Written by Vivian Yee and Nada Rashwan (Raphael Minder contributed reporting from Madrid.)
Under the government of President Abdel-Fattah el-Sissi of Egypt, so little dissent is allowed — and what little there is comes at such a high price — that when just a few hundred people across the country called for el-Sissi’s ouster in a burst of scattered protests Friday night, it came as a shock.
The apparent trigger for the demonstrations was almost as unexpected: Mohamed Ali, a 45-year-old construction contractor and part-time actor who said he got rich building projects for the Egyptian military and then left for Spain to live in self-imposed exile, where he began posting videos on social media accusing el-Sissi of corruption and hypocrisy.
In the three weeks since his first video appeared, Ali has reinvented himself as a whistleblower, an el-Sissi antagonist and protest guru, and his tales of corruption at the top have transformed him into a leading voice of opposition to the president. When the protests erupted, it was at the time and date Ali had urged from afar.
But the extent, and durability, of Ali’s out-of-nowhere influence — and his ability to spur further demonstrations — remains to be seen. His surge from obscurity to prominence has also raised questions in Egypt about whether his sudden fame has been helped along or exploited by powerful interest groups in the country, inside or outside the government.
“It is sort of odd,” said Amy Hawthorne, deputy director for research at the Project on Middle East Democracy. “Who is this person, who is he connected to, what led him to come out with these allegations now? Obviously he’s very well connected, but who exactly are his connections?”
To at least some protesters, Ali was less an inspiration than an opportunity to vent their frustrations.
“I protested because the way Sissi is ruling is wrong and disgraceful,” said Ali Mohamed, 19, a resident of the working-class Cairo neighborhood of Boulaq who live-streamed some of the Tahrir Square demonstrations Friday. “Egypt deserves better than for its land to be sold out or for its people to be imprisoned.”
He added: “People were just waiting for the opportunity to protest — Mohamed Ali’s videos are not the real reason why they did. The reason is that people wanted to take action.”
On Saturday evening, about 200 protesters in the Red Sea city of Suez were met with police officers firing rubber bullets, according to posts on social media and a witness.
In Cairo, however, there did not appear to be any signs of further protests. Police preemptively flooded Tahrir Square on Saturday, where mass demonstrations during the Arab Spring eight years ago brought down President Hosni Mubarak and raised hopes for democratic change.
The test of just how deep Ali’s influence is could come as soon as this week. In a video posted Saturday evening, Ali called for a new round of protests against el-Sissi to take place this coming Friday.
“We should stop making gods out of presidents,” he said in the video, exhorting the military to remove el-Sissi from power.
Though police did not kill any protesters Friday, security forces have not hesitated to use deadly force in the past, and el-Sissi is likely to order a swift and thorough crackdown if protests persist.
Since coming to power in a 2013 military takeover, el-Sissi has cemented his hold through harsh repression that has silenced critics and curtailed free speech.
An Egyptian monitoring group, the Egyptian Center for Economic and Social Rights, said Sunday that at least 274 people had been arrested at the protests, and that some demonstrators had reported being beaten and tear-gassed.
Given the gravity of the possible consequences, observers were stunned that protesters had dared to show up at all, apparently moved by little more than a man with a webcam waging a campaign against el-Sissi from the safety of Spain.
But the Facebook videos Ali posts under the name “Mohamed Ali Secrets” have become must-see TV among young, social media-savvy Egyptians, who tune in every day or two to watch him talk to the camera, chain-smoking as he cheerfully insults el-Sissi as a “midget” and a “disgrace.” There have been at least 35 so far.
Ali’s gravel-voiced exposés have resonated with many Egyptians, who have watched el-Sissi erect enormous building projects while their own finances collapse. The government reported in July that one in three Egyptians were living in poverty.
The video monologues have been repeatedly taken down from Facebook, under unclear circumstances, but not before accumulating millions of views. On Twitter, Egyptians joked that his episodes were better than Netflix.
Then last week, Ali called for viewers to take to the streets Friday evening after a soccer game between two popular Egyptian teams. That appeared to let loose hundreds of Egyptians — many of them young, working-class men — who participated in protests in a scattering of cities around the country, including Tahrir Square and the poor neighborhood of Warraq Island in Cairo, as well as in Alexandria, Suez and El-Mahalla El-Kubra.
But beyond the fact that protests erupted when Ali called for them, theories far outweighed the available information about his precise role. Some observers speculated that Ali may be a puppet controlled, at least in part, by another entity, possibly people in el-Sissi’s government who are seeking to undermine or even overthrow the president, who is out of the country attending the United Nations General Assembly this week.
“The entire thing is a little bit fishy,” said Khaled Dawoud, a longtime journalist and spokesman for one of Egypt’s all-but-defunct opposition parties. “He didn’t introduce himself as a politician. He’s more like a whistleblower, and suddenly he decided to turn into a revolutionary leader.”
Others wondered whether the protests had truly been spontaneous, or if they had been orchestrated by opposition groups like the Muslim Brotherhood, the Islamist group that el-Sissi has sought to throttle ever since he came to power in a coup that deposed President Mohammed Morsi, a member of the Brotherhood who was also Egypt’s first democratically elected leader.
Most protesters Friday appeared to be young men in their teens or early 20s who were children during the upheavals of 2011 and 2013, when protests brought down two successive presidents.
Good-looking and fit, Ali may be seen as something of a folk hero, analysts said — an uneducated man who made millions and who is now riding to the rescue of the working classes. He does not speak like a democracy activist or a politician, but like one of them — or, perhaps, whom they would like to be.
“He resonates with a wider sector of Egyptians in a way that no one before him ever did,” said Rabab el-Mahdi, a political scientist at the American University in Cairo. “They look at him and see a successful version of themselves.”
It is perhaps not surprising that Ali exudes on-camera charisma. A movie in which he stars and also produced, about young Egyptians making the dangerous journey across the Mediterranean to Europe, won the 2019 Outstanding Art for Peace prize at the Luxembourg Peace Prize awards in June.
But Ali’s motivations remain murky, as do his exact whereabouts in Spain. In an article published in the Spanish edition of Vanity Fair in July, he said that he decided to settle in Barcelona and pursue business projects there after a vacation in the area.
He could not be reached for comment.