EGYOutrage2019CAIRO – Last week Mohammed Ali, a disgruntled builder whose videotaped accusations allege he’s been stiffed over $13.5 million by President Abdel-Fattah el-Sissi and members of the military, called on Egyptians to protest against the "corrupt" regime.

That set off a flurry of tweets: More than a million Egyptians began sharing on a hashtag, “That’s enough el-Sissi,” created by the unpaid contractor, who has been releasing damning footage from self-imposed exile in Spain.

And on Friday, Egyptians began hitting the streets – in defiance of a ban on protests. And again on Sunday. And they plan to do so again later this week in a so-called "million man march."

“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 uprising. “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 el-Sissi since he took over from former president Mohamed Morsi in a coup in 2013. 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 it documented the arrest 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 new anti-government slogans and Mohammed Ali’s secular, debonair public persona.

“We are familiar with their deception tactics and incitement to violence through fake news,” said General 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.”

But actually, analysts say the protests underscore a nationwide erosion in el-Sissi's popularity, and not just among the poor.

Before Ali’s videos, the president had enjoyed a reputation for being personally principled and uncorrupted even as he doubled down on purchases of expensive weapons systems and launched a costly infrastructure drive.

“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 advisor 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,” Hadhoud added.

Egyptians have come to realize that their current president has built nearly as many palaces for himself in the last four years as did Hosni Mubarak, Egypt’s leader of three decades before he was ousted in the 2011 Tahrir Square uprising.

The government’s figures show that one in three Egyptians is living in poverty, up from 16.7 percent in 2000, before the uprising and the past five years of austerity measures aimed at reforming the economy.

Ali has posted photos related to residential construction for Egypt’s top leadership in new suburbs of Cairo and Alexandria – where he claims first lady Intsar el-Sissi requested more than 25 million Egyptian pounds for renovations to a presidential villa.

El-Sissi addressed the allegations himself at a National Youth Conference Sept. 14 where officials advanced the theme of combating ‘fake news” spread via social media as a national objective alongside completion of the president’s mega projects.

“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.”

El-Sissi said new executive mansions were integral for the establishment of the New Administrative Capital being built in the desert 28 miles east of 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, Ali released another video alleging 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 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 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 US President Donald Trump to protect him from the next revolution,” quipped Ali.

The president is currently in New York for the UN General Assembly, which kicks off Tuesday and according to his spokesman is set to meet heads of major US corporations to ask for increased investment in Egypt.

Western diplomats in Cairo said el-Sissi’s departure to New York 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.

Yesterday Egyptian authorities blocked the US government Arabic language broadcaster and digital news portal Al-Hurra, adding it to a list of 34,00 banned sites.

“The president admitted that he has been using public funds to build lavish palaces and vowed to continue doing so while 60 percent 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.”

Photo: September 21, 2019 - Cairo, Egypt - Screenshot of Egyptian protesters marching in Tahrir Square in Cairo. The square was the epicenter of the 2011 Arab Spring uprising in Egypt.
Credit: Courtesy of Ayesha Zafar YouTube channel.

Story/photo published date: 09/24/19

A version of this story was published in The Washington Times.