By James M. Dorsey
Few are able to bridge Egypt’s deeply polarizing divide between supporters and opponents of the Muslim Brotherhood following the 2013 military coup that toppled President Mohammed Morsi. Mohammed Aboutreika, Egypt’s most celebrated and storied soccer player, is proving to be either the exception that proves the rule or an indication of shifting attitudes amid an uproar after authorities froze his company assets on suspicion of funding the Brotherhood.
Breaking the mould was always part of Mr. Aboutreika’s trademark. He was revered for having been declared African footballer of the year four times and having been instrumental in securing storied Cairo club Al Ahli SC’s multiple African and Egyptian titles as well as many of the Egyptian national team’s trophies despite controversy over his refusal to hide his Islamist and pro-Palestinian inclinations and support for Ultras Ahlawy, the militant, highly politicized Al Ahli support group that played a key role in the 2011 popular uprising and subsequent anti-government protests.
The outpouring of support following the freezing of the assets of a travel agency that he owns demonstrates not only Mr. Aboutreika’s continued popularity since his retirement in 2013 but also his ability to rise above Egypt’s deep-seated fault lines. Among those who spoke out in favour of Mr. Aboutreika were many of his fellow players, a group that has historically been careful to remain on the political side lines and was glaringly absent during the popular revolt that toppled President Mohammed Mubarak in 2011 and the mass protests that led to the overthrow of Mr. Morsi in 2013.
Soccer players, who were feted by autocratic leaders and managers appointed by their regimes, long seemed the epitome of American-Palestinian scholar Hisham Sharabi’s notion of neo-patriarchism, which he developed in a controversial 1992 book that is still banned in many Arab countries.
Mr. Sharabi argued that Arab society was built on the dominance of the Father (patriarch around which the national as well as the nuclear family were organized. Between ruler and ruled, between father and child, there existed only vertical relations: in both settings the paternal will was absolute, mediated in both the society and the family by a forced consensus based on ritual and coercion.
In other words, according to Mr. Sharabi, Arab regimes franchised repression so that in a culturally patrimonial society, the oppressed participated in their repression and denial of rights. The regime’s leader was in effect the father of all fathers at the top of the pyramid.
The identification of the deposed leaders of Egypt, Yemen and Libya – Hosni Mubarak, Abdullah Ali Saleh and Moammar Qaddafi – as well as Iranian president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and some of those that have succeeded them with their country’s national soccer teams turned their successes and failures into barometers of how their regimes were faring.
They also turned celebrated soccer players and managers into regime supporters who saw the autocrat as their father figure. Egyptian players, Mr. Aboutreika who endorsed Mr. Morsi’s presidential candidacy and Al Ahli striker Ahmed Abdel Zaher excluded, were no exception. Mr. Abdel Zaher was sanctioned in November 2013 after he showed the four-finger sign raised by opponents of the coup in memory of the hundreds who were killed three months earlier when security forces broke up a Brotherhood sit-in on Cairo’s Rabaa Al-Adawiya Square.
Response to the freezing of the assets in Asshab Tours by the committee tasked with confiscating property of the Brotherhood that has been designated as a terrorist organization and the arrest of the company’s director on suspicion of having funded violent attacks broke the Sharabi mould. The freezing galvanized the soccer community in a country in which football is a national craze.
Asshab Tours was one of eight travel companies targeted by the committee. Pro-government media asserted that Mr. Aboutreika had established Asshab Tours in 2013 with the explicit purpose of funding the Brotherhood. The freezing followed repeated attacks on Mr. Aboutreika by pro-government sports journalists that focused on his alleged links to the Brotherhood.
Mr. Aboutreika set off the uproar on social media by tweeting that “money comes to our hands, not our hearts. You can seize whatever funds you want, but I will never leave Egypt.” Amid a multitude of pro-Aboutreika hashtags, Egyptian blogger Zeinobia noted that pro-government tweeters had countered with a hashtag identifying Aboutreika as a Brotherhood sheep.
In response to the attacks, former Ahli player Sayed Muawad wrote on Twitter: “I love you for the sake of Allah.” Egyptian national team director Ahmed Hassan added that “apart from personal, political loyalty, I will continue to bear witness that this person upholds the highest moral standards until the end of my life” and Wadi Degla player Ahmed al-Mirghani warned that “freezing Treika’s funds is catastrophic.”
Al Zamalek Omar Gaber midfielder declared, „I’m so proud to have played with a legend such as yourself“ in the Egyptian national squad. National team and Al Ahli goalkeeper Sherif Ekramy chimed in saying that „no one can doubt his national loyalty as well as his humane treatment of others. His money and sources of his income are an open book for all. Your place in Egyptian hearts is enough.“
Mr. Aboutreika’s popularity is as much a result of his soccer feats, including last-minute goals, as of his willingness to speak out on issues that stirred national emotions such as the publication in Europe of cartoons depicting the Prophet Mohammed that many in the Muslim world deemed disrespectful and blasphemy or the Israeli-Egyptian blockade of the Gaza Strip.
“We sacrifice our lives for you, Muhammad,” read Mr. Aboutreika’s T-shirt which he bared on the pitch after taking off his jersey off during the cartoon crisis. “Sympathize with Gaza,” was Mr. Aboutreika’s message when he did the same in support of the Palestinians.
Mr. Aboutreika was outspoken in his support for Ultras Ahlawy after 74 of its members were killed in 2012 in a politically-loaded soccer brawl in Port Said in which many believe that the military and security forces acquiesced in a bid to teach militant soccer fans a lesson.
Mr. Aboutreika refused at the time to shake the hand of Field Marshal Mohamed Hussein Tantawi, the then head of the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF) that governed the country during the transition from Mr. Mubarak to Mr. Morsi’s election. “I was unhappy with the country’s situation,” Mr. Aboutreika said.
James M. Dorsey is a senior fellow at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies as Nanyang Technological University in Singapore, co-director of the Institute of Fan Culture of the University of Würzburg and the author of the blog, The Turbulent World of Middle East Soccer, and a forthcoming book with the same title.