CAIRO — Something big — that we do not yet fully understand — is happening in Egypt's halls of power. Maybe we know some of it, and will get to know more with time. Perhaps we won't learn more at any time in the near future. What we do know is that the build-up to last Friday's protests began with a video of an Egyptian residing abroad, filming himself with a phone in a room overlooking the sea, accusing the country's rulers of corruption and squandering billions on vanity real estate projects. His name is Mohamed Ali.
The first video by Ali, a former contractor who also had a brief stint as an actor, stirred the pot. Others soon followed suit, posting similar videos accusing the current authorities of corruption and political mismanagement. No response from the authorities has matched the videos' intensity or consistency in terms of their form or content. Last week, President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi gave an address at a hastily organized youth conference where he dismissed the accusations as "lies" — marking the only official high-level response to Ali's claims. This response, however, only provoked even more videos, with more accusations and more people in power implicated in acts of corruption.
Ali posted the first of his now-viral videos two weeks ago. They contain a number of accusations, outlining specific incidents and directly laying blame on well-known individuals. And despite the controversy sparked by the videos, the authorities did not offer a response, save for a media campaign aimed at tarnishing the contractor's image that did not refute the substance of his claims.
The first accusation was made against Major General Kamel al-Wazir, current Minister of Transportation and former head of the Armed Forces' Engineering Authority, which oversees a number of major national projects, and Major General Essam al-Kholy, head of the engineering authority's Major Projects division. The debacle surrounded a luxury hotel for military intelligence in the Choueifat area of New Cairo, which was allegedly shrouded in violations. Ali was the contractor for the project, which he claims cost more than LE2 billion.
He also said that military leaders contracted him to build a presidential villa in Alexandria for Sisi and his family to spend their Eid vacation which cost some LE250 million ($15.3 million).
The former contractor also claims that military leaders decided to build a number of villas in the Heikstep military area, next to a large palace that was intended to be a presidential residence. He went on to say that this project has been replaced with another called "al-Kayan", meant to gather all military leaders in one area.
He alleges that all economic projects embarked on by the Armed Forces in cooperation with the private sector are delegated directly, forgoing the normal tender process where projects are awarded to the highest bidder.
By the end of the first week of videos, Ali's well had seemingly dried up — or maybe that is how he wanted it to appear. He then turned his focus from specific accusations of corruption and waste to a broader political attack against Sisi and the men surrounding him.
The president decided that open confrontation was the best way to address the accusations.
At this point, pro-regime TV presenter Amr Adib said that Ali's videos were becoming "boring." That might have been the case until Sisi spoke the next day at a quickly organized iteration of the "National Youth Conference," where he dedicated his appearance to discussing rumors on social media. During the conference, the president decided that open confrontation was the best way to address the accusations. He took the former contractor head-on, despite "warnings from intelligence agencies" not to do so.
"Are you not afraid for your army? Are you not afraid for your young officers that are hearing talks of their leaders being bad people? Do you not know the army? The army is a closed institution (applause), no really, the army is a closed institution that is very, very, very sensitive to any inappropriate behavior. Especially if it is being said that the leaders are involved in this inappropriate behavior," Sisi said.
He added: "All the intelligence agencies told me please do not talk about it. All the agencies … You know, I'll tell you something, they kissed my hand, saying please don't do this [they said]. I told them, what's between me and the people is trust. The people believe me. When someone tries to break that and tells them that this person you trust is not a good person. This is the most dangerous thing in the world. This is the most dangerous thing in the world."
But Sisi's mesh of endearing and threatening discourse might have only given his opponents a leg up. Just a few hours after the conference concluded, Ali posted two hours worth of new clips, which were more of an open political confrontation. The videos begin with stories pertaining to the president's son, Mahmoud, and the state's counter-insurgency campaign in North Sinai. There was also a topical shift in Ali's videos, from the personal account of a contractor who worked with the government to that of a political opponent speaking his mind to his audience. This is when Mosaad Abu Fagr, a longtime Sinai activist, now based abroad, appeared with an even more drastic list of accusations.
Abu Fagr kept the train of accusations rolling and even amplified it. He appeared to be knowledgeable of the topics he discussed and reinforced his accounts by claiming to have attended meetings with the General Intelligence Service. He delved deeper into topics generally considered off-limits and led the way for even more videos detailing political mismanagement, financial corruption and one-man rule.
He released two videos a few days apart. In the first video, he claims that the state declined an offer made by North Sinai's tribal leaders to rid Sinai of terrorist cells within a few weeks. Abu Fagr said that he was asked by the same tribal leaders to make this information public.
Abu Fagr also claims that the president has sought help from drug smugglers and dealers with criminal records instead of cooperating with the tribes. He also says that the president and his son, Mahmoud, have an economic stake in the business of smuggling goods from Sinai to Gaza.
In the other video, Abu Fagr speaks about the Armed Forces' wiping out of entire villages along the Egypt-Gaza border, which he describes as a "direct confrontation to the people of Sinai, with the purpose of serving the so-called "deal of the century."
And then more videos kept coming out and spread throughout social media. One popular video posted by Ahmed Sarhan, a former army officer and lawyer, has received over half a million views.
Videos of former army and intelligence officers started coming out.
Sarhan's video was posted a few days after Ali's accusations began to spread, particularly in response to the news that lawyer Mohamed Hamdy Younes, who said he would officially request the Attorney General to investigate Ali's claims, was arrested and charged by the State Security Prosecution with belonging to a terrorist organization. In the video, Sarhan backs up most claims made by Ali and asks for Younes' release, before making further accusations against the president's inner circle, especially Wazir.
And then videos of individuals claiming to be former army and intelligence officers started coming out. In one such video, a masked individual notes the date on which he recorded the video before backing Ali's assertions and claiming that he possesses sensitive information that puts him in a position to ask Sisi to step down.
He explains that Ali's account of "factual information about the corruption in the upper ranks of the Armed Forces", as well as people's sympathy towards Ali, have caused some state entities to reach out to the latter. He alleges that the events happening are actually an act of "retaliation" by the General Intelligence Service against Military Intelligence over the forced retirement of 95 officers from the General Intelligence Service, among other reasons. The two security bodies, in addition to the National Security Agency, are the three main intelligence entities in Egypt. Sisi hails from Military Intelligence, which he directed until he was appointed Defense Minister and commander of the Armed Forces in 2012.
The masked army officer's video was followed by a video of another masked individual who claimed to be an intelligence officer. He claimed that Sisi is trying to change those in command at a rapid pace so that their tenure is not long enough to allow them to accrue significant power within the Armed Forces. He also claimed that the official spokesperson for the Israeli army had tweeted (without specifying the date of the tweet) warning Sisi about a coup. According to the masked man, less than 48 hours later, Sisi reshuffled the commanding ranks of the military. Last year, Sisi replaced the head of the General Intelligence Service Khaled Fawzy with Abbas Kamel, a close associate of the president. In 2017, he removed Mahmoud Hegazy, his military chief of staff, and replaced him with Mohamed Farid Higazy.
The masked man in the video says: "Sisi runs the intelligence from his presidential office and sends all agency reports to Israel. This is evidenced by the fact that the entire region is being arranged for the benefit of Israel, both politically and militarily. Egypt is now losing its authority over the Red Sea and oil wells, and is losing its ability to bypass water obstacles, and is also losing the Nile."
Unlike the two Armed Forces officers who made efforts to stay anonymous throughout their videos, another video surfaced of a former Armed Forces' pilot named Hany Sharaf who appears unmasked. In his video, Sharaf appeared to answer questions from another individual in the room, who remained unidentified. In the video, Sharaf said, "If you get any military man who just graduated they can tell you that giving up Tiran and Sanafir was not done to benefit Saudi Arabia, but rather in Israel's interest in removing Egypt's authority over the waterways." In a contested 2016 agreement, Egypt ceded two of its Red Sea islands to Saudi Arabia, stirring opposition from several parties, including some judicial institutions.
Then, Hesham Sabry, who identified himself as a former state security officer, published a video in which he says that Ali's coming forward encouraged him to talk because they reassured him that "the obvious things said by Ali, which are 90 percent true, have shocked the people of Egypt." He went on to say that Sisi controls all aspects of the state, adding that "we will never get rid of him, he will stay with is but it is important for him to know that there is an opposition."
Activist Wael Ghoneim, who is closely associated with the 2011 protests, also shared videos from the United States where he resides. Several days later, his family in Cairo announced on Facebook that their house was raided and Ghoneim's brother Hazem was arrested.
Ghoneim's videos struck a similar note to the others, especially regarding the role of Sisi's son in managing the daily politics of the state. He says that the latter personally contacted him about the use of social media accounts to sway public opinion.
People who don't necessarily have secrets to share are now commenting.
And so, Ali spoke, Sisi answered, then others spoke. Now even more people who don't necessarily have secrets to share are commenting.
One of the most popular video responses to the accusations was posted by Sherif Faranca on his fitness and zumba dancing focused Facebook page. The video now has over 2.5 million views.
"You're complaining that people are sharing [the videos on social media]. Did you ask yourself why people are sharing? I'll tell you. First of all, because we have a one-sided media. This means that the only way people can let off steam is through social media. The media does not reflect people's problems so people take to social media," Faranca says in the video.
"Now we come to the presidential palaces. I won't dwell on the small things, but believe me this hurt all of us. We're all barely getting by. We're a mess. So when we hear about the presidential palaces you're building and your answer is ‘I'll still build more' … Who said that modern states are judged by their ability to build luxurious presidential palaces? You know more than I do. Why are they being built? Even if they aren't for you, these serve one individual and we have so many people that we need to serve. So tell me, why are they being built? Why are you provoking us?" he says.
"Your answers weren't at the level we were expecting. This isn't about Mohamed [Ali], he just raised suspicions. The response [to the accusations] needed to be objective and clear. Is there actual corruption? What about the army generals he talked about? Are they what he says they are? Are there actually that many presidential palaces? If he's a liar, tell us that he's a liar upfront and with proof."
The regime tried to keep up with the influx of videos with its regular media attacks against the video makers from its most prominent mouthpieces like Ahmed Moussa and Nashaat al-Dihy. Then, videos spread online of famous actors and singers including Hamo Bika, Shaaban Abdel Reheem and Mohamed Lotfy offering their support to the president.
Then, Mahmoud Badr, a member of Parliament once close to the opposition who led the Tamarod campaign that spearheaded a petition campaign to oust former president Mohamed Morsi in 2013, also posted a video on Twitter. He starts off by recounting his history as a member of the opposition during the June 30 period. More than half of Badr's video is made up of him saying things such as "I will not talk about treason" and "I will not talk about this." The other half warns of the dangers of a war on the state and "calls to take down the Egyptian army."
But nothing has yet to stop the deluge of videos.
See more from World Affairs here