Millions of Egyptians have been enthralled by the daily online video updates from a former Egyptian military contractor who's accusing President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi and his government of large-scale corruption and squandering millions of dollars.
Mohamed Ali, who recently fled Egypt for Spain, posted his first video to his Facebook account on Sept. 2, and within hours it had been viewed hundreds of thousands of times.
The video’s viral spread was briefly interrupted when Facebook temporarily deleted it soon after its posting, reportedly in response to a state-controlled TV station complaint of copyright infringement. By the time Facebook restored the video, it had been downloaded and re-shared widely on the social network, YouTube, and in WhatsApp groups.
Since then, Ali’s updates have become a daily event. Each day he posts new updates, alleging more corruption at the highest levels of the Egyptian government and military, accusing Sisi of squandering billions of dollars while much of the country remains mired in extreme poverty. In doing so, he’s punctured Sisi’s tight grip over the national media and shaken the strongman leader’s stranglehold on power.
“What Mohamed Ali has succeeded in so far is destroying the image that Sisi has been focusing on building for the last six years. He has succeeded even among [Sisi's] own supporters to destroy and shake that image,” Liliane Daoud, a journalist who was deported from Egypt in 2016, told VICE News.
Now, with no sign of Ali’s viral campaign ending, experts worry that Sisi’s government could take the extreme step of turning off the internet.
“It is not clear what measures they could take, but rumors are circulating about the possibility of obstructing the internet, and already people are getting ready for that possibility by finding alternative [methods of] communication,” Daoud said.
Ali, who is also an actor, has worked with the army for the last 15 years, overseeing multimillion-dollar building projects through his company, Amlaak. While allegations of corruption within the military are nothing new in Egypt, Ali’s insider status lends new urgency to the allegations.
"He is not coming with anything new,” Daoud said. “Everything he is talking about is well-known, but this is the first time they have heard it from someone inside the regime.”
Here are some of Ali’s allegations:
- Sisi greenlit the construction of a 7-star hotel in a non-tourist area at a cost of around 2 billion Egyptian pounds ($120 million) as a favor to Sherif Salah, a military general who lives near the plot and who would be running the hotel.
- All projects overseen by the military were offered to contractors directly, without any bidding process.
- Work on projects began without even a blueprint for the construction, including one incident when Ali was asked to start digging foundations for a hotel without ever seeing plans.
- Sisi demanded the construction of a new presidential residence in Ma’moura, a resort in Alexandria, despite an existing presidential residence that was previously used by ex-president Mubarak. The palace cost 250 million EGP. Sisi’s wife, meanwhile, allegedly asked for changes that cost at least 25 million EGP. After all that, the palace was deemed insecure and never used.
Ali has not provided much in the way of documented proof for his allegations, but that appears to be an afterthought to many Egyptians who view his 15 years inside the military as proof enough.
"People now know for sure, even from pro-government TV, that at least major parts of what Ali said are true, that he worked with the army for 15 years, that he oversaw scores of projects for the army,” Amr Magdi, a researcher at Human Rights Watch, told VICE News. “The way they are trying to refute his stories was actually counterproductive because people now believe more what he is saying.”
Indeed, his videos have been watched millions of times by ordinary citizens who are primed to soak up such salacious allegations. He’s even become somewhat of a meme.
“This is an issue that touches on the lives and future of millions of Egyptians who have been suffering from poverty, low-quality education, low-quality healthcare, and they have no control over government spending,” said Magdi. “There is no real democracy in Egypt. All basic rights are crushed by Sisi's government. Therefore, when a whistleblower comes out with information, it is going to attract attention.”
Still, Ali’s motives aren’t entirely altruistic. He says that part of the reason for speaking out now is that his company is owed 220 million EGP ($13.3 million) for the construction of a five-star luxury hotel in New Cairo that Sisi’s wife officially opened a few months ago.
Some Sisi supporters have jumped on this element, hoping to portray Ali as a disgruntled ex-employee simply looking for payback.
Many Egyptians, meanwhile, are worried that the government will try to use Ali’s backstory to censor his videos. They’ve already had one scare from Facebook, which told VICE News the decision to remove the video was “a mistake.” Reports in Egypt suggest the video was removed after Al Hayat TV, which is controlled by the country’s security forces, reported a copyright infringement.
“It was absolutely motivated by Egyptian security agencies,” said HRW’s Magdi, adding that the speed with which Facebook deleted the video without a proper investigation was “really troubling.”
Facebook confirmed the video was originally deleted due to a failure in its “intellectual property protection systems” but would not say who had made the complaint. The Egyptian government did not respond to multiple requests for comment from VICE News.
The government has given no official response to the videos, but it has continued its attempts to use state-controlled media outlets to counter Ali.
Last week, Ali’s own father, who worked with him at the construction company, appeared on television to rebuke his son’s claims.
On Monday, the government rolled out its own video campaign featuring supporters of the regime praising the army and making salacious accusations about Ali, calling him a member of the Muslim Brotherhood, a heroin addict, and a womanizer.
Yet as those efforts fail to gain traction, people now worry the government will soon resort to desperate measures, such as blocking internet access in the country.
“This is what we are expecting right now,” Daoud said, but then added, “This would be the government’s last move.”
Such a step is not without precedent, even in Egypt's recent history.
It happened back in 2011 in response to the Arab Spring protests in Tahrir Square, when the government cut off access to the internet for five days. But experts warn that such a drastic decision would do more harm than good to Sisi.
"Sisi does not really tolerate free opinion or free media, but they are keeping Facebook, YouTube and Twitter available because of the reputational damage and business repercussions when they block such major websites,” Magdi said.
Cover: Egyptian President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi speaks during a press conference 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)