CAIRO — Mohammed Ali, a disgruntled developer whose videotaped accusations claim he had been stiffed out of $13.5 million by President Abdel-Fattah el-Sissi and members of the military, called this month on Egyptians to protest the “corrupt” regime.
In a land where Mr. el-Sissi, a former army chief who routinely cracks down on even the slightest dissent, that might have been where this tale ended.
This time, though, Mr. Ali’s complaints set off a flurry of tweets. More than 1 million Egyptians began using a hashtag that translates as “That’s enough el-Sissi” to share a series of videos posted by the contractor from his self-imposed exile in Spain.
Egyptians began hitting the streets Friday in defiance of a ban on protests. They did so again Sunday, and they plan to hold a “million-man march” later this week.
Generalized complaints about the state of civil liberties and human rights in Egypt have routinely gone nowhere under Mr. el-Sissi, but a specific tale of personal corruption appears to have hit a major nerve.
“Corruption of the army goes way beyond this spending on villas and has gone on for a very long time,” said Ahmed Bahgat, 35, a human resources manager in Cairo, as police began to fire tear gas to disperse the protesters near Tahrir Square, the epicenter of the 2011 Arab Spring uprising in Egypt. “But since Mohammed Ali is just another [disgruntled] Egyptian created by a greedy state, people are responding.”
On Friday night, hundreds of peaceful demonstrators took to the streets of downtown Cairo and the country’s second-largest city, Alexandria, in the first real challenge to Mr. el-Sissi since he took over from Mohammed Morsi, who was removed from power in a 2013 coup. Those protests were followed by more on Sunday in the Nile Delta center of Mansoura and the industrial towns along the Suez Canal.
Officials told state-run media that police arrested scores of demonstrators. The Egyptian Commission for Rights and Freedoms said Monday that it had documented the arrests of more than 400 demonstrators in 12 governorates.
The government was quick to blame the street protests on the outlawed Muslim Brotherhood despite the absence of Islamist rhetoric in the anti-government slogans and Mr. Ali’s secular, debonair public persona.
“We are familiar with their deception tactics and incitement to violence through fake news,” said Gen. Yehia al Kidwany, a member of parliament who has called for Egypt to establish a nationalized alternative to Facebook. “These attempts come amid several projects to boost the state’s infrastructure and aid low-income citizens.”
Although Cairo’s streets were calm Tuesday, security personnel were visible, especially in the city’s downtown.
Erosion of support
Analysts say the protests expose a nationwide erosion in Mr. el-Sissi’s popularity, and not just among the poor.
Before the release of Mr. Ali’s videos, the president had a reputation for being personally principled and uncorrupted, even as he centralized power and lavished public funds on purchases of expensive weapons systems and an ambitious infrastructure-building campaign.
“The currency devaluation in 2016 pressured large segments of the working and middle class, but the case of Mohammed Ali shows disaffection among private entrepreneurs,” said Ayman Hadhoud, economic adviser to Mohamed Anwar El-Sadat, chairman of Egypt’s Social Democratic Reform and Development Party.
“On the one hand, there has been an expansion of contracts from the government and military institutions, and the other, private-sector businesses are seeing that the state is having difficulties in making payments.
“It’s no longer just the poor people who are upset, and el-Sissi’s insistence on continued spending on palaces and futile projects gives the army an image problem among the general public,” Mr. Hadhoud said.
Egyptians grumble that their president has built nearly as many palaces for himself in the past four years as did longtime President Hosni Mubarak, Egypt’s authoritarian leader of three decades before he was ousted in the 2011 uprising.
The government’s figures show that 1 in 3 Egyptians is living in poverty, up from 16.7% in 2000, despite five years of austerity measures aimed at reforming the economy.
Mr. Ali has posted photos related to residential construction for Egypt’s top leadership in tony new suburbs of Cairo and Alexandria, where he claims first lady Intisar el-Sissi requested roughly $1.5 million for renovations to a presidential villa.
Mr. el-Sissi felt compelled to address the charges himself at a Sept. 14 National Youth Conference, where officials advanced the theme of combating “fake news” spread via social media as a national objective alongside completion of the president’s megaprojects.
“I am establishing a cultural and artistic city that will be the largest [city] in the world,” the president said. “What has been circulating on social media since the past two weeks aims at undermining the people’s confidence in me. But to assure every Egyptian person, I say this [misleading and fake news] is a mere lie and a slander.”
Mr. el-Sissi said new executive mansions were integral for the establishment of the New Administrative Capital he has ordered built in the desert 28 miles east of crowded, overburdened Cairo.
“Yes, I am building presidential palaces,” the president told conference attendees. “They are not mine. I am establishing a new state, and I am doing so in the name of Egypt.”
A day later, Mr. Ali released another video in which he said officers ordered him to perform a cleanup job at the cemetery where the president’s mother is buried and erect a hotel in suburban Cairo conceived as a vehicle for private profit for a senior security official.
It ends with the call for street protests against Mr. el-Sissi’s rule.
Some say it’s about time.
“The regime does not realize that this is not just about Mohamed Ali and his videos,” said Mohamed el-Tanawei, a 35-year-old demonstrator in Cairo on Friday. “It’s more related to people’s economic conditions that worsen day by day.”
On Saturday, Ali, Egypt’s unlikely opposition leader, released a new video.
“El-Sissi is now nervous because of the demonstrations, and I am sure he is now appealing to U.S. President Donald Trump to protect him from the next revolution,” Mr. Ali quipped.
Backed by Trump
Mr. el-Sissi did get a vote of confidence from Mr. Trump when the two met Monday on the sidelines of the U.N. General Assembly gathering in New York. The U.S. president said he was “not worried at all” by the reports of protests against Mr. el-Sissi.
“When [Mr. el-Sissi] took over not so long ago, [Egypt] was in turmoil. And it’s not in turmoil now,” Mr. Trump told reporters after their meeting. “Egypt has a great leader. He’s highly respected. He’s brought order.”
Amnesty International called Tuesday for authorities to release those detained in the recent protests and called for Mr. Trump and other world leaders to condemn the crackdown, The Associated Press reported.
“The world must not stand silently by as President el-Sissi tramples all over Egyptians’ rights to peaceful protest and freedom of expression,” said Najia Bounaim, North Africa Campaigns Director at Amnesty International.
But Western diplomats in Cairo said Mr. el-Sissi’s decision to go ahead with the New York visit this week showed the president was confident in continued army control of the streets as well as the state’s ability to shut down and monitor much of the conversation in cyberspace.
Egyptian authorities last week blocked the U.S. government’s Arabic-language broadcaster and digital news portal Al-Hurra and added it to a list of 34,000 banned sites.
But some see a turning point in the willingness of Egyptians to take to the streets in public protests against the government.
“The president admitted that he has been using public funds to build lavish palaces and vowed to continue doing so while 60% of the population are living under the poverty line,” said Moustafa Khalil, a development scholar at Manchester University and a former monitoring and evaluation officer for USAID’s Cairo office.
“In a big country of 100 million people, you only need a small fraction to have the courage it takes to defy the regime’s harsh restriction by taking to the street. If they survive on the street for a few hours, and they did, the ball starts rolling.”