Egypt: construction magnate’s revelations lead to nationwide protests – “Sisi must go!”

President of Egypt, Abdel Fattah el-Sisi, is not a man familiar with the concept of shame. Perhaps that is why Donald Trump recently referred to him as his “favourite dictator”. Or perhaps the US commander-in-chief was just trying to make him feel better as the last of his authority in the eyes of the Egyptian people was ebbing away. Sitting calmly with a microphone in hand at the impromptu youth forum hastily arranged at his behest, Sisi did what his closest advisors had begged him to refrain from doing. He addressed the nation.

“Do not worry. Do not worry. We don’t allow any bad people to continue working in the government,” he reassured Egypt in a soothing voice without any hint of irony. Moments earlier, he had openly admitted that billions of public funds had been spent on building palaces for him and his family. “Yes, I have built presidential palaces, and will continue to do so. I am creating a new state; nothing is registered with my name, it is built for Egypt… When you speak falsely, do you think that scares me? No. I’ll keep building and building.”

“But I don’t do it for me,” he clarified, apparently concerned that some people may assume otherwise. “Not under my name. Nothing under my name. It’s under Egypt’s name.” While uttering these words, the president wagged his finger, wearing the smug expression of a small child who has just gotten away with stealing sweets by pinning it on his friend.

This astonishing display of contempt for an Egyptian population suffering desperate living conditions came in response to a series of viral videos posted online by construction magnate and actor Mohamed Ali. Over a 15-year period, the state used Ali’s company for various large-scale building projects, including some of the palaces Sisi has confessed to ordering.

On 2 September, Ali first posted a video exposing Sisi and other leading figures in the regime on his Facebook page. The video was watched 1.7 million times, and was soon followed by four more. Ali’s initial motivation seems to have been the $13.3m in bills he claims the state has failed to pay his company for its work. However, it was the implication of the president himself in corruption allegations – which are extraordinary even by Egyptian standards – from the horse’s mouth, which quickly garnered the videos mass attention. After Facebook removed them on the instruction of the regime, further videos of Ali began appearing on YouTube. Every day, a new video would reveal another crime committed by Sisi, his wife and other senior government and military personnel. The videos soon topped trending lists for Egypt, and led to social media hashtags that openly called out Sisi.

“Billions spilled on the ground”

The rap sheet of crimes committed by Sisi and his associates revealed in Ali’s videos involves eye-watering sums of public money.

When appointed Defence Minister for the Morsi government in 2012, Sisi ordered the construction of a new mansion for his family in the upmarket Hilmiya district of Cairo, using $6m of state funds. On the very day that there were violent clashes between Muslim Brotherhood members and anti-government protesters in a nearby neighbourhood in 2012, Ali claims that Sisi and his wife were driven through the protests to inspect the furnishings of their new palace.

As president, Sisi approved the building of a massive $120m, government-owned, 7-star hotel complex as a favour to his close ally, Major General Sherif Salah, who would personally profit from the running of the hotel. The hotel was to be built in the non-touristic 5th Settlement: a suburb east of Cairo. When surveyors for Ali’s contracting firm asked why there was a rush to dig the hotel’s foundations without feasibility studies and blueprints being drawn up (given the oversaturation of hotel beds already in the area), they were told that the president must see that work has started as soon as possible.

Donald Trump greets the President of Egypt Abdel Fattah Al Sisi May 2017 Image White HouseTrump's "favourite dictator" has spent millions from the public purse on palaces for himself / Image: White House

Ali describes how his firm was instructed to suddenly withdraw its workforce from another costly project for the regime to go and build a new summer palace for the president in the Alexandrian resort of Ma’moura. Military leaders explained to Ali that the new palace was a top priority, as Sisi had decided to spend the coming Eid holiday there. The construction came at a public cost of 250m EGP ($15m), despite there already being a similar presidential palace (which had previously been used by Mubarak) just next door! When the building was finished, Sisi’s wife demanded changes at a further cost of 25m EGP. The palace was then deemed insecure and never used.

The videos also reveal that Sisi is having presidential palaces built for himself in Egypt’s new administrative capital and (after the previous failed summer residence project) in El-Alamein on the Mediterranean coast. The cost of these latest extravagances to the Egyptian people is as-yet unaccounted for. As Ali rightly points out, "Now you say we are very poor, we must be hungry. Do you get hungry? You spend billions that are spilled on the ground. Your men squander millions. I am not telling a secret. You are a bunch of thieves."

The Armed Forces Engineering Authority is implicated in this scandal for doling out building contracts to cronies of the regime (including Mohamed Ali himself) without any due process. So are the country’s largest public and private banks, which provided loans to finance these frivolous projects in the names of the contractors themselves (but guaranteed by the Egyptian Army).

Ali disclosed all of this damning evidence against the President of Egypt in rambling, impassioned rants from his self-imposed exile in Barcelona. No doubt, he has fallen out with the regime over unpaid bills, among other things, and since posting his videos, he is number one on the government’s wanted list.

Mohamed Aly Image fair useMohamed Ali's revelations carry more weight because he is an eyewitness to and participant in the system he is exposing / Image: fair use

But we must bear in mind that Ali is a member of the same ruling class he speaks out against. He is a billionaire in Egyptian terms: the son of a gold merchant, who has creamed vast amounts of wealth off the back-breaking labour of Egyptian workers, and whose testimonies expose his own role as well as Sisi’s.

It is telling that, in his first video, following a diatribe against Sisi and his henchman, Ali is at pains to note, "However, there are many good men in the army who do not approve of what you are doing." By “good men in the army," Ali may be referring to a particular section of the regime represented among the army tops, which is ready to move against Sisi. He certainly doesn’t mean the working-class soldiers conscripted into the military.

Since leaving Egypt, Ali has set up a new branch of his Amlaak Construction Company in Barcelona, as he sets his sights on the holiday rental market of the Costa Brava. His main motivations for coming out against Sisi appear to be the bitterness he harbours about the money owed to him by the regime, and his own vanity. In recent years, Ali has become famous in Egypt as a bit-part actor, with a helping hand from his friends in high places. He also financed a film he wrote, directed and starred in himself. He is clearly someone who loves the limelight, and no one should be fooled into thinking he has turned over a new leaf and is suddenly the friend of ordinary Egyptians.

Nevertheless, Ali’s public profile and status as a defecting regime insider actually adds power and legitimacy to the content of his videos. As he says, nothing in what he reveals comes as a shock to Egyptians. But it is the fact that it comes from a direct eyewitness and collaborator, who is daring to expose the president, that gives them weight.

Ali’s rhetoric strikes a chord with ordinary people, as his videos convey their anger and disgust with the regime. He personally insults Sisi – something unheard of in Egyptian media or even social media – calling him “a failed man”, “a disgrace” and a “midget”, and demagogically emphasises the contrasts the plight of the people with the decadence of the ruling class in emotive language. This super-rich businessman even sometimes adopts overtly revolutionary phraseology – albeit in a convoluted way and from his own class standpoint: “We are all corrupt, but we are not to blame. The system is to blame. He does not want to change the system. We need a new system.”

An accident of necessity

Whatever his initial motivations, Ali’s videos have accidentally set in motion a chain of events that has led to unprecedented protests against Sisi across Egypt. Sisi’s remarks on 14 September at the National Youth Conference predictably provoked public outrage, and Ali tapped into this mood by calling for national protests the following Friday.

Sure enough, spontaneous demonstrations took place around the country. Hundreds of people gathered in Tahrir Square, while thousands marched through the streets of Alexandria, El-Warraq island in Cairo (the site of an anti-government occupation two years ago), and the industrial centres of el-Mahalla, Mansoura and Suez – blocking traffic. In the delta city of Damietta, a video shows one of the many huge pro-Sisi billboards erected for the referendum campaign earlier this year being torn down.

The slogans of 2011, which directly called for the downfall of the regime, were revived, while for the first time there were slogans universally chanted that directly called for the removal of Sisi: “Do not fear, rise, kick out the traitor!” and “Sisi must go!” The protests continued with the same intensity on Saturday night, despite hundreds of arrests.

Interestingly, the police inflicted greater brutality on protestors attacking the army than those directing their anger at Sisi. Protests had been uniformly banned from Tahrir Square for five years before this weekend. There is a sense that the state is not wholly united in wanting to crush this protest movement before it develops.

What next for Egypt?

Of course, the movement has until now involved relatively small numbers of people – but so did the very first days of the 2011 Revolution. Moreover, the layers who are coming out onto the streets now are not the middle-class elements that made up the core of the first days of the 2011 revolution, but poor and working-class elements. What is terrifying the regime is that, behind this advanced guard, is the uncontrollable wrath of millions of workers and poor who are suffering in Sisi’s Egypt. That is the reason for the timid initial response of the police and armed forces.

Others have ascribed this to rumours – proliferating for some time – that there is a section of the regime prepared to remove the president in a coup. It is clear that some members of the Egyptian ruling class no longer trust Sisi to safeguard their interests and keep the masses at bay. Mohamed Ali would is symptomatic of this process. But a conspiracy theory does not explain what is happening on the streets.

A coup would pose a serious problem for the ruling class. Firstly, in attempting to use a protest movement to remove Sisi, they would be unleashing forces beyond their control. Over the last few years, the Egyptian masses have proved themselves more than capable not only of removing a president but of shaking the entire regime to its foundations. The last thing the Egyptian ruling class needs is another Arab Spring in Egypt, which could threaten its very existence.

On the other side of the equation, the Egyptian masses are faced with a similar problem. With the minimum of effort they could wipe away Sisi’s regime tomorrow. But what would come in its place? Without a socialist alternative, posed by a well-prepared, genuinely revolutionary leadership, the power in the hands of the Egyptian working class would simply be given over to yet another monster representing the old order in disguise. Ordinary Egyptians have therefore understandably spent the last few years questioning the value of another revolution.

Nevertheless, the truth is that the conditions that created the revolutionary period of the first half of this decade have only been exacerbated. Unemployment, poverty and general decay have shot up like never before. Regardless of their exhaustion from the previous struggle and lack of confidence in a revolutionary alternative, there is only so much suffering and indignity people can take. And when the president admits on national television that he is using vast amounts of money to build himself and his wife luxury residences in their name, this could well be more than millions of workers and youth can stand.

If such widespread protests and bold slogans can arise out of the video blogs of a Sisi supporter-turned-whistleblower who fancies himself as an actor, what kind of mass movement could a real revolutionary leadership call to action? It is a matter of immediate priority for the left in Egypt to prepare a leadership worthy of standing at the head of the next mass movement, which may be about to explode onto the streets.

They must put the lessons they have learned from the mistakes of the last revolution into practice with the utmost sense of urgency. For instance, in their latest article, the Revolutionary Socialists explain that it is not just Sisi but the whole of the army that must be removed from power for there to be a real change.

In a sense this is correct: the dominant wing of the Egyptian ruling class has always been tied up with the General Staff of the Armed Forces; the army’s companies own more than 3 percent of Egypt’s GBP and likely have a direct hand in over 50 percent. But this is not a military question at bottom – it a class question. The particular character of the Egyptian bourgeoisie is expressed in its close association with the Armed Forces, but more fundamentally it encompasses the banks and big businesses, such as property magnates in whose interests the military regime governs the country. As Mohamed Ali’s revelations demonstrate, all of these elements act as one, great cabal above the law – which applies to the rest of society.

By making their focus simply the abolition of the military regime and the installation of civilian rule, the Revolutionary Socialists are simply repeating their analysis of the last revolution. It was this analysis that led them into the trap of critically supporting the Muslim Brotherhood – an equally reactionary bourgeois outfit – as a ‘lesser evil’ to the military candidate in the 2012 presidential elections. This perspective also fails to explain how the people will find themselves in a position to physically take hold of state power and smash the old state apparatus in order to achieve civilian rule, without winning hundreds of thousands of working-class army conscripts to their side.

The revolutionary left in Egypt has to be bold in its slogans against the fundamental enemy of the Egyptian working class: the Egyptian capitalist class – which means Sisi, his henchman, the army tops, the big businessmen and the banks all together. With the correct perspective, clear slogans and patient work among the ranks of the youth and the working class, a Marxist tendency could be in a position to ready the masses for power in the event of a new revolutionary wave.

We may just be witnessing the first signs of that wave on the horizon, and the beginning of the end of Sisi.