Joy in jail?

Alaa Abdel-Ghani , Tuesday 23 Aug 2022

Egypt’s Zamalek football team have won their second league crown in succession but their president could be celebrating behind bars, reports Alaa Abdel-Ghani


Zamalek Club President Mortada Mansour likes nothing better than to taunt his critics and these days he is doing so by doing this: going to work.

Even though this month an appeals court sentenced Mansour to one month in prison for defaming the president of bitter Cairo rivals Ahly, Mansour continues with his job which these days includes steering the club to their second football league title in a row.

On Monday, Zamalek were officially crowned the champions, without playing, after Future defeated second-place Pyramids 1-0 to extinguish any hopes, which were slim of overtaking Zamalek. Ahly dropped out of the race for first place a day earlier.

All the while it has been business as usual for Mansour who is practically sticking out his tongue at the law and his detractors.

He even decided to be the judge himself by inexplicably announcing on Facebook that the case had been dismissed even though such a ruling has not been passed.

The 70-year-old Zamalek boss was initially sentenced to one year in prison for insulting Mahmoud Al-Khatib, president of Ahly, and his family in a video posted on social networks and on Zamalek’s TV channel. Last week, Mansour’s sentence was reduced to one month in prison. He is also to be fined LE10,000.

One month in prison stripes is not too stringent a punishment; Mansour has served time before of much longer duration. He is a lawyer by training which has kept him out of jail many more times than he has been in a cell. But the way he repeatedly indulges in showing how he beats back stacks of lawsuits piled up against him only galvanizes his opponents who want to see the law cut his outsized personality down to size, even if just for four weeks.

Whether Mansour will actually wear prison overalls remains up in the air but there is no doubt that locked up or not, it will be breaking news because, like Donald Trump, it is awfully hard to keep Mansour out of the news.

Mansour and Trump share much of the same bombast, only Mansour is a looser cannon. To say Mansour is controversial would be an understatement; he is as eccentric as they come. He believes, for example, that black magic was responsible for Zamalek’s losses in African tournaments.

In 2014, he pulled out of Egypt’s presidential race after he said he had received a sign from God that former army chief Abdel-Fattah Al-Sisi would win.

He claims he has 13 personalities, a Gemini feature, in his telling. Which Mansour persona will appear at any one time is anybody’s guess.

He once hoped on live TV that the wife of the former emir of Qatar would get cancer when Egypt’s ties with the Gulf state were frayed.

He constantly accuses Ahly, without evidence, of manipulating the Egyptian Football Association to fix schedules in their favour.

His feuds with the law are notorious. In 2005, the government forced him from office after he waved a shoe – an impolite gesture in the Arab world – in the presence of an aide to the then country’s president Hosni Mubarak.

In 2007, he was sentenced to three years in jail for “insulting” court officials, levelling accusations of corruption against them, and trying to storm the office of the head of a judicial body.

Mansour was one of several figures from the era of ousted president Mubarak who was accused of orchestrating the Battle of the Camel, when pro-Mubarak thugs rode camels and horses into Tahrir Square on 2 February, at the height of the 2011 revolution, and attacked protesters, killing 11 and injuring several hundred. He and 24 other Mubarak-era figures were acquitted in 2012 on charges of inciting the violence.

Like Trump, Mansour is a media personality, sought after vigorously by TV and the newspapers because of his shock comments that prove a goldmine for ratings, commercials and advertisements. On television talks shows, he shouts down all who disagree with him. Whether he is being doused in urine - he says it was acid - as he was a few years back, or escaping an assassination attempt when he was shot at by fans of his own club, he is a treasure trove for journalists.

Ironically, many in the media have refused to report on him after he insulted one too many journalists. In 2015 he was collectively banned by hundreds of Egyptian newspaper journalists who took an informal pledge to refuse to mention him by name in print.

On the other side stands Al-Khatib, the antithesis of Mansour. Al-Khatib is soft-spoken and mild-mannered. His interviews in print and broadcast are rare. Now 68, he is widely regarded as one of the best players in African football history. Known by the nickname ‘Bibo’, Al-Khatib was an icon of Egyptian football in the 1970s and ‘80s. Google Al-Khatib and you find, not recriminations and remonstrations, but a long rich list of achievements as a player: African Footballer of the Year in 1983 and the Arab Sportsman of the 20th century; recognised by IFFHS as the joint 11th-best African player of the last century and by CAF in 2007 as the second greatest; represented the country at the 1984 Los Angeles Olympics and won the 1986 Africa Cup of Nations with his country; and 10 Egyptian Premier Leagues and Ahly’s first two African Cup of Champions Clubs (now the CAF Champions League) titles in 1982 and 1987.

After retiring in 1986, he used his legendary name to good effect. In 2014, he became the vice-president of Ahly before being elected president in 2017.

Al-Khatib is stone-faced in Ahly matches he attends, never applauding or smiling or celebrating no matter how well the team is faring. His demeanor is the same when the team is off. Looking at Al-Khatib in the stadium watching Ahly play, one can never tell whether the club is winning or losing, playing good or poorly.

His latest criticisms have been confined to why Wydad of Morocco won the right to host this year’s African Champions League final which they won, beating Ahly 2-0.

He has remained virtually silent in the face of Mansour’s verbal onslaughts directed against him and his family, preferring to take the feud to court.

The pair have also taken each other to court over the title “African Club of the Century” which CAF bestowed upon Ahly when Zamalek believe the epitaph belongs to them.

In July Mansour called for him and Al-Khatib to bury the hatchet, asking him to turn a new leaf after their recent disputes went to the courts. “I did not mean to insult Al-Khatib, and I respect his family, and he attended the wedding of my sons Amir and Ahmed,” Mansour said.

“I hope to end the disputes. Khatib is the best football player in the history of Egypt, and the disagreements between us must end for the interest of Egyptian football,” he added.

“For my part, I bear no grudge, and I hope that all disputes between us will end for the sake of the public interest.”

Mansour’s message was out-of-character benevolence for a man who rarely apologizes. It was filled with such goodwill that one must seriously ask whether it was a ploy to get Al-Khatib to drop the two defamation lawsuits he slapped against Mansour for the comments he made last year.

While he no longer enjoys parliamentary immunity when he was an MP and which he has often been accused of taking advantage of, Mansour still makes many enemies. But he has his supporters, none more so than those who have voted for him in successive club elections. They obviously like a winner and Mansour has obliged by giving them a cup and a league repeat this season, even though three games remain.

Like Trump again, Mansour will not ride sweetly into the sunset. He has been in and out of the Zamalek presidency five times starting in 2005 and most recently, regaining the top job courtesy of a court ruling in October last year.

Mansour’s term expires in 2025. Zamalek’s league win will undoubtedly empower him to carry on his boisterous, raunchy era.

*A version of this article appears in print in the 25 August, 2022 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly.

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