Earlier this year, beloved Egyptian soccer titan Mohamed Salah seemed untouchable. He propelled Liverpool to a Champions League final victory and won top scorer honors in the English Premier League. He made Time’s 2019 list of the world’s 100 most influential people, while championing women’s rights in the Arab world.

But “the Egyptian King’s” defense of a teammate accused of sexual harassment last week has inflamed his fan base and touched a nerve in Egypt, where sexual harassment has been widespread and #MeToo has opened societal rifts over how to address it.

Up until now, Salah’s carefully cultivated image as a humble superstar has withstood a meteoric rise to fame and has been credited with changing attitudes toward Muslims in England. Egyptian fans even rallied to his side when he criticized Egypt’s soccer authorities after a disastrous World Cup showing in 2018.

That support might be cracking over his backing of Egyptian midfielder Amr Warda, who has faced repeated allegations of sexual harassment.

The sudden shift in perceptions began when British Egyptian model Merhan Keller came forward with images of lewd messages Warda allegedly sent her, along with similarly inappropriate messages other women claimed to have received from him. Warda published a video on Facebook last week apologizing to teammates and family, though he did not confirm or deny the allegations.

Egypt is hosting this year’s Africa Cup of Nations, and the Egyptian Football Association announced on June 26 that it would expel Warda for the duration of the competition.

For a moment, it seemed as if Egypt had taken a decisive stance against harassment — but then Salah weighed in.

The soccer star defended his teammate in a pair of tweets, calling for those accused of harassment to receive “second chances.”

“Women must be treated with the utmost respect. ‘No’ means ‘no.’ Those things are and must remain sacred,” he wrote. “I also believe that many who make mistakes can change for the better and shouldn’t be sent straight to the guillotine, which is the easiest way out.”

Soon after Salah voiced his support for Warda, Egyptian soccer authorities lifted his suspension on June 28. Warda is expected to return to the field Saturday when Egypt faces South Africa in the tournament’s round of 16.

The EFA’s decision — and Warda’s alleged actions prompting it — elicited condemnation, but Salah’s fame, coupled with his reputation as an advocate for women’s rights, swiftly placed the star winger at the center of the controversy.

“He’s probably the single most popular Egyptian there is at the moment,” said Timothy Kaldas, a Cairo-based fellow with the Tahrir Institute for Middle East Policy.

“I think for a lot of people it was pretty disappointing,” Kaldas added. “He’s made a point of staking out a position of ‘we need to change the culture around how women are treated.’”

Thousands retweeted and replied to Salah’s comments on Twitter, many rebuking him for defending an alleged sexual harasser. Aggrieved fans called on social media users to unfollow him. And Twitter users popularized the hashtag #SalahSupportsSexualHarassment in Arabic and in English.

Salah’s agent, Ramy Abbas Issa, said in an email that Salah may address the backlash after the soccer tournament concludes but added that it is “absolutely false” that Salah publicly or privately lobbied for Warda to be reinstated to the team.

Egyptian human rights activist Mona Seif, who became well known for her organizing during the 2011 Egyptian uprising that unseated longtime president Hosni Mubarak, accused Salah of enabling “a repeat sex offender.”

May Seoud, a programs specialist with a development organization in Cairo, said she felt particularly disappointed in Salah’s response precisely because so many women viewed him as an ally.

In an interview with Time magazine in April, Salah said gender relations in the Middle East are ripe for reform.

“I think we need to change the way we treat women in our culture,” he said. “It’s not optional.”

A video of his young daughter, Makka, dribbling a ball into the goal at Liverpool’s Anfield stadium in May went viral, burnishing Salah’s reputation as a progressive dad.

That is just one facet of the image Salah has cultivated as a man of the people and a force for good. Born into a modest family in a small town north of Cairo, Salah is known for praying on the soccer field and funding hospitals in his hometown. He’s the rare sort of celebrity who has largely evaded controversy, apart from his bold appeal to Egyptian authorities to treat their soccer players better. He has been admired by people across Egypt’s deeply divided political scene.

Until now, that is.

The chorus of angry reactions to Salah’s support for Warda spell trouble for Egypt’s golden boy, Seoud said. But the scandal is also producing a “ripple effect” and generating a societal conversation about sexual harassment, she added.

Sexual harassment is pervasive in Egypt. The Thomson Reuters Foundation named Cairo the most dangerous megacity for women in 2017, and a 2013 study found that 99 percent of Egyptian women reported having experienced sexual harassment. Dozens of women were sexually assaulted during a single day of demonstrations in Tahrir Square that year.

Egypt passed a law in 2014 strengthening penalties for sexual harassment, including verbal or online incidents. Still, women who have come forward with stories of sexual harassment in the wake of the #MeToo movement have found themselves — rather than their alleged tormentors — facing state threats or punishment.

Kaldas said he was heartened to see widespread censure of Warda and Salah in recent days, which he said seems to indicate a cultural shift toward condemning verbal or online harassment.

“I’m happy to see that a lot of people did recognize it as harassment and have been adamant that it comes with serious consequences,” he said. “The fact that Salah is getting so much heat for this is also a sign of progress, in that many Egyptians are coming to see this kind of behavior as unacceptable.”

Not all of the online reactions to Salah’s comments were critical, however. Some defended Salah’s appeal for “second chances” for the accused, while others attacked his detractors as “angry feminists.”

But Seoud and others pointed out that Warda has already used his second chance. Portuguese soccer club C.D. Feirense kicked Warda out in 2017 after allegations surfaced that he had harassed two teammates’ wives — allegations Warda denied.

Women responding to Salah’s comments see them as indicative of a larger pattern in which men evade consequences for harassment while women are blamed for inciting it.

“The laws aren’t necessarily the problem; implementing the laws is the problem here,” Seoud said.

National pride, not just sexism, may further isolate harassment victims, she added. Soccer matches aren’t merely sport; they’re fierce expressions for national identity and relevance. Egypt’s role as host of this Africa Cup of Nations raises the stakes for the country, potentially provoking authorities to ignore a victim’s rights in favor of fielding a strong team and putting on a good show on home turf.

“At a time like this, where Egypt is playing in the African cup, a lot of people feel that women’s rights should not be a priority,” Seoud said.