary figures, has long been used to market products in Egypt. A recent Vodafone advert adapted the slogan "We are all Khaled Saeed," introduced after a young man was killed as a result of police brutality in 2010 (hailed as one of the sparks of the 2011 revolution), prompting its new advertisement: "We Are All Mohamed Salah."
The revolutions that swept the region in 2011 have been largely crushed. But the popular reverence to Salah displays something else. While economic, social and political issues were clearly among the reasons for the Arab uprisings, the demographic of the protesters themselves reveals a deeper dynamic among those calling for change. While this has often been reduced to burgeoning youth bulges, the fact that the majority of protesters were young should not be merely associated with population figures. The revolutions of 2011 were also generational. Since 2011, and far beyond the streets of Tahrir Square, both young women and men have defied their parents' conservatism to create new progressive identities, stepping outside traditional roles to pursue new careers and prospects.
Sports is inherently political.
This generational dynamic has seen the population move away from many of its old heroes, to look to new young faces making their own successes. Salah is one of the most prominent examples, but this is also evident in music, cinema and beyond. For years, Egypt's cultural scene was populated with actors, musicians and artists who rose to fame decades ago, before the majority of Egypt's present population was born. Representing the stagnation of popular culture through the Mubarak years, their faces didn't change. Since 2011, however, these faces are being replaced by younger artists, who have begun to make their way into the limelight.
For Egyptians now, Salah is the embodiment of one of the revolutionary-induced conditions: the path to a right of choice, the right to change his mind and pursue other paths. Salah has changed his mind, sought alternatives to soccer, and traveled to various clubs in his career looking for the right place to fight his way to the top. He has that right because of his talent, but also because he owned the ultimate freedom: the right to choose for himself.
Sports has always been a driving force behind what galvanizes this country. Salah may be the country's biggest star in recent history, largely owing to his international success, but he is by no means the only hero to ever emerge from soccer. Egypt's national team has long had success on a regional level, and still holds
the record for the most African Cup of Nations trophies (CAN). Before the age of Salah, Mohamed Abu Treika was the nation's favorite, leading the team to three out of their seven CAN wins. Hailed as a hero, he was revered for his loyalty to his country, despite years of comparisons to the best soccer players in the game, such as Patrick Vieira and Zinedine Zidane.
Due to its power to inspire and mobilize, not just in Egypt but across the world, sports is inherently political, and thus, so is the fame of its stars. At home, as Salah is Egypt's darling, his predecessor Abu Treika finds himself exiled and isolated from Egypt, now labeled a terrorist, after he waved the infamous four-finger salute during a local game in 2014, in solidarity with those killed in the 2013 massacre that occurred during the Rabea al-Adaweya sit-in dispersal.
Salah playing for Liverpool in 2017 — Дмитрий Голубович/GFDL
In a recent spat with Egypt's Football Association over the terms of Salah's private advertising deal and the national team's sponsorship deal (which was resolved fairly quickly), Salah took on not only a state bureaucracy that is imperfectly run at the best of times, but Egypt's security apparatus. The advertising row, instigated by a simple mistake by Egypt's intelligence services (who own Presentation Sports, the company with sponsorship rights for Egypt's national team) and the state-run mobile operator WE, saw a public backlash of immense proportion. While Salah's response to the row was initially humble — in line with the general demeanour of this very respectable young man — public outrage peaked on social media. The incident required the Egyptian Football Association and the youth and sports minister to backtrack several times, and even triggered an intervention from the president himself.
But this is not just a quarrel over a picture on a plane in contravention of a sponsorship agreement. It evolved into the state taking on the country's most widely respected public figure, and losing in spectacular fashion. During the dispute, several Armed Forces generals had the audacity to publicly declare that Salah owed the country his mandatory military service. It was effectively an overt threat to Salah to force him to back down on the row ahead of Egypt's World Cup this summer in Russia. Public reaction was visceral, and even Salah refused to remain silent over it. Unsurprisingly, the threat was withdrawn almost as soon as it was made.
Egypt's leaders have long sought to bring down successful public figures, ensuring that no one ever becomes bigger than the state. For the most part, threats, court cases and mass payouts (generally for businessmen), have worked to ensure everyone silently succumbs to the ruling regime. But Salah is an outlier, who — by virtue of his success — threatens the regime's position and strength. Not because he has political aspirations, or has even expressed any political position (he hasn't), but because his success is completely independent of the state, and so is the adulation that surrounds him.
Salah is living proof to every young Egyptian that no one in the country needs the state to survive, or succeed.
Salah is the antithesis of the message Sisi has spent five years telling the Egyptian public: that we must all work together to improve our country, that we are nothing without the state and the military, and that we are only surviving by virtue of Sisi's own good graces and compassion towards us as people. Salah has gone global on his own merit, without intervention from the state and without its support. Most Egyptians have not forgotten that he was originally rejected from one of the country's largest domestic teams, Zamalek FC, when he was still an up-and-coming soccer talent.
His success is completely independent of the state.
The prospect of being associated with Salah's renown and popular public persona is not only attractive to Egypt's ruling cadres. That Salah has seen such success at Liverpool FC, a club drawn into politics decades ago by the tragedy of the 1989 Hillsborough disaster, is no coincidence. Hillsborough became soccer's defining political battle in the United Kingdom against classism and corruption within the police. It took a total of two inquiries and two further inquests over 27 years to finally prove the police had acted unlawfully, both in their inability to prevent the disaster, which saw overcrowding crush 96 people in the stands of a soccer game, but also for their attempts to cover it up afterwards. Salah's persona, faith and background — a young Arab man named Mohamed, the image of the "good Muslim" who openly practices his faith and doesn't party like fellow soccer players, is a family man, a charitable man and a gentleman — have been produced and reproduced by many, including the British soccer industry in a post-Brexit Britain with growing tension toward immigrants.
Salah's success does, however, send an ominous message to Egypt's young population — now numbering over 60 million, with an average age of 24 — that, in order to succeed, one must leave the country. Indeed, it is a sentiment echoed regularly in the streets. Egypt itself is out of hope, and the only way to restore hope is to leave and rebuild elsewhere. Back during the time of Abu Treika's fame, his nationalistic pride was celebrated, as he rejected every opportunity offered to him throughout his career to move abroad, choosing to stay loyal to Al-Ahly FC instead, Egypt's most successful domestic team. In the age of Salah, moving away has become the pathway to success.
While this may be true for the thousands who have already left, there are millions more who simply do not have the means. Yet, despite the despair, the dream of a young boy who grew up in their own backyard to become the world's most popular soccer player has the power to feed a generation in this country for decades.
Salah's power goes beyond how fast his feet move as he dribbles past defenders and scores spectacular goals. It is the hope he brings a generation, the dreams he inspires in them, and the belief he gives them, that they too can have their own dreams.