Pharaohs football team reignite debate about sexual harassment in Egypt

This combination of file photos shows Egypt's midfielder Amr Warda (L) and Egypt's forward Mohamed Salah (R) in 2018

When Egypt takes to the pitch tonight in its third match of the Africa Cup of Nations, football will not be the only thing fans are talking about.


The Egyptian national football team became the proxy for a national conversation on sexual harassment after a player was expelled from the squad for sending inappropriate messages, then reinstated when his teammates -- including fan favorite Mohammed Salah -- rallied behind him.

Midfielder Amr Warda, who plays for Greek club Atromitos, was benched from the squad on June 24 after Merhan Keller, a British-Egyptian model, posted screenshots of aggressive and lewd messages and videos he purportedly sent her on Instagram and WhatsApp, as well as shots of messages he had sent to other women. Still more women shared their own alleged messages from Warda.

The Federation’s swift punitive action was surprising in a country where sexual harassment of women is endemic and often not taken seriously.

It was also shortlived.

Much of public opinion rallied around Warda, as did his teammates, most notably Liverpool star Mohamed Salah and Egyptian team captain and Aston Villa player Ahmed Elmohamady. Warda posted an 18-second video to his Facebook page in which he apologised to his family, his teammates and his coaches -- but not, notably, to his accusers. Still, it seems to have done the job. On June 26, Egyptian football federation chief Hani Abu Reda reversed his decision.


While some fans were happy to see Warda restored to the team for an offence that is considered minor in Egypt, not everyone was in favour of the move. The “team of harassers” hashtag in Arabic was the most shared on Twitter in Egypt on Friday.

Salah tweeted that Warda should be given a “second chance,” a sentiment that is echoed by many men and women in Egypt but which ignores Warda’s history. In 2017, Portuguese football club CD Feriense sent Warda packing only three days into his contract over claims that he had sexually harassed the wives of two other players. He was transferred to his current Greek club, Atromitos.

The controversy has sparked a very public debate on sexual harassment in Egypt, a country that is known for being a place where very few women have escaped being subject to unwanted verbal, digital or physical advances. And it has shined a light on deeply held retrograde attitudes about gender in Egypt.

“The understanding in an Egyptian sexist culture is that a man is free to do what he wants,” said Amro Hassan Elserty, an Egyptian journalist based in Europe. The general reaction to Warda reveals “a lack of understanding among the majority of Egyptians about the issue of harassment itself. People are saying if it’s not physical, it’s not harassment.”

Discussions are also veering toward the usual practice of blaming the victim, which many of Warda’s supporters are doing. The women whom Warda allegedly harassed are being criticised for being too friendly, for not blocking him, for being flirtatious. “That’s always the problem and that’s always the issue, that people try to blame the female,” Elserty said.

A national discussion

If there is a silver lining to the saga it is that sexual harassment, long swept under the rug, is being discussed on a scale that cannot be ignored. “We’re talking about a very high-profile case,” Elserty said. “In Egypt, football is the king.”

Part of the debate is centered around what constitutes harassment, and some people are recognising that it isn’t limited to groping. Egyptian community development worker May Seoud said she has had several conversations recently with people who started out thinking that what Warda had done was not a serious offence, and then coming around to see his actions as harassment. The incident is “shedding light on these things,” she said.

“It’s heartening to see how many Eygptians are recognising that this is harassment, this is unacceptable and are calling for harsher consequences,” echoed Timothy Kaldas, non-resident fellow at the Tahrir Institute for Middle East Policy.

Those consequences may still be coming. Reuters reported that a complaint against Warda was filed with the Egypt’s Attorney General; the crime of verbal sexual harassment is punishable by a minimum of six months in jail and a minimum fine of 3,000 Egyptian Pounds, or nearly €160.

Fallen idol

Though Warda is accused of the crime, it is Salah who may be paying the biggest price. Often called “the pride of Egypt,” one Facebook user dubbed him “the pride of harassers” this week. His fall from grace is largely of his own making.

Salah built his likeability not only on his impressive skill as a footballer but in large part on his seemingly progressive views on women. “I think we need to change the way we treat women in our culture,” he said in April when gracing the cover of Time’s 100 Most Influential People issue. “It’s not optional.”

It doesn’t seem to be unconditional either, based on his pronouncements this week. When calling for a second chance for Warda, Salah opined that “many who make mistakes can change for the better and shouldn’t be sent to the guillotine.”

The statement opened the floodgates to expressions of anger and dismay from many who had previously considered themselves his fans. “Salah is one of the most famous footballers on earth. He has made this a symbol of his public persona,” said Kaldas. “And then to say that getting benched is to be guillotined is just so hyperbolic that it undermines any credible demand for proportionality. There’s nothing proportional about that statement.”

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