Ahly's CAF Champions League crown turned to controversy this week after striker Ahmed Abdel-Zaher waved the "Rabaa" four-fingered solidarity sign — a mark of sympathy with pro-Morsi supporters killed amid the forcible dispersal of the Rabaa Al-Adawiya sit-in 14 August.
Celebrating their eighth African title, the Cairo-based club heavily disciplined the 28-year-old player with a suspension, release and fine for "mixing politics with sports."
Although he expressed his apology, Abdel-Zaher will be deprived of his Championship bonuses, playing in the club World Cup next month, and will be put up for sale in the January transfer window.
"Abdel-Zaher didn't intend to offend anyone. His behaviour was only to show solidarity with one of his friends who died in Rabaa," the player's agent, Mohamed Shiha, explained to Ahram Online, saying that he had offered an official apology in writing to the club's board.
The story of the 'Rabaa' sign
Rabaa, the fourth, is the name of a district in Cairo in Nasr City and is synonymous with Rabaa Al-Adawiya Mosque, named after a female Sufi icon who lived in 7th-8th century Iraq. Rabaa Al-Adawiya Square was the location of a weeks-long sit-in by supporters of Mohamed Morsi, forcibly dispersed 14 August after announcing it was armed.
Morsi, Egypt's first civilian elected president, was ousted by the military 3 July amid mass protests against his rule.
The sit-in dispersal saw the use of excessive force against protesters, according to some local and international human rights watchdogs.
The official deaths toll, according to the interim government's health ministry, was more than 700. Tens of policemen were also killed in the operation. The Muslim Brotherhood — from which Morsi hails — claim the number of causalities was in the thousands.
Attacks on police stations and army personnel nationwide followed the dispersal and left more than 100 dead.
After 14 August, the Rabaa sign — four fingers held up — became internationally recognised after Turkish Islamist Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan used it to express his solidarity with the Morsi camp.
The Rabaa sign has become the subject of controversy in the local Egyptian media. Linked to the Muslim Brotherhood, who by many are considered "disloyal to the country and agents to its enemies," famed television anchors and newspapers have linked the sign to Zionism, the illuminati, free masonry or even atheism.
And it is not only a media affair. Local police and military forces arrested several during the state of emergency and strict curfew in the past three months for showing the Rabaa sign, including 21 teenage girls who were arrested last month in Alexandria for carrying yellow balloons with the Rabaa sign on them.
The Rabaa El-Adawiya square was packed by supporters of ousted President Mohamed Morsi before the dispersal (R), Plumes of smoke rise from the site of the square following the dispersal (L) (Photo: Reuters)
On Sunday, Egypt's most popular club. Ahly, won the African title with Mohamed Abou-Treika and Abdel-Zaher up front — both known as Islamist supporters.
Just seconds after the game, social media exploded with comments about the Rabaa sign Abdel-Zaher showed while celebrating the second goal, in addition to Mohamed Abou-Treika, Egypt's icomic midfielder, refusing to accept the victory medals delivered by Minister of Sports Taher Abou-Zaid.
"Damn football! How dare this player show solidarity with these terrorists?" a middle aged woman wrote on Twitter.
But others, including many Ahly fans, said the punishment was totally unjustified.
@Deif_CFC, a Twitter user, said the sanction was "extremely harsh" while an Ahly supporter said on Facebook he would abandon his team if they did not reserve their decision.
The debate became main topic of this week's media, even more than the continental crown itself, gaining international media attention as well. Some backed the players while others attacked them, including columnists.
"How dare this sheep [a deragatory term used by anti-Brotherhood forces to describe members of the Islamist group] do that?" wondered TV anchor and journalist Ahmed Moussa on his evening television show.
"Ahly happiness is spoiled with the behaviour of this sheep! The Ahly board must punish him quickly as they cannot stand the anger of the fans."
"This ignorant boy that isn't worth three piastres, the so-called Abdel-Zaher, waved with four fingers! His mother used to feed him burnt bread and was bathing him in the field's drainage! What a sheep!" said controversial TV presenter Tawfik Okasha.
Meanwhile, Abdel-Zaher, who is set to say goodbye to the Red Castle forever, has received a crowd celebrating his gesture under his building in Nasr City and warm thanks from Brotherhood supporters.
'Don't mix politics with sports'
Abdel-Zaher is not the first sports figure to flirt with controversy over the Rabaa sign issue. Last month, Kung fu world gold medallist Mohamed Youssef appeared in a yellow "Rabaa" shirt in competition in Russia. The Egyptian Kung fu Association banned the young athlete for a full year, considering "it was his first fault."
"Abdel-Zaher's well-deserved punishment is a good decision by Ahly board," commented football expert Khaled Bayoumi to Ahram Online Wednesday.
"I am totally against mixing sports with politics, and I hate politics and I don't belong to any bloc. This is my cause for years. But I say, this is a result of more than 30 years of mixing politics and sports. We see it in talk shows every day. During the Hosni Mubarak regime, players used to have personal relationships with the ruling family and express it freely.
"Mixing Politic with sports should be entirely banned. The sports minister himself made that mistake when he said that a win over Ghana would have a political flavour," Bayoumi added.
Article 14 of the FIFA code of ethics underlines "political neutrality'." Yet there is no standard on how to punish volations.
In March 2013, Giorgos Katidis, who plays for Greek AEK Athens, was banned from his country’s national team for life after making a Nazi salute after he scored a goal.
In January 2009, Frederic Kanoute was hit by a €3,000 fine for showing a solidarity sign with Palestine after scoring with Spain's Seville.
In 2008, Abou-Treika received a yellow card but was not punished by the CAF for protesting against Israel, showing "Sympathise with Gaza" under his jersey after scoring against Sudan in the 2008 African Cup of Nations.
Egyptian player Mohamed Abou Traika wears a tee shirt reading "Sympathize with Gaza" as he celebrates his goal 2-0 against Sudan in Kumasi 26 January 2008 during the African Cup of Nations football championship.
"There must be a law that organises the matter. I say that Ahly should have punished Abou-Treika more harshly too for not receiving his medal. I think his message was stronger saying that this is a coup government. But the club are afraid because of the player's popularity." Bayoumi told Ahram Online.
(For more sports news and updates, follow Ahram Online Sports on Twitter at @AO_Sports and on Facebook at AhramOnlineSports.)