Africa Economy Featured General 

Mo Salah brings hope and pride back to weary Egyptians

Mohamed Salah’s beaming face adorns huge advertising billboards across Egyptian cities. Merchants seeking to tap into his soaring popularity are selling bed linen and lanterns, traditionally given to children during the holy month of Ramadan, emblazoned with his image. In a popular café in downtown Cairo, a huge mural of Mr Salah has added a youthful look to a painted pantheon of past Egyptian greats, including Nobel laureates and Umm Kulthum, the renowned diva. After years of political turbulence, polarisation and economic hardship in the Arab world’s most populous nation, Egyptians have finally found something that unites them in celebration: the 25-year-old who is taking the football world by storm.  “He is a legend and he carries Egypt’s name,” said Hany Fathy, who works in the café with the Salah portrait. “The mural is very popular with youths coming here to get their picture taken with it. Even tourists from Arab countries come here to be photographed.” As he has scored more than 40 goals this season, helping Liverpool rise up the English Premier League and leading the club’s charge into the semi-finals of the European Champions League, Mr Salah has become a source of hope and relief from daily struggles.  The rag-to-riches tale of the village boy who was raised in the impoverished Nile Delta and left classes early to travel miles to training, has inspired a generation who grew up during one of the most tumultuous periods of the Egypt’s modern history.  “He is doing things that any young man would love to do,” said Mohamed Sabry, a university student. “He went abroad and his dream came true. He means there is hope that anyone, in any field, can achieve his ambitions.” The footballer’s appeal in Egypt is such that a television advert he starred in for a government anti-drugs campaign led to a quadrupling of calls to the hotline helping addicts, according to officials.  Mo Salah’s happy, humble demeanour has endeared him to his fans – in Egypt and everywhere else © AFP Describing her joy at the international adulation Mr Salah has been drawing, one female fan posted on Facebook that it was “almost like the feeling of the revolution”.  She was referring to the 2011 uprising that toppled dictator Hosni Mubarak and was for many Egyptians the last time they felt united, empowered and enjoyed global admiration. Since then, the country’s democratic experiment has foundered after the army intervened in 2013 to overthrow an elected, but divisive Islamist leader in a popularly backed coup. What was viewed in 2011 as a moment of hope for Egyptian youths, who spearheaded the uprising, has fizzled out. President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi’s government has imposed harsh restrictions on political activity and some young secular leaders have been jailed. Against this backdrop, Mr Salah’s success has embodied a revived national pride, not just because of his prowess on the pitch, but also because of his happy, humble demeanour — and the fact that he got there by himself with no help from powerful connections.  Fans are enchanted by his modesty, his refusal to gloat over the goals he scored this week against his former club Roma, the Italian side, and the extensive charity work he quietly funds in Nagrig, his home village. “He is a phenomenon and a role model for youths,” said Hossam Hussein, 26, an antiquities restorer. “He is also respectable and religious and he gives a good image for Muslims in the west.” Many also like the way Mr Salah flaunts his Muslim faith, kneeling in prayers at games and after he has scored.  “He is starting to reverse the Islamophobia of the west,’” said Ahmed Osama, Mr Hussein’s colleague. “He even wears a beard.” Traditional Ramadan lanterns depicting Mo Salah are sold in Cairo’s markets But although he celebrated Mr Salah’s feats and qualities, Mr Osama, a graduate who has struggled to find regular work, said the footballer’s example means “anyone in any field has to leave the country in order to succeed”. Others echo this idea, noting that Mr Salah was rejected by Zamalek, a top Egyptian club, at the start of his career. “His success has a positive and a negative impact on the young,” said Abdel Rahman Sakran, an engineering student. “He is an example because he is decent and a fighter who started from zero, but if he had stayed in Egypt he would not have been more fortunate than others before him.” Egyptians are now praying that their hero stays free of injury before he joins the country’s national squad to play in the World Cup in Russia in July. He was the star of the team that saw Egypt qualify for the tournament for the first time in almost three decades. “Honestly, we are setting a lot of hope in him in Russia,” said Inas Mazhar, a sports writer on Al-Ahram Weekly. “The other players on the team know he is not selfish while playing which is why they appreciate him and respect him. They also owe him a lot.”

 

This Article first Appeared on Financial Times Limited

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