ohamed Ali, the self-exiled Egyptian whistleblower whose anti-corruption social media videos have ignited a nascent protest movement against President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi, gave his first mainstream media interview on Tuesday.
The interview, a Middle East Eye exclusive, reflects fast-moving changes that have taken place over the past several days in Egypt.
In addition to revealing that Ali is likely aware of the need to use traditional media to advance his political cause, the interview provides further explanation of issues highlighted in the now-famous video productions, which have been viewed millions of times on social media sites.
In particular, Ali explained his intent to remove Sisi from power; the nature of threats he has received from the Egyptian government; and why, after working with the Egyptian military for 15 years, he decided recently to break away and begin speaking out against corruption.
The interview was published on the same day Ali released his most recent video and just two days after Sisi delivered a speech at the “Sixth of October” war anniversary event.
Collectively, Ali’s interview, Sisi’s Sunday speech, and the most recent video release underscore the changing nature of what Ali has repeatedly referred to as the “game” he is playing with Sisi.
The “game”, Ali has suggested, involves drawing Sisi along a path paved entirely by the exiled dissident, forcing him into a defensive posture, and luring him into “surprises”.
Wittingly or unwittingly, Sisi is playing along.
In several recent public addresses, and despite never mentioning Ali by name, the Egyptian president has gone out of his way to address the corruption allegations, often in off-script, out-of-context, highly defensive fashion.
For example, several weeks ago, Sisi used his platform at the Egyptian Youth Conference to confirm, rather than deny, some of Ali’s most damning claims of corruption. Most notably, Sisi admitted to constructing several lavish presidential palaces amidst Egypt’s struggles with poverty.
The Dam Crisis
More recently, Sisi responded to Ali’s repeated challenges to address his role in perpetuating the Ethiopian dam crisis. Sisi used several minutes of Sunday’s speech to address the crisis and Ali’s allegations. He suggested he has dealt prudently with the problem.
Importantly, Sisi blamed the Egyptian people for any lost opportunities, held them solely accountable for any possible negative repercussions, and indicated that he had done nothing blameworthy.
He admitted to closely following Egyptian social media posts about him, and indicated he was concerned by critical remarks. In this context, he urged Egyptians to “deal with situations in a relaxed manner” and cautioned that politics must be “handled with discussion and calmness”.
Sisi also criticised the 2011 protest movement that led to the overthrow of longtime dictator Hosni Mubarak, even suggesting that the 2011 revolution was the ultimate cause of the nation’s water crisis.
His remarks on the revolution are significant, in part because the event was once universally viewed as something positive and heroic, and also because these remarks represent the continuation of an anti-revolution narrative he began to construct after becoming president.
On Sunday, Sisi issued perhaps his most damning condemnation of the revolution. He said: “If not for 2011, we would have had a mutually beneficial agreement for the dam… but when the nation laid itself bare [by instigating a revolution], then it became possible to do anything [harmful] to it.”
More generally, Sisi’s Sunday remarks seemed to reflect a broader concern about anti-regime protests. He explicitly linked the 20 September protests against his rule to a recent terrorist attack in Sinai, arguing that protesters and terrorists are one and the same. “They are one,” Sisi said.
He also repeatedly urged Egyptians to be “united” and warned them against “protesting against the nation”. The latter remark was a clear reference to last month’s protests, which caught the regime off guard and triggered a campaign of mass arrest, torture and intimidation.
It is also significant that Sisi opted to interpret the September demonstrations as protests against “the nation” rather than against him, the regime, or government corruption. This is consistent with other regime narratives suggesting that opposition to Sisi is tantamount to treason.
“If you [Egyptians] are not careful, even more will be done to you,” the Egyptian leader said.
Importantly, Sisi later cautioned explicitly against another revolution. This warning reflected earlier admonitions. In January 2018, Sisi spoke at a televised event, noting that “what happened seven or eight years ago isn’t going to happen again in Egypt.”
At an autumn 2018 conference, Sisi said that “2011 was incorrect treatment for an incorrect diagnosis”.
The bigger picture
Ali’s accusations have meaningfully impacted the regime. Not only has Sisi and his media apparatus been forced to devote significant time addressing Ali’s allegations, but the regime has also felt compelled, apparently, to respond in even more tangible ways.