No James Bond Martinis here; but Egyptians are stirred, and the government is shaken. A contractor, doubling as an occasional actor, named Mohamed Ali has moved still waters, for the first time, in the fear filled Sisi era. For a man fond of telling Egyptians “listen only to me”, the notion that another man has Egyptians perking up their ears is disturbing to his mammoth ego and an existential code red.
Not only has Ali highlighted a cascading stream of corruption allegations against Sisi and his military cadres, but he has buttressed those claims with names, dates and exorbitant numbers laying out the systematic nature of the said corruption. A video is just a video, even if it is a series of viral videos watched by millions, some might believe. They would be wrong. Ali has touched a nerve and as I type, he, after two consecutive weeks of rare protests against the autocrat, is hinting at more “important steps”. The September Intifada may very well be coming to an end, from all appearances, but understanding it ushers in a better ability to predict the short and medium term of the Egyptian Zeitgeist.
Short-term triggers for revolts are notoriously unpredictable. In 2011, it was the murder of the young Khaled Said by security forces who accused him of consuming a bag of drugs to cover up a brazen torture/murder by two policemen, shortly after his arrest. This time around, with numerous grievances piling up since a July 3rd 2013 coup which unseated former President Mohamed Morsi, Mohamed Ali became the spark. Since his first video large swaths of Egyptian society have taken to Ali’s off the cuff, often vulgar, Shahrazad-like tales of a corrupt president with a fondness for palaces costing in the hundreds of millions of Egyptian pounds. His latest video accumulated nearly 2 million views. A natural actor possessing a symbiotic relationship with the camera, at one turn angry, at another sarcastic and yet again comic, Ali became a sensation.
Then, he became a political lightening rod.
This is where our saga’s mystery quotient rises precipitously. Had the contractor criticized the military figures who withheld millions, after they discovered his anti Sisi stance (21:49) in a long video or two, it would have been a reasonable shot across the bow. Mohamed Ali is no ordinary man though. It is not what he has done in as much as his method. A dialogue that began with the names, dates and numbers swung, radically, to exploration of a paradigm shift. Simplifying it, he said “the system is wrong (not destroy the institutions) it all must be destroyed … we remodel our structure and the entire world will respect us” (25:00).
How could exiled contractor/actor Mohamed Ali, a person with limited education but plenty of life and business experience, present a well-laid out system of governance that recognizes the people’s hunger for self-determination after decades of dictatorship?
Those who thought Egypt’s wall of fear has been surmounted, 2011 style, were mistaken. This will take time. Too many, in the deep state, with too much at stake, cannot allow Sisi to sink. So now what for Egypt?
Exiled actor/contractor Mohamed Ali’s most important role has been to uncover the depth of resentment created by a Marie Antoinette style elite roaming Sisi’s halls of power. How to translate those dynamics into a ground swell, requires PhD calculus.
The progression took a leap forward that simultaneously confirmed and refuted the notion that Mohamed Ali is supported by a camp within the deep state apparatus- many suggested it is the General Intelligence Service (GIS). “Many, many people asked me after Sisi leaves, what do we do?”. Putting aside the inherent lack of realism of such a scenario, under the current conditions, the question and its answer unpeeled much of the ideological onion that is Mr. Ali. A man, who says he was poorly educated in public schools, started discussing a form of egalitarian governance resembling the end game of Marxist dialectics. Instead of “Godifying’ our leaders they are but employees…The word must be the people’s”.
Far from inadvertent sloganeering, what he said next reflected one of the most popular chants of the revolt “El Sha3b Yorid Isqat al nizam” the people want the fall of the regime. “Supremacy is to the people (the majority) but 100 million cannot rule so what to do? We choose 50 people, each governate chooses 50 people. Why 50? Because we want transparency” Say those words aloud, absorb them; what Ali is proposing here is a decentralized, transparent, democracy. In the space of 3 weeks he went from saying “my money has been stolen”, to Sisi is living like a king, to the problem isn’t just Sisi but the system. Now he had arrived, two days after demonstrations broke out, at a political solution based on a highly progressive paradigm.
One of the chief reasons for the failure of the 2011 revolution was the inability to recognize the difference between changing a persona and altering a system of governance. How could Ali, a person with limited education but plenty of life and business experience be able to lay out a well-laid out system of governance that recognizes the people’s hunger for self-determination after decades of dictatorship rule? Some theorized that not only was Ali being supported by GIS, but that this video brings to the fore the possibility of Mr. Ali, himself, being an intelligence operative. Yet, how is it possible that a branch of the deep state, made up of former army officers, put forth a prototype espousing a systematic undercutting of their entrenched control? A muddled picture to say the least, but made no less interesting by the fact that he continued” those 50, whether liberal, Brotherhood, secular, or otherwise not our issue…but men of religion are meant to preach not play at politics”. In one fell swoop: separation of church of state and pluralism. See a pattern developing here?
But Ali, while deeply successful as a whistle blower, because he came from the elite and admitted his personal corruption, is no organizer. Egypt is a highly complex puzzle with variables shifting from week to week and far more opaque than transparent. Those nuances were missed by Mr. Ali. When he was met with historic success, as thousands scattered across major cities on September 20th in unprecedented protest against Abdel Fatah El Sisi, Mohamed Ali overplayed his hand. He called for more demonstrations the next Friday.
This time, the element of surprise was gone, the Sisi shadow state went into overdrive and by the time the autocrat had returned from the UNGA on the morning of the 27th Cairo was on lock down. The NY Times headline blared: scattered protest breakout for the second straight week but the most apolitical among us could see what was plain: fear had won the day powered by the stick. Ali, however, did not relent, propelled by a hopeful predilection and naivete, he called for more demonstrations this past Tuesday, on 24 hours-notice to recreate the element of surprise factor of the first demonstrations.
It would not be
Tuesday featured the invisible demonstrations. No one should have been surprised. Over 2000 Egyptians had been arrested already. One horrifying video showed Haytham Wagih Twyla, an advocate for residents of seaside port Port Said, in a 3 am face off, protected with a separating steel door, with 5 unidentified men from the local bureau of investigations. The video, which went viral, had a chilling effect, it encapsulated the fears of many: the “dawn visitor’’. He escaped arrest that night but was kidnapped by security forces 3 days later. Those who mistakenly thought the wall of fear had come down, 2011 style, were mistaken. This will take time. Too many, in the deep state, with too much to lose, cannot allow Sisi to sink.
So, now what?
Mohamed Ali never claimed revolutionary leadership and in his Twitter conversations and videos always has made efforts to say: talk to me, I’m listening and reading your comments. Certainly, an important spark to move the discourse along while chipping at the wall of fear, his most important role has been to uncover the depth of resentment created by a Marie Antoinesque elite. How to translate those dynamics into a ground swell, rather than mathematic in simplicity is a, PHD level, study in political calculus.
Eleven and half years ago, on April 6th, the headline was Angry protest Stuns Egypt, it took nearly three years before that organization, present in labor circles in Mahala, would trickle down to the masses. In the intervening years, activists worked diligently, in a unified fashion and with a realistic ceiling of expectation. All never expected when they went down to the streets on that chilly winter’s day on the 25th January that their calls to the people to join them would be heeded. Yet, despite the constant of haphazardness tethering to the initial stages of revolt, the organization for that first moment, the building blocks, are a must and not a luxury. It is a luxury absent at this moment.
It remains to be seen whether the people will surprise intellectuals, analysts and intelligence agencies alike. To be determined whether Mr. Ali is working alone or whether, as I suspect, he has string backing from within the highest ranks of the Egyptian milieu. And if so, do they possess trump cards as some have suggested, video, audio, or paperwork proving high treason by Sisi and the gang?
This much has been determined: the fuse has been lit- only time will tell how long it is.