The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Egypt protests over viral videos alleging taxpayer funds stolen to build lavish hotel and palace

People in Cairo protest Egypt’s military-led regime Saturday. (Nariman El-Mofty/AP)

CAIRO — In a military-led regime where official corruption is an open secret, the allegations of graft seemed normal, even expected: Millions of taxpayer dollars stolen to build a luxury hotel and a seaside palace, among other projects.

But few Egyptians expected to see President Abdel Fatah al-Sissi, his wife and top army generals named as the alleged culprits.

Audacious videos posted by a former government contractor on his Facebook page have blown open the clandestine world of the Egyptian army and riveted Egyptians and the broader Arab world.

On Friday night, those corruption allegations, which Sissi has strongly denied committing, triggered small but rare protests in Cairo and other Egyptian cities that lasted into the early morning hours of Saturday. Egyptian security forces used tear gas to disperse protesters. At least 166 people were arrested, said the Egyptian Commission for Rights and Freedoms, a local human rights group.

“Rise up, fear not, Sissi must go,” some protesters chanted.

In the videos, property developer and movie actor Mohamed Ali provides explicit details of the alleged graft that included the construction of a seven-star hotel in a non-tourist area to benefit a military general and close Sissi friend, as well as building an unnecessary presidential palace at a resort in northern Egypt. The 45-year-old Ali ostracizes Sissi and his generals for their lavish living, as poverty deepens in the Arab world’s most populous country.

Whistleblowers are so rare in a nation where critics disappear into prisons and endure torture that millions have watched the videos shared widely on social media sites. The allegations are the central topics of conversations at dinner parties, cafes and social clubs across Cairo.

“After all this, you say that we are very poor and we have to starve,” said Ali in one video, uploaded after he fled to Spain. “Do you starve? You waste billions. Your men waste millions and millions.”

The videos have rattled the Sissi government, a rare occurrence since the authoritarian leader engineered a 2013 coup, when he was Egypt’s top military general, to oust the elected government. The fact that Ali was once a regime insider has given his videos more credibility than any criticism of the regime since Sissi came to power. They have also inspired other Egyptians, including some claiming to be former army and intelligence officers, to post their own videos critical of Sissi and the military.

“Corruption is something a lot of Egyptians take for granted,” said H.A. Hellyer, senior associate fellow at the Royal United Services Institute in London. “But there is a difference when such openly blatant videos come out, no holds barred, especially from someone who was clearly not originally opposed to the authorities.”

At a youth forum recently, Sissi took the unusual step of publicly rebutting for the first time Ali’s allegations by strongly defending the military and declaring that he did not tolerate corruption. The regime is also pushing back hard, using state-controlled media and supporters to deflect any damage to Sissi’s image.

“What was mentioned in recent videos are lies and slander,” said Sissi. “I say to every mother and every man who has trust in me: Your son is honest, trustworthy and loyal.”

The accusations of corruption come as Sissi — reportedly dubbed by President Trump as his “favorite dictator” — is facing criticism for spending billions of public funds for large infrastructure projects, such as a new capital and extending the Suez Canal. The funds, critics say, could be used to alleviate the nation’s high levels of poverty and unemployment at a time when many Egyptians are feeling economic pain from International Monetary Fund-imposed austerity measures.

 Ali’s videos have transformed him into one of the most well-known public personalities in Egypt. More than 1.7 million viewers watched his first video on Sept. 2 on his Facebook page. Egyptians eagerly await his dispatches, which have occurred nearly every day.

In cartoons and memes, Ali is often battling Sissi. A hashtag #ThatsEnoughSisi immediately went viral hours after Ali urged last week that it be used to call for the president to step down. He also called upon protesters to stage street protests on Friday.

“His videos and his allegations have served a huge blow to Sissi’s reputation in the streets,” said Amr Magdi, a Middle East and North Africa researcher for Human Rights Watch. “They have reached parts of society that are not regularly politically active, not much interested in politics. That’s what’s frightening the government, that’s what’s frightening Sissi.

“What Mohamed Ali did is actually something that almost all political actors in the country have not been able to do.”

 On Thursday evening and into Friday, the regime deployed armored vehicles and trucks filled with police in riot gear near Tahrir Square in downtown Cairo, taking Ali’s calls for protest seriously.

Facebook and other social media were a driving force that mobilized hundreds of thousands of Egyptians in 2011 to descend on Tahrir Square, what became the epicenter of the Arab Spring revolution that toppled President Hosni Mubarak.

 From the moment Sissi took office in 2014, a year after overthrowing Islamist Mohamed Morsi, Egypt’s first democratically elected president, efforts have been underway to prevent another populist uprising. 

 Tens of thousands of political opponents and critics have been jailed. Hundreds of websites deemed critical of the regime have been blocked, including nearly all forms of independent media. Any form of dissent, even the mildest one, is quickly silenced in what critics describe as the most authoritarian regime in Egypt’s modern history.

 Under Sissi, the military has gained even more power and control over the country’s economy. The army owns gas stations, hotels, farms, private schools, and even sells pasta and baby formula. Its budget is secret and there is a lack of civilian oversight over the army’s businesses and budget, according to anti-corruption groups. So Ali’s allegations of the military’s squandering of taxpayer money has been “quite unprecedented,” said Magdi.

 For nearly 16 years, Ali said he worked on construction projects for the military and the government. In his videos, he claims the military offered contracts to those they favored without any bidding process. In some cases, Ali said he was ordered to begin work on projects without blueprints for construction. 

Sissi, said Ali, approved the building of the luxury hotel in Cairo’s fifth settlement area, far from any major tourist attraction, because a military general who was a close friend lived in the area and wanted to run the hotel. The cost was roughly $122 million in a nation where a third of its roughly 100 million people live in extreme poverty.

“It looks like he called President Abdel Fatah al-Sissi after he became president and told him, ‘I want to make a profit,’ ” said Ali jokingly in one video. “So Sissi told him, ‘I will get you a project right in front of your house instead of having you leave the house for a project.’ ”

Sissi also ordered the construction of a $15 million presidential palace in the resort enclave of Mamoura in the northern city of Alexandria, even though one already existed. Sissi’s wife, added Ali, also demanded $1.5 million in renovations after it was constructed.

Ali, so far, has not provided any documentary evidence of the alleged corruption. He also acknowledges the government still owes him millions for his work. But that hasn’t stopped countless Egyptians from believing his claims — and expressing outrage. 

“What I heard bothered me as a struggling Egyptian, especially the details he shocked us with,” said Asmaa Mostafa, 30, who works for a digital media firm. “It is infuriating that the economic conditions of the people are deteriorating more and more while all the money is being spent on constructions.”

At the youth forum, Sissi said he would keep using taxpayer funds to build projects, including presidential palaces, but he said “nothing is under my name. It’s under Egypt’s name.”

Since then, Egyptians boldly have taken to social media, sharing photos of Egyptians living in squalid conditions and speaking out against corruption and economic mismanagement. In one tweet, Ahmed Elbaqry, a former vice president of the Egyptian students union called Sissi “a thief.”

Others said they are inspired by Ali to stand up to the regime.

“This man is leading Egypt into another revolution and I support him and his vision 100%,” wrote Abdel Elagami, a Texas-based real estate agent, in a tweet.

The regime, in what critics call a fit of hysteria, is trying to defend Sissi’s image. It has enlisted actors and singers to compose nationalist songs praising Sissi and produced videos that depict Sissi as honest and trustworthy. On social media, his allies are attacking Ali. One anonymous supporter offered $31,000 for “the head of this criminal traitor who insults his superiors, the armed forces and the president.”

Most state run media had no coverage of Friday’s protests but extolled Sissi for bringing stability.

It’s unlikely Ali’s videos will spearhead another revolution, most activists say. But others say his technique has shown a creative way to voice dissent without risking personal harm at the hands of security forces. It offers a road map for the growing opposition to Sissi that is silenced by the regime’s brutal repression. 

 “No one has been able to take this opposition to build something in the streets or to politically mobilize,” said Magdi. “That’s what’s changed now.”

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