By Éadbhard Pernot
From an apartment located somewhere in Barcelona, armed with a camera and an internet connection, one self-exiled Egyptian may have, somewhat accidentally, began a revolution. Mohamed Ali Abdul Khalek, a 45 year old, one-time actor and a former owner of a construction firm. Since September Ali has uploaded almost-daily videos detailing his personal experiences during his time working for Egypt’s ruling class. Ali is an atypical political dissident. He has no formal education, talks openly about the considerable wealth he earned through corruption, and speaks in a style reserved more for street merchants, than political figures.. In his videos, usually wearing an unbuttoned white shirt, with a cigarette in hand, Ali has captivated millions of Egyptians with his detailed accounts of his work as a contractor for Egypt’s military, including lavish projects for Egypt’s tyrannical President, Abdel Fattah el-Sisi.
One self-exiled Egyptian may have, somewhat accidentally, began a revolution.
Since 2012, Egypt has been ruled by Sisi, former defence minister, who ascended to power following a coup d’etat which ousted former President, Mohammed Morsi. Ali has proved to be a thorn in Sisi’s side in the two months since he began uploading videos, providing an in-depth look into the corruption rife among Egypt’s military government and the extraordinarily luxurious lifestyles led by its upper hiearchy.
In long, rambling episodes, Ali outlines, with a distinctly working-class tone and humour, his account of a 15 year career as a contractor, ascending his status to become personally responsible for the personal projects of Sisi and his family. In one particular incident, Ali details how, upon becoming defence minister in August 2012, Sisi’s wife, Intissar, flatly refused to live in the palace of his predecessor, Field Marshal Mohamed Hussein Tantawy. Sisi promptly ordered it to be demolished and a new palace to be built at an eventual cost of more than 60m Egyptian pounds (approximately €3m), more than a thousand times the average annual income of an Egyptian household.
Defiant in his response, Sisi has defended this exorbitant expenditure. Speaking at a National Youth Conference in Cairo on September 14th, Sisi boasted “I’ll keep building and building, but not for me, not in my name. I do it for Egypt.” Elaborate construction projects with outrageously high budgets have become a symbol of Sisi’s reign. The proposed ‘New Administrative Capital’, located 45 kilometres west of Cairo, has become the centrepiece of Sisi’s plans to reform Egypt’s economy. Predicted to cost in excess of 1 trillion Egyptian pounds, the new city will house skyscrapers and luxury villas for up to 6.5m people, as well as the country’s parliament and government offices.
But echoes still ring from the protests in 2011 which ousted Hosni Mubarak, who ruled Egypt for 30 years, and again in 2012 following the election of Sisi’s predecessor, Mohamed Morsi, which eventually prompted Sisi to stage a coup d’etat. One might wonder if moving Egypt’s rich and powerful 45km in to the desert, far enough away to not hear the roars from Tahrir Square, is part of a broader, pre-emptive strategy to prevent another uprising from occurring.
Silencing opposition is indeed another trademark for Sisi’s regime. In response to Ali’s videos in September, thousands of Egyptians lined the streets in protest. The government was quick to react, arresting over 3,000 people, according to the Cairo-based NGO the Egyptian Commission for Rights and Freedoms. Among those accused by the government of aiding a terrorist group were leading opposition figures, including Alaa Abd El-Fattah who was released only in March after serving a five-year sentence for inciting protests and remains in prison. According to Amnesty International, El-Fattah is being held in a cell with poor ventilation, and upon arrival was blindfolded, stripped of his clothes and denied access to clean water.
This brutal treatment by Sisi’s regime is, unfortunately, nothing new for Egyptians who experienced similar silencing of opposition during Mubarak’s 30-year reign. Equally worrying is the ever-growing economic disparity between the country’s rich poor. According to long-awaited figures published by its Central Agency for Public Mobilization and Statistics, 33% of the population lives below the poverty line of roughly €1 a day, up from 28% in 2015. Unemployment is also a major issue, with 39% of the working age population out of work, according to figures published by the World Bank. Actions by Sisi’s government have hit the poorest Egyptians most, with a currency devaluation in 2016 halving its value, fuel subsidies being cut and VAT increased in recent times.
But despite the hardship faced by many Egyptians, Sisi remains steadfast in continuing with his mass spending, armed with a $12 bn loan from the IMF. Determined to modernise its economy, Sisi plans to privatise companies owned by the country’s military, opening a door for the Egyptian people and society to these companies, he claimed, on October 31st. But with vast swathes of the country facing further economic destitution, one might be forgiven for wondering how on earth ordinary Egyptians can afford to invest in state-owned companies.
The apparent ignorance of Sisi and his regime to the hardships faced by so many ordinary Egyptians was perhaps best described by one of Mohamed Ali’s many accounts of his dealings with Sisi and his family. In one incident on December 5th 2012, as protests erupted in Cairo between supporters and opponents of then-President Mohamed Morsi, which left 11 dead, Sisi and his family were given a personal tour by Ali of the newly constructed palace. As Ali describes: “the country was on fire, people were fighting with each other and he was concerned with the house and the swimming pool.”
For Egyptians, the future has become increasingly bleak. In the face of ever-growing poverty, high unemployment and rising costs for its citizens, Sisi’s government continues to march forth splurging on lavish construction projects and continue its reckless expenditure. But in the face of embarrassing revelations and calls for protest from an unlikely source in Mohamed Ali, the government’s seemingly bottomless purse is being held with an iron fist, as thousands of Egyptians lie in prison. While human rights violations continue, rather than face outrage from the international community, Sisi’s government has been praised. Praised by US President, Donald Trump, as ‘a great leader’ at the UN general assembly in New York in September, Trump has previously reportedly lauded him as his ‘favourite dictator.’ Trump is not alone in his admiration for Sisi, however. In September, UK Prime Minister, Boris Johnson, who also met Sisi in New York in September, was keen to praise Egypt’s apparent economic improvement and government efforts, but made no mention of the crackdown on protests in the country, which included a government blocking of the BBC website, along with 514 others.
While the Sisi regime continues to silence its people and the divide between rich and poor looks set to grow, the international community has remained more or less silent, indicating a passive acceptance even for a ruler whose ascent to power was via coup d’etat. As the world continues to be offered an airbrushed image of Egypt’s growing economy, millions of Egyptians in perilous conditions continue to suffer with little hope, salvaged only by the videos uploaded by an accidental revolutionary thousands of kilometres away.
Originally published 28.11.19 in Vol. 3 No. 1.
Photo Credit: Mohammed Elaasar, Middle Eastern Eye