Mohamed Ali infuriates Field Marshal President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi of Egypt. His waspish, cruel, outrageously funny, solemnly pedantic videos and social media messages transmitted from his self-exile in Spain, mocking the man who overthrew Egypt’s first elected president, even brought demonstrators back on to the streets of Cairo in September. But the 45-year-old actor and businessman admits to me, after much false modesty, that he would like to play Sisi – if only for just one day.
And if his description of the president – corrupt and corrupting, leading a nepotistic clan of army officers – is anything like the truth, then I have a suspicion that Sisi might like to play Ali for a day too: for the iconoclast who chain-smokes his way through his video rants, demanding back pay for the massive army palace he claims to have constructed for Sisi, might be a satisfying role for a man who claims not only to be uncorrupted by power but to have saved Egypt from Islamist "terror". Sisi calls all of Ali’s allegations “lies”.
Ali is certainly no humble Egyptian hero; the actor – most of his earlier movies were duds, including one on which he spent more than £1m – now has a mass audience. He claims and repeats ad nauseam that all he wants is his back pay. He doesn’t demand goodness, or apologies, or want to play the part of an Egyptian ready to forgive his persecutor (a common theme of Cairo movies). As Egyptian cinema writer Leila Arman put it, the actor has turned his argument with Sisi into a fight over cash: “Give me my money." And, for 15 years, he worked as a military contractor in Egypt.
But the moment you talk to Ali, you can see why he’s so popular.
“I was a businessman, then I was an actor,” he tells me over the phone. “I have enough money to make movies, to travel across Europe. I use only a mobile phone for my videos and a packet of cigarettes. I’ve always been a wealthy man. I am trying to be the voice that makes people go down [to the streets] to stand against Sisi. If all of them went, there would be no risk to life, no one would be hurt.”
But here’s the rub. In late September, thousands of Ali’s admirers, inspired by his unique form of video assault and those of other opposition figures who followed him, did indeed go into the streets of Cairo, Alexandria and Suez, demanding Sisi’s resignation. They chanted, “Rise up, fear not, Sisi must go,” and, “The people demand the fall of the regime” – the old slogan of the 2011 revolution against Hosni Mubarak. But the police fired teargas, drove most of the protesters off the streets and seized demonstrators. Routine beatings are a part of all such arrests in Egypt.
Sisi denies holding political prisoners, yet reports from Amnesty and Human Rights Watch suggest they already number at least 60,000 (and rising). I sense Ali does have a bit of a conscience about the detainees' predicament. “In September, when I asked people to go down, few people knew who I was,” he replies.
“It was not organised. I didn’t expect this kind of demonstration. Now I am trying to organise the influence I realise I now have. At the beginning, it was just me complaining about the government – I didn’t know I had this influence. I wanted then to talk about how we must have one goal and speak with one voice. At first, when I introduced myself, a lot of people [in Egypt] didn’t know me or trust me. Social media was a way for people to get to know me.”
Ali’s videos have been viewed hundreds of thousands of times since he began posting them on 2 September. He has claimed that Sisi and his wife were touring their new multi-million-dollar palace in the new Helmeya al-Gedida district of Cairo in December 2012 when people were dying in the city's streets in a protest outside Morsi’s own presidential palace. He has accused military leaders of contracting him to build a presidential villa outside Alexandria for £10m in which Sisi and his family could spend their Eid vacation marking the end of Ramadan.
Ali has also accused two senior figures in Sisi’s retinue over a luxury hotel for military intelligence in the Shweifat area of new Cairo which involved numerous building violations. He was the contractor for the project which, he says, cost more than £74m. More videos followed from other opponents of the regime, specifying incidents of alleged corruption by Egypt’s divided military-intelligence apparatus. Sisi was head of military intelligence until 2012, when he was appointed minister of defence by Morsi. Sisi has said that the allegations of corruption within the army and the government were "lies and slander" and amounted to defamation. It’s this insouciance by Ali and his followers that may be part of the reason for his popularity. He doesn’t pretend to be a nice guy. In February 2011, when Mubarak was overthrown, he was still working for the army as a contractor – “I didn’t play any role in the revolution,” he says – and doesn’t have a lot of time for Mohamed Morsi, the Muslim Brotherhood president who was in turn dethroned by Sisi after only 12 months in power. “He was a good man but he was naive – I was one of the first people to get to [Tahrir] square to protest against him,” Ali says. "The thing that got me against Morsi – he was explicitly asking for an Islamic caliphate in Egypt. What I wanted was a modern country.”
This is an artful way of dodging any sympathy for the Muslim Brotherhood. For be sure that those who are still prepared to demand an end to Sisi’s regime are not seeking an Islamist Egypt. “I want to see Egypt like a European country and which respects its people and respects its own [political] system,” Ali insists – casting aside all the red, warning lights of history. After all, was not Europe at the heart of the Arab world’s disunity? Were Mr Sykes and Mr Picot and Mr Balfour not Europeans? Does the west not support Sisi and most of his fellow dictators today?
“This is my experience of Europe, I love the cooperation people show [between each other] – the people are open to each other, borders are open,” Ali replies. “I feel safe, protected. I want these things to be implemented in Egypt. The Mediterranean somehow separates us. My understanding of the European governments’ support for Sisi’s government is just an alignment of interests.
“Sisi is smart enough to turn his being in power into one of their interests. It’s a kind of blackmail: ‘You Europeans will have a flood of immigrants from Egypt unless I remain in power’. But the opposite is true. The continuation of Sisi will open a flood of immigrants into Europe. The people are so poor – even getting fresh water is now difficult.”
Unwisely, Sisi – obviously personally stung by Ali’s attacks – then decided to respond to his gadfly at a national youth conference. Sisi chose the path of confrontation, against the advice of what he called “warnings from intelligence agencies” – proving, I suppose, that a leading figure in Britain is not the only one to ignore the concern of his advisers before going public.
“All the intelligence agencies told me, 'Please do not talk about it,'” Sisi announced. “You know, I’ll tell you something, they kissed my hand, saying, ‘Please don’t do this’ ... 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.”
Even more creepily, Sisi vouchsafed his fears for the army under Ali’s attacks, although he took care not to address his antagonist by name.
“Are you not afraid for your army?” Sisi asked his audience, according to the Egyptian news website Mada Masr. “Are you not afraid for your young officers that are hearing talk of their leaders being bad people? Do you not know the army? ... The army is very, very, very sensitive to any inappropriate behaviour. Especially if it is being said that the leaders [sic] are involved in this inappropriate behaviour.”
The Mada Masr website was itself raided by the police this week after it claimed Sisi’s eldest son, Mahmoud, a senior official in the Egyptian general intelligence service, was being sent as the country’s military envoy to Russia after he failed to control the latest street protests.
“All I am calling for is freedom and equality in Egypt,” Ali responds. I’m not calling for power [for myself]. Firstly, there are people who are a lot more qualified than me to lead the country. Yes, I know enough about Sisi to play him – and Sisi knows enough about me on my videos. I would enjoy a day playing Sisi.”
There is a bit of the playboy about Ali. In his videos is an open window beyond which glitters the Mediterranean Sea. He admits he tried smoking cigars, but preferred his cigarettes for his performances. “Will I go back? If God wills it,” he says. “But only to be an actor and a businessman.”
Well, we shall see about that. Either way, Mohamed Ali the unsuccessful actor now has his little place in history: for he is the first to show up the cracks in Sisi’s ruthless regime.
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