Waiting for Egypt's Next Step in 'Smiling Killer' Soccer Star Saga

Government threatens to freeze assets of folk hero Mohamed Aboutrika, charged with membership in the outlawed Muslim Brotherhood.

A photo of Dr. Zvi Bar'el.
Zvi Bar'el
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Aboutrika. Hundreds of thousands of fans support the former star. Credit: Reuters
A photo of Dr. Zvi Bar'el.
Zvi Bar'el

Maybe the Egyptian government went too far when it launched a campaign against the retired soccer star known as “the smiling killer.” There is not a soul in Egypt who hasn’t heard of Mohamed Aboutrika, and that would even include Egyptians who happened to just have arrived from Mars.

Also dubbed "the magician” by his fans, Aboutrika was named best player in Africa twice. Tens of thousands of children wear his soccer jersey sporting the number 22. The number was also engraved on one of the doors of the Great Mosque in Mecca when he made the haj to the holy Saudi city.

Aboutrika is a national hero who has contributed a lot of money to charitable causes. He has funded the expenses of the haj for families of victims – including policemen and soldiers – of the January 2011 revolution that overthrew President Hosni Mubarak. He is also seen as a stickler when it comes to sports ethics. But he doesn’t hold his tongue when he sees something that he considers an injustice.

For example, the soccer star refused to shake the hand of Supreme Military Council head Gen. Mohamed Hussein Tantawi after the revolution, when the leader met with players from Aboutrika’s Al Ahly team. In 2012, the player also refused to meet with the Egyptian sports minister because he viewed the government’s security forces as an taking part in a massacre of about 70 people in a soccer riot in Port Said.

At one game, Aboutrika took off his jersey to reveal a T-shirt with a slogan showing his solidarity with the Gaza Strip, and after one controversy over caricatures of the prophet Mohammed, he donned a shirt with the slogan “We sacrifice our lives for you, Mohammed.”

Aboutrika doesn’t hide his devotion to religion, but has strongly denied membership in the Muslim Brotherhood – the Islamic movement identified with the regime of Mohammed Morsi, which was overthrown by the current government – despite the fact that about two years ago, one of the heads of the movement claimed Aboutrika was a registered member. It’s this same "folk hero" whom the government is now seeking to break.

Morsi was deposed by Gen. Abdel Fattah al-Sissi, who has been president since the elections a year later. In 2013, Aboutrika hang up his jersey and went into business. Since then, the current government has begun persecuting the Muslim Brotherhood – it has been outlawed and is considered a terror organization – with thousands of the organization’s followers being arrested and hundreds receiving the death penalty that was later commuted to life in prison.

The height of the offensive up to this point came last weekend, when an Egyptian court sentenced deposed President Morsi to death, a ruling that now awaits confirmation from the grand mufti, the country's top religious leader.

The drive against the Brotherhood includes confiscation of property of the movement and its senior members, the freezing of bank accounts, and investigation of the organization’s funding sources. All of this is being carried out by a government agency set up specifically for the purpose, and Aboutrika has also been caught up in its web.

In April, this body informed the soccer player of its intention to confiscate the tourism company that he owns, and to freeze his bank accounts and investigate his other assets. Aboutrika filed an appeal against these moves but last week, the agency announced that it had been denied and that the decisions related to his property were final.

Specifically, the government agency claims that Ashab Tours, which is owned by Aboutrika and a partner, has served as a vehicle for funding the Muslim Brotherhood. One of the soccer star’s former partners, Anas Mohamed al-Kadi, was arrested on suspicion of financing and carrying out terrorist acts.

Aboutrika acts as if he has not been able to really understand what hit him. He claimed that not only was he not a member of the Brotherhood, but says Al-Kadi hasn’t been his business partner for three years, and did not support terrorist activity. His argument, however, has fallen on deaf ears at the agency.

The news of what happened to Aboutrika spread like wildfire and spawned a protest movement on the social media. Hundreds of thousands of fans expressed their support for him and claimed that the government was trying to settle scores with the star, due to his actions during and after the revolution and not really over suspicion of his support for the Muslim Brotherhood.

“Aboutrika – a red line” and “Aboutrika is not a criminal” are two of dozens of Twitter accounts open in his support over the past week. They have attracted thousands of followers.

Supporters of the current government were quick to respond with their own Twitter accounts and Facebook pages, recounting Aboutrika’s support for the Muslim Brotherhood, his disregard for the current Sissi government and the star’s personal religious inclinations. Over the past week, an Egyptian appeals court has added fuel to the fire by declaring Al Ahly’s UItras fan club an outlawed terrorist organization.

The Ultras, comprised of the team’s most extreme fans, has been a source of suspicion in the eyes of the authorities over the its members' possible political involvements. In the past, such groups actually served the government’s interests, enlisting members to attend pro-government demonstrations. In the 2011 revolution, however, they fought the security forces and now are seen as a source of Muslim Brotherhood’s support.

We now have to wait for the government’s next step in the campaign against Aboutrika. Seeking to shatter the image of a folk hero is not a simple task and could actually backfire on the Sissi government in the next parliamentary elections.

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