The Man Trying to Stir a Long-Distance Revolt in Egypt: NYT
The New York Times published on 23 Oct. 2019 a report by Raphael Minder titled, “The Man Trying to Stir a Long-Distance Revolt in Egypt”. The article basically relies on an interview conducted by the New York Times with Egyptian contractor and actor, Mohamed Ali, who has been releasing videos on the internet exposing corruption in Egypt and accusing General Abdel Fattah Al-Sisi himself, his wife, and senior army officers of corruption and squandering public funds – as follows:
Since he started posting videos denouncing corruption in Egypt, Mohamed Ali has set off protests against President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi — and intense speculation about himself.
Mohamed Ali’s is a tale of would-be revolution in the internet age.
From his self-imposed exile in Spain, the former construction contractor for the Egyptian military claims to have inside information on just how corrupt the government of his home country truly is.
Since last month, when he started posting videos denouncing that corruption on the web, he has succeeded in setting off exceptionally rare protests against the repressive regime of President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi.
But his unexpected success has also generated a fair amount of speculation about Mr. Ali himself — who he is, who might be behind him, and whether he’s a tool of the military officers he once worked for closely, of some other branch of security services that would like to see Mr. el-Sisi gone, or of the Muslim Brotherhood.
So Mr. Ali, 45, decided to step out of the shadows, inviting The New York Times to his sparsely decorated top-floor office overlooking the Mediterranean about 25 miles outside of Barcelona in an attempt to dispel any mystery about his motives and, perhaps too, to amplify the notoriety that has made his videos a threat to Egypt’s government.
The protests Mr. Ali provoked have evidently shaken and scared the el-Sisi regime, which has undertaken a harsh crackdown, mostly snuffing them out. For now, the protests have proved far from fatal to Mr. el-Sisi, and there is no doubt that Mr. Ali would like to breathe new life into them and topple the president.
“Nobody can take out the president in one month, but in three or four months, for sure, it can be done,” he argued. “When a government starts to shake, it means it is weak.”
Mr. Ali said he had no personal political ambitions, but instead wanted to act as a uniting force for rival opposition groups to Mr. el-Sisi, including the Muslim Brotherhood. He denied getting direct support from any opposition force, or from any senior army officers.
“Nobody who is big in the army supports me, just some soldiers who are ordinary people but now cannot do anything because they are scared,” he said.
“For Egypt to become fine means taking out el-Sisi,” he argued. “I don’t want the army or the Muslim Brothers to take over, but a citizen, someone from the people.”
Since early September, Mr. Ali has released more than 50 videos online, all of which he says were made in Spain, and ranging in length from less than a minute to more than half an hour.
Mr. Ali, who spoke in the interview, as he does in his videos, in a street-smart Arabic slang, has detailed incidents of corruption and mismanagement of state funds, which he said was conducted under the close watch of Mr. el-Sisi and his closest circles within the army.
He said Mr. el-Sisi has spent millions of dollars on building new presidential palaces at a time when many Egyptians are struggling to cover their basic needs under austerity measures pushed by his government.
“I think that what Mohamed Ali has shown is the limitations on Sisi’s repressive measures and how they can backfire,” said Hussein Baoumi, an Egypt researcher for Amnesty International. “The problem for the authorities is that there is no easy way to refute his claims.”
As millions of people tuned in, Mr. Ali dedicated some of his videos to criticizing entire speeches made by Mr. el-Sisi, who has publicly called Mr. Ali’s claims “lies and slander.”
Mr. Ali soon began rallying people to protest against Mr. el-Sisi, even releasing a video in which he discusses what the system of government should be after his ouster.
Although he had already acquired some notoriety in his home country as a part-time actor, Mr. Ali acknowledged that he was himself surprised by how his videos had prompted Egyptians to take to the streets, as well as pushing Mr. el-Sisi to deny publicly the corruption claims.
Accusations of government corruption are nothing new in Egypt, noted Dalia Fahmy, an associate politics professor at Long Island University. But the kind of corruption being alleged by Mr. Ali is different.
“For the average Egyptian to see state funds misappropriated to bankroll the building of luxury homes for the president and his family during times of austerity, that seems to cut deeper than the revelation of government corruption,” she said.
The son of a shopkeeper who was also a champion bodybuilder, Mr. Ali said he started working when he was 16, but his business career made a quantum leap 15 years ago, when he managed to join the ranks of contractors to the military, building homes for officers.
Mr. Ali said he knew that the contracting sector involved “money paid under the table,” but not on the scale that he later discovered under Mr. el-Sisi, and which he detailed in his recent videos.
“When I started, I didn’t realize how corrupt this system can be,” he said. He added: “Sisi acts like a beggar who is happy to get money from everywhere.”
Mr. Ali said that the United States should bear some responsibility for maintaining Mr. el-Sisi’s government, which President Trump has strongly supported while turning a blind eye to the country’s corruption.
“Trump is the person who called him my favorite dictator and who also said that the protests are normal,” Mr. Ali said. Mr. el-Sisi, he added, “takes money from America, loans from America, money from the Gulf.”
Mr. Ali said that Egyptians could corroborate his claims about the extent of their president’s personal property empire because he had given them enough information to “go and see his palaces for themselves.”
In a recent speech, Mr. el-Sisi defended building palaces, saying that “nothing is in my name. It is in Egypt’s name.”
Ibrahim Halawi, a teaching fellow in international relations at Royal Holloway, University of London, said it was “very difficult to uncover Ali’s real intention, but it is hard to disregard his long history of partnership with large-scale military-related businesses.’’
‘‘I don’t think he has political ambition,’’ Mr. Halawi said. ‘‘It is more likely that it is personal vengeance, given his emphasis on el-Sisi himself, and largely being apologetic about the military establishment.”
Asked why he moved to Spain, Mr. Ali said it was not motivated by any troubles, political or financial, or fallings-out in Egypt.
He started working on his plan to denounce top-level corruption about six years ago, he said, but first needed time to complete some projects, as well as to ensure the safety of his five children, move money overseas and downsize his company, Amlak, which once had 1,000 employees.
Mr. Ali believes his videos struck a chord with ordinary people in Egypt because he could show them that he had been “working in the kitchen,” at the heart of Mr. el-Sisi’s regime, while being a person who got rich but “who started from zero.”
He insisted that he was motivated neither by revenge nor the desire to get the government to pay him more money.
“If I wanted the money, I would have continued to work there,” he said.
Still, he claimed, the Egyptian authorities owe him 220 million Egyptian pounds, equivalent to about $13.5 million, for unpaid construction work. He also accused them of illegally seizing an apartment and cars after he left Cairo in 2018.
He said that he resettled in Spain last year with about €3 million euros, and after also spending €1.2 million to purchase a six-bedroom villa, which gave him a residency permit and which he has since been renovating.
Since resettling, he said, he has sought to rebuild his business, spending €600,000 on studies for a project to convert a disused power station outside Barcelona into a university, partly shaped like a glass pyramid.
The project was stalled because he has so far not received the required permits from the local authorities, he said.
“I was now hoping to get some investors and loans, but since I started talking on my videos, everything has stopped,” he said.
The videos have triggered direct death threats, Mr. Ali said, as well as an offer from a Saudi tycoon of reward money for anybody who killed him.
“I think the police and the government are good in Spain and no one will hand me back to my country, but I’m scared of the Mafia, of somebody getting paid to kill me,” he said.
But he said he had no intention of claiming political asylum in Spain, although he worried about what would happen when his Egyptian passport expires next May.
“I want to be free to move around,” he said.