Mohamed Salah is currently in Russia, hoping to lead Egypt on Tuesday in its second game of the World Cup. But back in his native country, he is everywhere, a reflection of his status as one of the top players in all of soccer.
Photographs by Sima Diab
Text by Rory Smith
If anything, the mural has worked too well. A few months ago, a giant image of a beaming Mohamed Salah appeared on a wall outside a Cairo street café, nestled alongside pictures of some of Egypt’s greatest cultural figures, including the singer Umm Kulthum and the novelist Naguib Mahfouz.
Soon, the spot became a place of pilgrimage: for Egyptians wanting to honor Salah, the forward whose nerveless injury-time penalty secured the country a place at the World Cup for the first time in 28 years; and for tourists bewitched by his extraordinary form for Liverpool, his English club team.
“It’s become very popular,” said Hani Fathy, the café’s manager. “Everyone takes pictures of it: foreigners, Egyptians. He is a symbol of Egypt, all of it.” In fact, it has become such a destination that — despite the boost to business it provided — Fathy has had to start turning people away.
“So many people come to see it that I tell people Salah is asleep to rest,” Fathy said.
While he has yet to take the field for a match in Russia, a fact that may change when Egypt faces the hosts on Tuesday, Salah is everywhere in Cairo. It is impossible to escape his name, and his image: he appears on everything from bed linens to traditional Ramadan lanterns, from advertising boards for major multinational companies to homemade placards on street stalls.
His jersey has become a must-have accessory: whether it is Liverpool, the team he helped to the Champions League final in May, or Egypt, the country whose hopes in Russia now rest on his injured shoulder.
“People want either the national team shirt or the Liverpool shirt,” said Mohamed Anwar, who runs a kiosk in central Cairo. It does not matter which, he said. “As long as it has his name on it.”
There are other measures of his impact, though: the number of people who throng into Cairo’s cafes to watch his games, or the noise that emerges from them when he scores.
“Liverpool is the number one foreign team in Egypt now,” said Moustafa El Chiati, one of the founders of the Egyptian soccer website KingFut. “Coffee shops show any Liverpool match — you can tell when one is on because Cairo seems quieter than usual, or when you hear the people screaming if he scores.
“Some coffee shops have had to introduce a minimum charge for a seat during Liverpool games. These days, Liverpool takes precedence even over the Cairo derby, Al Ahly and Zamalek. It’s more important, and more people watch.”
If anything, the devotion is even greater in Nagrig, the dusty town in the Nile Delta where Salah, 26, grew up. His connection to his hometown — something that Egyptians particularly cherish, El Chiati said — has seen him spend a considerable proportion of his salary there, building soccer fields and medical facilities. Here, too, Salah’s name is emblazoned on the back of every jersey, and his image is everywhere.
“He is the pride of all Egyptians, Arabs and Muslims,” Anwar says inside his stall back in Cairo. “He does not only represent his generation, but the generations to come.”
Movies and textbooks (and our imaginations) tend to depict world destinations like Stonehenge in a certain light, but the reality is often quite different.
You’re probably familiar with those sweeping, romantic shots of the pyramids of Giza. In photos, movies and textbooks, there’s sand as far as the eye can see — and maybe a figure in the distance obscured by haze. It must surely take a train or a bus to get there. At least a camel ride.
Well, for those who have never visited the Pharaonic structures or thought about what may surround them, this might come as a surprise: The pyramids are flanked on three sides by the roads and neighborhoods of Giza, a major city with a population in the millions.
The same goes for the Great Sphinx. A mere quarter-mile or so away sits a Pizza Hut with expansive views of the historic site.
The road that brings you to the pyramids, Al Haram Street, has long been known for cabarets and other forms of risqué Cairene night life.
The images most people are familiar with are shot from a specific angle and include an expanse of sand to the south. The pyramids can look remote because they sit on a limestone plateau and are on a higher elevation than their surroundings. But if you look closely, you’ll probably see city lights in the background of many pictures.
So it’s your first time in Paris. Like many tourists, you’ll probably drop off your luggage and make a beeline for the Mona Lisa, Leonardo da Vinci’s early 16th century masterpiece. The downside of its status as the world’s most famous painting is that it’s protected as such.
Behind that rope, six million visitors crowd the painting each year. Even if you get as close as is allowed, and you manage to catch a glimpse through the gap between two iPhones, you’ll probably still have to contend with a barrage of camera flashes.
But don’t give up on the Louvre. It’s over 650,000 square feet and has a lot of important artwork that can be enjoyed in peace, like the sculptures Venus de Milo and Nike of Samothrace.
This medieval architectural structure in Pisa, Italy, also suffers from technology pollution. That obligatory “I’m holding it up” photo is hard to resist — the building now leans at about four degrees (it used to lean more). And these days, with smartphones in hand, no photos are “one and done.”
Still, if you are in the Tuscany region, it’s only about a mile from the Pisa Centrale train station, so if you’re up to hop off and hop on, the complex is certainly worth a visit. You can even climb the tower’s 300 or so steps, but you’ll have to buy a ticket.
About a million people visit the site, in southern England, every year. But the trip could eat up your day if you’re staying in London; it’s about a two-hour drive each way.
As a commenter on Reddit put it: “I always say to people that if they want to see Stonehenge they should just drive down the M3 and take a look out of the window as they go past. That’s all you need.”
If getting close to the stones tops your bucket list, you can book a special-access visit, which lets about 30 people a day go beyond the barriers. Demand is high, though, so tickets sell out months in advance, and they’re not available year-round.
Much like the Leaning Tower of Pisa, the Alamo in San Antonio, Tex., is not as big as you might assume. The primary structure of the 300-year-old mission-era church is only 75 feet by 62 feet, and its limestone walls have been steadily crumbling for years; air-conditioning may be to blame.
No photos are allowed inside, which might be a good thing, depending on your preference. Lines to enter can be long and parking can be tough, but it is free. Plans to significantly redevelop the area are in the works, including more green space for visitors, though these plans have been complicated.
And on the flip side, a destination that may exceed your expectations:
The architect AntoniGaudí’s signature church in Barcelona, Spain, is not as celebrated globally as Notre-Dame in Paris or Westminster Abbey in London, but its sheer size and unique details are awe-inspiring and may leave you weak in the knees. If you pay for an elevator ride to the top of the Nativity or Passion towers, the walk down involves long, narrow spiral staircases that are an unexpected thrill. Both towers offer dramatic views of Barcelona.
Another bonus: It’s located in the heart of Barcelona. You could easily visit the Sagrada Família in the morning, dip your toes in the Mediterranean Sea in the afternoon and end the day eating tapas and exploring the city’s famously late night life.
Tensions spiked in the early stages of the election when two former generals stepped forward to challenge him. He quickly dispatched their bids — one man is in jail while the second, after a month in detention, disavowed his ambitions.
Few analysts gave either candidate much chance of beating Mr. Sisi, who retains broad support for his tough policies against Islamist militancy. But his unsparing reaction to their bids stoked speculation that they enjoyed support from a corner of the security establishment, a smidgen of dissent that Mr. Sisi found intolerable.
The security apparatus, which removed Mr. Sisi’s predecessor in 2013, poses the only real challenge to his power, said Robert Springborg, an Egypt scholar at King’s College. “The election puts that into relief,” he said. “It provides the shadows on the wall of the struggle that’s going on underneath.”
Pharaoh or Mamluk?
Egypt’s modern leaders are often likened to pharaohs — all-powerful leaders of a disciplined state. Mr. Sisi has encouraged that image, whether standing imperiously at the prow of a boat plowing through the Suez Canal, or posing against the backdrop of the pyramids.
But a more apt historical analogy, some say, lies with the Mamluks, a fractious military caste that ruled Egypt in the Middle Ages. For almost three centuries, Mamluk sultans ruled from Cairo’s citadel, but their supremacy rested on a cabal of restless subordinates who jockeyed for supremacy.
Under Mr. Sisi, a tight circle of generals and security chiefs wield vast economic and political power, overseeing secretive business and media empires while cracking down on any hint of opposition. Deciphering the inner workings of this circle is notoriously difficult, and the subject of a sort of Kremlinology among Western officials. But this year’s election seemed to crack open the lid on hidden strains.
That the two retired generals would run for office was no surprise. Ahmed Shafik, a former air force commander who served briefly as prime minister in 2011, ran for president in 2012. Sami Anan, who led Egypt’s army from 2005 to 2012, backed out of the 2014 presidential election after he was attacked in pro-state news media.
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But this time they offered rare public criticism of Mr. Sisi and proposed to loosen his harsh rule.
Mr. Shafik, in his video message to launch his campaign, said: “A true democracy and basic human rights are not a given.” Mr. Anan tendered an olive branch to the young revolutionaries who helped oust President Hosni Mubarak in 2011, and who have been hounded by Mr. Sisi.
Mr. Anan was charged with breaching military rules and thrown in jail, where aides say he has been interrogated by military officers in balaclavas. Mr. Shafik was detained at a luxury hotel for a month before he publicly withdrew his candidacy.
A third military-linked candidate, an American-educated officer named Col. Ahmed Konsowa, was court-martialed in December and sentenced to six years imprisonment.
“Their attempted candidacies said to the Egyptian public that Sisi is doing a bad job and Egypt needs new leadership,” said Amy Hawthorne, an Egypt expert at the Project on Middle East Democracy. “That’s very provocative.”
Mr. Sisi rejected the notion that he pushed the other candidates out of the race.
“It is not my fault,” he said in a television interview on Tuesday. “I swear to God I wished there would have been more candidates for people to choose who they want. But they were not ready yet. There is no shame in this.”
With his rivals derailed, Mr. Sisi sought to shore up his own military credentials. He announced a sweeping military drive against Islamic State militants in Sinai and last month donned his old army uniform to open a new military command center.
In improvised remarks in January, he warned that Egypt’s security would be compromised “over the dead body of the military” — a statement that appeared to be aimed as much at internal critics as at the militants.
And he increased pressure on the news media. A journalist who interviewed Mr. Anan’s running mate was jailed. Last month, the government expelled Bel Trew, a reporter with The Times of London, despite a private protest from the British foreign secretary, Boris Johnson. The news organization says it has not received an explanation.
To some analysts, Mr. Sisi is merely consolidating his power as he heads into a second four-year term. Despite the repression, many Egyptians still support him as an antidote to the turmoil they suffered after the Arab Spring.
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The economy is improving as a result of tough economic reforms, many prescribed by the International Monetary Fund, even if they have inflicted painful inflation on tens of millions of poor Egyptians.
Mr. Sisi also enjoys the support of powerful foreign allies like President Donald J. Trump and the crown prince of Saudi Arabia, Mohammed bin Salman, who paid Mr. Sisi a three-day visit this month. He has drawn closer to Egypt’s old enemy, Israel, through discreet cooperation on counterterrorist operations in Sinai.
But Mr. Sisi has also made many contentious decisions. The military’s prominent role in running the economy is unpopular with businessmen and some military officers, a senior western diplomat in Cairo said.
The decision to hand two Red Sea islands, Tiran and Sanafir, to Saudi Arabia in 2016 was opposed by several senior defense officials, Ms. Hawthorne said, citing Egyptian media reports.
“I think it’s a vulnerability for Sisi,” she said. “He can try to move past it but people don’t forget.”
Although Mr. Sisi has faced talk of dissent before — in 2015 a military court reportedly convicted 26 officers on charges of plotting to overthrow him — experts say he is believed to enjoy staunch support among the military high command.
But they also note that he is tightening his inner circle, relying more heavily on his family. One son, Mahmoud, is a senior figure in the General Intelligence Service and has been an interlocutor in meetings with American officials in Washington. Another son works in an influential anti-corruption body.
Whatever Mr. Sisi’s popularity may be, this election will not be a reliable indicator. Egypt’s weak, fractured opposition has already written it off. The Muslim Brotherhood, the Islamist group that briefly enjoyed power until the military takeover that brought Mr. Sisi to power in 2013, is outlawed.
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Mr. Sisi’s only challenger, Moussa Moustapha Moussa, held just two public events, one of which was attended by more journalists than supporters. “I’m no puppet,” he insisted to The Guardian this week.
On Wednesday, Mr. Sisi called President Vladimir V. Putin of Russia to congratulate him on his election victory last weekend, having also congratulated China’s Xi Jinping on his unanimous election in the National People’s Congress.
Both leaders have found way to circumvent term limits, and there are signs that Mr. Sisi has similar ambitions.
Last August, a member of Parliament loyal to Mr. Sisi proposed a constitutional amendment to extend term limits. In November, Mr. Sisi insisted he would not seek any changes.
Mr. Sadat, the opposition politician and nephew of his namesake, Egypt’s former president, said a broad coalition of opposition groups had started to hunt for candidate to contest the 2022 election — when, if the proposed constitutional changes take place, they expect to face Mr. Sisi again.
“Sisi hates politics and that’s what we are seeing in this election,” he said. “What worries me is what will come next. Are we going to see a Chinese model? That is the issue.”