Argument

Egypt Is Done Waiting for Liberals

A previously unknown Egyptian has started an anti-Sisi protest movement—and is opposed by government and liberal elites alike.

Egyptian protesters shout slogans as they take part in a protest calling for the removal of President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi in Cairo's downtown on September 20, 2019.
Egyptian protesters shout slogans as they take part in a protest calling for the removal of President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi in Cairo's downtown on September 20, 2019. STR/AFP/Getty Images

Last week, thousands of Egyptians took to the streets calling for the president, Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, to step down. The protests were a surprise for several reasons. On the most basic level, it was a surprise the protests happened at all. They were the first major anti-Sisi protests since he came to power in a military coup against the democratically elected President Mohamed Morsi in 2013. Many Egypt watchers had thought the former general had foreclosed any possibility of organized protests against him after leading an extraordinarily repressive and unprecedented crackdown against the traditional leaders of opposition in the country, from liberals to Islamists.

This leads to the second major surprise of the protests: their leadership. The established activists who led the uprising that removed President Hosni Mubarak in 2011—many of whom now continue their activism in exile—generally looked suspiciously at this round of demonstrations. Instead, Egyptians managed to break through their current wall of silence thanks to the efforts of a fellow exile who wasn’t previously thought of as a political actor at all—and is now opposed by government and liberal elites alike.

The protests began with a series of videos made by Mohamed Ali, a 45-year-old Egyptian actor who made a fortune working as a military contractor and now lives in Spain. Since he first began releasing the videos on an almost daily basis on Facebook and YouTube on Sept. 2, they have been consistently seen by hundreds of thousands of people; some have been seen millions of times.

The videos show Ali speaking directly into a camera in an informal setting, often with three of his shirt buttons undone while smoking cigarettes. The general topic is the Sisi regime’s misdeeds against the Egyptian people. This includes the effects of Sisi’s foreign policy; Ali has spoken of the subjugation of Egypt to the rich kingdoms of the Persian Gulf—including the controversial transfer of two Red Sea islands, Tiran and Sanafir, to Saudi Arabia—and the failure to reach any breakthrough with Ethiopia on the construction of a dam on the Nile, which supplies Egypt with most of its fresh water.

But the main subject is government corruption. Ali purports to reveal insider information about how Sisi is misusing public funds to the benefit of his family and friends, through the military.

In one video, Mohamed Ali says he was ordered to help build a seven-star hotel project called Triumph for an associate of the president. “Maj. Gen. Sherif [Sherif Seif al-Din] told the president about the project, and [the president] gave him an open budget,” he says. “I don’t know how we are very poor and he is playing favorites to a close friend with a hotel costing more than 2 billion.” A lavish villa in the city of Mamoura, he said in his first video, was built because Sisi’s wife “would not want to sleep in Suzanne Mubarak’s bed,” referring to the former first lady.

Most important is the manner in which Ali speaks: He talks in the cadence and slang of someone from the Egyptian countryside. The videos are sermons preached directly to ordinary people, sharing details of his humble upbringing along the way. Ali explains how he left his family jewelry business to work as a contractor for the military 15 years ago, during the Mubarak regime. After proving his loyalty to the military, he began to lead an extravagant lifestyle, full of luxury cars and lavish homes. This newfound wealth was as a product of a corrupt system, he says, not simply his hard work. The contracts he received often came to him without bidding, in exchange for his loyalty—and silence.

The videos focus on showing how Sisi’s corruption is even worse than Mubarak’s. Critically, Ali draws attention to Sisi’s nepotism, a key factor behind the 2011 uprising against Mubarak and his sons. He says that Sisi spent 2 billion Egyptian pounds, about $120 million, of state funds to build a seven-star hotel for a friend. Sisi then wanted to build a palace worth 250 million pounds ($15 million), with further changes costing around 25 million ($1.5 million). The palace, Ali says, was built for Sisi’s wife. Ali details a long list of private homes the president built, and other extravagances, including up to 60 million Egyptian pounds ($3.5 million) on an opening ceremony for the New Suez Canal and 2.3 million ($140,000) on a funeral for his mother.

Within hours of his first video posts, Ali’s social media accounts were blocked in Egypt. But the videos had already spread like wildfire in group chats and on social media, resonating with the many Egyptians suffering from their country’s economic deterioration of recent years. His words confirmed what many Egyptians had long suspected (and experts had long argued): that Sisi’s major public investments did not make economic sense and were contributing to rising poverty among ordinary people.

They also undermined his claims of national poverty and the need for austerity. For years, Sisi has told Egyptians at every occasion that the country was poor and that he could not afford to improve their lives. “I can’t afford to give you anything. We won’t play around, I cannot afford to give you. You don’t need to ask me to give you,” he said in 2014.

On Sept. 14, Sisi directly addressed Ali’s allegations at a youth conference. Interestingly, the president did not deny the claims outright. “They say ‘you’re building palaces.’ Yes, of course, I am,” he told the conference. “I have built presidential palaces, and will build more, is it for me? … I’ll build and build and build, but I am not doing it for me, not in my name, it’s not in my name, nothing is in my name, it’s in Egypt’s name.

“And they tell you to look into the nation’s wealth, the Suez Canal, and the rest of this cheap talk,” Sisi told the youth conference. “No, people, no.”

But Sisi’s hardhanded response against the videos lent credence to Ali’s claims, increasing his following. Ali then built on the momentum by calling for mass protests against Sisi. What came next was a shock to many. Thousands of Egyptians heeded Ali’s call on Friday, Sept. 20. “Why should he live in palaces while others ate from the trash,” one woman shouted amid the protests, clearly echoing Ali’s talking points. Another protester said in a Facebook live story from Tahrir Square: “I have no job, nowhere to go, either way I’m lost.”

Remarkably, the protests took place despite a pushback against Ali and his call for protests by prominent democracy activists, many of whom believe that Egypt cannot handle another revolution, especially considering the strength of the military relative to its opponents. Wael Ghonim, the icon of the 2011 revolution, has recently broken several years of silence to call on people not to revolt.

Pro-Sisi channels capitalized on the counterwave against Ali from democracy activists and promoted Ghonim’s videos. The anti-Sisi movement became divided: Ghonim’s supporters were suspicious of Ali’s sudden emergence—some analysts suspect that Ali has links to a faction within the regime opposed to Sisi—while Ali’s supporters grew suspicious of Ghonim’s resurfacing after years of absence. Despite the almost uniform pushback against Ali and the protesters from across the Egyptian elite, his messages still resonated.

“He speaks like us, he looks like us, he curses the president in ways we all wish we could,” an Egyptian woman told me. “He is venting our anger. He doesn’t have an agenda, he is not political. Where are the opponents and heads of the oppositions? They are all in prison. He’s not part of any of those things. He has become a hero.”

The new wave of protests seems to come from the very bottom of the Egyptian society, and from a new generation not connected to the traditional leaders of the opposition. In doing so, Ali has drawn in precisely the demographics that Sisi saw as his base. Even though many recognized Sisi’s heavy-handedness, Ali is the first to have focused public attention on Sisi’s nepotism and his attempts to establish a form of family rule.

Whether or not the protests lead to a full-blown uprising, they have already created a new baseline for resistance against Sisi. Far more than Egypt’s liberal elites, Ali has forged a connection with those most affected by Sisi’s policies and has turned their attention to the real cause of their growing suffering. It is time for Sisi to start worrying.

Ola Salem is a British-Egyptian journalist with a decade of experience covering the Middle East. She is currently an MS candidate at New York University.
 Twitter: @Ola_Salem

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