Lionel Messi, one of the world’s most celebrated footballers, arrived in Egypt this week as part of a government campaign to resurrect the medical tourism industry, a vital source of revenue that has dwindled since the 2011 Arab Spring revolution and the political instability that followed.
Messi’s visit had been postponed twice, once in December after an Alexandria church bombing and again when his team, Barcelona, lost to Paris Saint Germain in the European championship.
His Egypt visit was specifically aimed at promoting Egypt as a medical tourism destination for hepatitis C patients.
Many social media users welcomed Messi to Egypt with the hashtag #Egypt_welcomes_Messi, but others derided him as “pro-Israel.”
The JTA previously reported on Messi’s previous trip to Israel:
Messi is a Catholic and has made the sign of the cross on his chest after scoring goals. In August 2013, he visited the Western Wall on a peace tour with the Barcelona club. One year later Messi supported a soccer match organized by Pope Francis to promote peace between Israelis and Palestinians, but he did not play in the match due an injury.
The social media users directed their criticism at Messi and Balha, an Egyptian impresario who organized the visit.
Twitter user Tim posted a picture of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and his wife meeting Messi, as well as a picture of Egyptian footballer Abu Triqa, who was accused of Muslim Brotherhood sympathies. Tim wrote: “The Zionist Balha paid millions to bring over the pro-Israel Messi, who supports Abu Triqa’s blacklisting as a terrorist for supporting justice and his brethren in Gaza.”
— تيم ✊ المرابطون ✊ (@44morabetoon44) February 21, 2017
Several tried to exonerate Messi by posting his picture meeting Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas.
Delta Tweeter accused the organizers of putting together a “Zionist fest”: “Shocked by the Zionist fest. Messi supports and assists the Zionists and is warmly welcomed in the Zionist Balha’s country and Abu Triqa is a terrorist because he supported Gaza.”
— خالد حمدي (@k7amdi) February 21, 2017
“We have sunk so low that women queue up to get a kiss from Messi the Zionist,” the Egyptian Abu Mohammed tweeted. “Lament your men, Egypt.”
Azza Elgarf posted a picture of Messi at Jerusalem’s Western Wall and another of Abu Triqa wearing a T-Shirt saying, “Sympathize with Gaza” and wrote: “When a military junta kidnaps Egypt, Messi the Zionist is welcomed as an Islamic liberator. At the same time, a well-mannered, world-renowned man, the Egyptian Muslim Abu Triqa, is labeled a terrorist.”
— Azza El-Garf (@AzzaElGarf) February 21, 2017
“Here’s a message to all the slaves,” another wrote, referring to a report that said Messi got a 20 million Egyptian pounds ($1.5 million) fee. “Blaha the Zionist spent a lot of money on Messi’s visit, and claimed a similar fee for himself.”