Twitter’s trending topics in Egypt tell you everything you need to know about the mood of the country at the moment.
“Get Out,” “The people want to overthrow the regime” and “Sisi out” topped the trending list Friday, signaling some of the most intense political pressure President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi has faced since taking power in a military coup in 2013. Now, Egyptians are flocking to social media to vent their frustration with Sisi’s government, which has overseen years of corruption and financial mismanagement, to the point that the World Bank said earlier this year that some 60 percent of the population was either poor or vulnerable.
The wave of support for regime change started rising earlier this month after a series of viral videos by ex-army contractor Mohamed Ali in which he makes sweeping allegations about corruption at the highest levels of Egypt’s government and military, implicating Sisi, his wife and his son. The former military contractor, who has 15 years working alongside the military leadership, has given Egyptians an insider’s view of some of Sisi’s most controversial projects, at times offering specific figures for his allegations.
Sisi attempted to dismiss the videos last weekend, calling them “sheer lies” during comments made at a youth conference in Cairo, and he has deployed a slick propaganda campaign aimed at undercutting Ali.
It hasn’t worked. Instead, Ali, who is posting the videos from self-imposed exile in Spain, has only grown more aggressive in his push to remove Sisi from power, this week using a series of hashtags that have trended globally.
Ali is now calling for people to take to the streets across Egypt to show their opposition. But with the military historically coming down hard on any public displays of dissent during Sisi’s reign, it's unclear how many citizens will actually brave the streets.
Either way, the latest campaign puts Sisi in potentially vulnerable territory, experts said.
“One cannot deny that there is lots of anger and the Egyptian authorities seem shaken by it,” Hussein Baoumi, a human rights researcher with Amnesty International, told VICE News. ”This is evident in the way they have been responding through proactive arrest, censorship, and propaganda.”
Baoumi and Amnesty are tracking the arrests of activists and their family members in Egypt and say that three people have been arrested directly in relation to Ali’s video and the calls for protests.
But the real number is likely far bigger, said Baoumi, as “many have been arrested but have not been presented to the prosecution yet, so we cannot know why they were arrested.”
One of those arrested was Hazem Ghonim, the brother of well-known Egyptian dissident Wael Ghonim, who claimed on Twitter Thursday night that the arrest was related to his failure to comply with the Egyptian embassy’s request that he stop speaking out against the government.
Ghonim, who lives in self-imposed exile in California, appealed to U.S. President Donald Trump to help free his brother.
Besides arrests, the government has been accused of censoring online dissent by blocking access to independent news websites and drowning out social media debate with an army of trolls.
Earlier this week the hashtag #كفايه بقى يا سيسى, which translates as “That’s Enough Sisi” and was first used by Ali on Sunday evening, was trending in Egypt when it suddenly disappeared from trending lists on Monday despite having over 1 million mentions, leading many activists in Egypt to worry that the government was putting pressure on Twitter. Egypt has been widely criticized in the past for its attempts to silence social media users, including the introduction of a law that would allow it to regulate popular Facebook and Twitter users.
Twitter told VICE News that the hashtag stopped trending organically, and said there was no outside pressure to remove it.
“Tip of the iceberg”
Ali’s video campaign has touched a nerve in part because it gets at the heart of what many in Egypt have long feared: that corruption and financial mismanagement run throughout Sisi’s government and military.
While Sisi and the government have spent lavishly on palaces and hotels, the citizens have been suffering from economic strain in recent years, with external debt spiraling from $46 billion to $106 billion during Sisi’s reign. Between that and the increasing human rights abuses, citizens long ago lost faith in their president.
Ali’s videos are “the straw that broke the camel’s back,” Yehia Hamed, a former Egyptian investment minister, who now lives in Turkey, told VICE News.
"This is an accumulation of what the people have been living through in recent years,” Hamed added. ”Whatever Sisi has done is not clear yet. What people see is only the tip of the iceberg, but the amount of corruption and the amount of mismanagement, we will all pay the price of it.”
Cover: Egyptian President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi looks up during press statements with Romanian President Klaus Iohannis in Bucharest, Romania, Wednesday, June 19, 2019. Abdel Fattah el-Sisi is on a one-day official visit to Romania. (AP Photo/Vadim Ghirda)