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Aboutrika: The unlikely reunion of an exiled Egyptian icon and his former team

Al Ahly’s trip to Qatar brings dissident football star into spotlight, just weeks after Doha and Cairo restore ties
Retired footballer Mohamed Aboutrika, who lives in exile in Qatar, attends Al Ahly vs Bayern Munich in the Qatari city of Al Rayyan on 8 February (AFP/File photo)

“After four years of depriving me of visiting Al Ahly, fate brought the team to play the Club World Cup in Doha, and I will be close to them.”

Those were the words of Egyptian football icon Mohamed Aboutrika in December, reflecting on the opportunity to be near his former team once again, years after having been added to Egypt’s state terrorism list and forced into exile in Qatar. 

Aboutrika was commenting on Al Ahly’s triumph over Cairo rivals Zamalek in the African Champions League final last year, which confirmed their place at the Club World Cup in Qatar. The global tournament, which got underway on Thursday, sees the winners of all the major continental competitions facing off to decide the world’s best club team. 

'Aboutrika continues to be loved and respected inside and outside of Egypt - which is probably why they continue to view him as a threat'

- Mostafa Mohamed, sports journalist

The African champions’ campaign kicked off with a hard-fought 1-0 victory over host nation side Al Duhail.

They were eventually knocked out at the semi-final stage against European title-holders Bayern Munich on Monday, in one of the biggest matches of Al Ahly’s recent history. The Red Giants put up a valiant display, narrowing succumbing to a 2-0 defeat. 

Quietly sat amongst the Al Ahly fans during the game, taking the occasional selfie and cheering on his beloved former team after a long forced absence, was Aboutrika, who is widely considered to be the greatest player in the club's history.

He is no stranger to the competition himself, having helped the Red Giants to a historic bronze medal and finished as top scorer in the 2006 edition in Japan.

Between 2004 and 2014, the forward guided the club to a remarkable seven domestic league titles and five African Champions League triumphs, scoring over 150 goals in the process. For the Egyptian national team, Aboutrika scored 38 times in 100 appearances, helping The Pharaohs to Africa Cup of Nations glory in 2006 and 2008. He scored the winning goal in the final of the latter, cementing his status as a national icon.

He also won several individual accolades too, including beating the likes of Didier Drogba and Samuel Eto’o to be crowned the BBC’s African Footballer of the Year in 2008. The 42-year-old has often been referred to as one of the best footballers never to have played in Europe.

‘Forbidden’ from visiting team

The irony is not lost on some that a man famed for not leaving Egypt at the peak of his footballing powers can now no longer return to his home country.

After Aboutrika’s comments about “fate” bringing Al Ahly to Doha, which were made in his role as a pundit for Qatari broadcaster beIN Sports, excitement grew on Egyptian social media about a momentous reunion at the club’s training camp in Doha. Unfortunately for hopeful fans, the speculation was quickly put to bed by a statement on national television. 

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“Aboutrika will not be able to visit the Red Giants delegation due to the circumstances of the coronavirus pandemic,” Khaled Murtaja, a member of Al Ahly’s board, said in an interview with broadcaster ON TV last week. 

“We stay in a hotel like a prison. It is forbidden for anyone to enter or leave the hotel. We move from the hotel to training and there is no kind of mixing with anyone.” 

Egyptian sports and economics journalist Mostafa Mohamed was not convinced that the pandemic was the only explanation. 

“The Covid-19 restrictions and strict medical bubble system surrounding the players and officials taking part in the tournament is a convenient excuse for what could otherwise have been an awkward situation for Al Ahly,” he told Middle East Eye.

“The political situation, of which both Aboutrika and the club are very much aware, would probably not have allowed Aboutrika to meet with the team in any formal capacity during their time in Qatar.”

National hero on and off the pitch 

The political fallout between the Egyptian state and one of its biggest football stars began over a decade ago.

In the mid-2000s, during the rule of longtime former president Hosni Mubarak, Al Ahly’s hardcore fans, known as the Ultras Ahlawy, emerged as both a football supporters’ group and a growing subculture for anti-establishment and anti-government activism. 

Journalist and author James Montague, whose latest book 1312: Among the Ultras tells the story of how extreme fans around the world are transforming football and politics, has met with and profiled the Ahlawy group since its inception in 2007.

'He may not have been the loudest voice, but he always led by example and lent his support to the people'

- James Montague, journalist and author

“Before the revolution in 2011, there was no concept of mass organisation or activism; everything was crushed by Mubarak. But in the ultras, there was a ready-made youth rebellion with experience of fighting back against police and authorities,” Montague told MEE. 

The ultras of bitter rivals Al Ahly and Zamalek put aside their differences and joined forces to march in their thousands in Tahrir Square, playing a key role in the overthrow of Mubarak, whose 30-year rule came to an abrupt end in February 2011 at the height of what came to be known as the Arab Spring.

“Aboutrika was a key figure in all of that,” Montague said. “It wasn’t just Al Ahly fans, he was loved across Egypt and the Middle East. He may not have been the loudest voice, but he always led by example and lent his support to the people.” 

In 2008, Aboutrika earned the respect of many after he was reprimanded by footballing authorities during the Africa Cup of Nations for revealing a T-shirt under his jersey which said “Sympathise with Gaza”, in protest against an Israeli blockade on the region.

He later said in an interview that he would be buried in the T-shirt.

He voiced his support for the movement in Tahrir Square, endorsing Muslim Brotherhood-affiliated Mohamed Morsi, who went on to become the country’s first democratically elected president. 

‘Cancelled’ by the state 

It was in February 2012 when perhaps the most significant event in Aboutrika’s life took place. 

Following an away match against Al Masry in the coastal city of Port Said, fans of Al Ahly were violently attacked by supporters of the home team armed with clubs, stones, bottles, knives and fireworks. Several exit gates of the stadium had been locked, leaving the away fans trapped inside, with many dying in a stampede. A total of 74 people lost their lives, including one fan who died in the arms of Aboutrika in the dressing room. 

The Port Said massacre was widely blamed on security forces for allowing armed fans to enter the stadium and standing by as the violence took place. Many believe the incident to have been a deliberate act of revenge by Mubarak sympathisers against the Ahlawys for their role in the uprising. 

Aboutrika visited the families of every one of the victims, and became a symbol in their fight for justice. In a brief loan spell at Emirati club Baniyas towards the end of his career, he wore the number 72 shirt in honour of those who died.

“It’s still unclear whether there was collusion in the Port Said massacre, but there was certainly incompetence from authorities,” Montague said. “It was one of the opening shots of the end of the revolution.”

When military general Abdel Fattah el-Sisi seized power in a military coup in 2013, the Ahlawys were disbanded, and all other forms of anti-government organisation cracked down upon. It was not long before Aboutrika became a target too. 

al ahly al duhail fan sign
A fan holds up a sign honouring the Ultras Ahlawy, during Al Ahly's match with Al Duhail on 4 February (AFP)

In 2015, his assets were seized, after a tourism company he helped set up was accused of being linked to the outlawed Muslim Brotherhood - an allegation the football star denies. Two years later, he was added to the state’s terrorism list, again for alleged ties to the Brotherhood. 

“One of the things that’s very clear from Sisi’s Egypt is how thin their skin is,” Montague said. “This is a facet of every single dictatorship and every autocratic regime. Any sign of anything against their narrative, particularly from a powerful figure, is not tolerated.”

“We’ve seen it in Turkey too with Hakan Sukur,” he noted, referring to a former Turkish football star. “Like Aboutrika, he was outlawed and cancelled - which is real cancel culture - and it’s really sad to see.”

Sukur, who remains the Turkish national team’s greatest-ever goalscorer, lives in exile in the US after Ankara seized all his assets over accusations of links to Fethullah Gulen, a Turkish Islamic scholar who President Recep Tayyip Erdogan blamed for a coup attempt in 2016.

Caught in the middle between regional rivals

Aboutrika has lived in exile in Doha for several years, and has built a successful career as a household name in the beIN Sports studio, regularly analysing games from Europe’s top leagues. He has also been involved in promoting Qatar’s hosting of football's most prestigious event, the 2022 Fifa World Cup, serving as an ambassador for the Supreme Committee for Delivery and Legacy. 

The visit of Al Ahly comes at a significant time for both Doha and Cairo, just weeks since the signing of an agreement to restore diplomatic ties. Egypt, Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates and Bahrain ended their joint blockade of Qatar in January, three-and-a-half years after accusing the then-rival state of interfering in their internal affairs and promoting terrorism - charges Doha denies. 

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At such a sensitive time, a meeting between Al Ahly's players and Aboutrika could prove controversial. 

“Qatar is extremely astute politically. They know that if they make a big song and dance with Aboutrika during the Club World Cup, it could be seen as inflammatory,” Montague said. 

“Small gestures can be blown out of proportion. With the immense amount of money Qatar has spent on the World Cup and the political capital they have built, they won’t want anything getting in the way.”

Aboutrika himself would probably not want to create a fuss, journalist Mohamed points out. “He’s famous for his modesty and reserved demeanour, and he probably would not have wanted to overshadow this generation of Al Ahly players’ attempts to write their own history.”

To that end, he chose not to sit with FIFA dignitaries or in a VIP section of the Ahmed bin Ali Stadium when watching the semi final clash against Bayern Munich. Instead he sat among the thousands of Al Ahly fans, and was spotted warmly taking pictures with supporters seated near him. 

While the former footballer may not have made a song and dance about his presence, his fans did, literally. During Al Duhail and Al Ahly’s clash in the Qatari city of Al-Rayyan last week, supporters sang the famous “Ya Trika'' song in the 22nd minute, celebrating their hero who wore the number 22, to the delight of many Egyptians back home.

“This gesture will not have gone unnoticed by the Egyptian authorities, but it won’t have surprised them either,” Mohamed said. 

“Aboutrika continues to be loved and respected inside and outside of Egypt - which is probably why they continue to view him as a threat. His status as a figure of admiration remains largely unaffected among wider Egyptian society who have not forgotten the joy he brought them on the field and the respect he earned off it.”