LONDON — In September, Mohamed Ali almost toppled the Egyptian government by accident, posting viral videos about endemic corruption at the heart of President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi’s regime that sparked rare public protests on the streets of Cairo.
That mini-uprising was quickly crushed by the military, resulting in more than 4,000 arrests, and Ali fled the country soon after.
But on Wednesday in the British capital, the 45-year-old emerged from months of hiding to unveil his new plan to oust Sisi by unifying exiled opposition leaders and presenting Egyptians with a referendum on how the country should be governed automate your posting-Sisi — and he believes he can do all this in the space of two months.
“My plan is in the next month to start a political initiative in London to try to reunite the political opposition inside and outside the country,” Ali told reporters in London. “I am in contact with all political waves, the Muslim Brotherhood, liberals, and the April 6 movement. I will launch a reform plan with some experts from politics, the health sector, finance, education, and media. I will call all experts in Egypt to join this campaign.”
Ali has appealed to governments around the world to pay attention to what’s happening in Egypt, warning European leaders that Sisi’s continued reign will lead to a flood of migrants into the continent. In Washington, Ali says he has contacted several members of Congress about possible meetings — though he would not name the lawmakers.
One person Ali is unlikely to be meeting is Donald Trump, who is one of Sisi’s biggest supporters and who once referred to the Egyptian leader as his “favorite dictator.”
“I am really upset and frustrated that a person who represents a democratic country stands out in front of the media and calls [Sisi] his favorite dictator,” Ali said. “How can he do such a thing, what values are you passing on?”
Ali says he was never meant to be a revolutionary.
As a businessman, he spent the last 15 years working in construction in Egypt, winning lucrative contracts with the government and military, contracts that included the building of an ornate presidential palace for Sisi, intelligence headquarters, and unopened hotels in the middle of the desert.
But Ali fell out with key members of the military and he says he was left out of pocket by as much as 200 million Egyptian pounds ($12.5 million) in unpaid government contracts. Having fled Egypt for Spain in January, and ensuring the safety of his estranged wife and children, Ali decided to take revenge.
He posted a series of videos on YouTube exposing the corruption at the heart of the regime. He never expected them to have the impact they did, but his plain-speaking appealed to the Egyptian public and within hours he went from an unknown to a celebrity within the space of a few hours.
“I never imagined that I could be leading such a revolution,” Ali said. “Now, a big responsibility falls upon my shoulders and I truly hope that I am successful in this mission.”
The videos were shared widely in Egypt despite initially being removed from Facebook. Public protests are rare in a country where the former military general has repeatedly been accused of using mass arrests and torture as part of nation-wide effort to stifle all forms of public dissent.
Inspired by Ali’s videos and call to arms, thousands of people flooded Tahir square in Cairo and several other major cities across the country, defying the government and signaling an appetite for change in a country that has been racked by extreme poverty.
In fear for his life
Dressed in a sharp grey suit, Ali could easily pass for just another businessman in the heart of London. But his red eyes betray the impact the last couple of months has had on his life.
He lives in fear for his life, saying he is sure the government in Cairo has considered assassinating him. As a precaution, he constantly changes his address in Spain where he has lived since fleeing his home country.
But his fame has given the Egyptian government a headache about how to deal with him.
“The government’s intelligence [on me] is limited and I do know they are in a confused situation. Should they kill me and silence me but then worry about the people rising up against them. Or, should they leave me along and risk all this negative information being exposed,” he said.
A report from Human Rights Watch published on Tuesday details how Ali’s family remaining in Egypt are among those targeted by Sisi’s regime to impose pressure on exiled Egyptians opposing the government.
“Egyptian authorities, determined to stifle dissent, have been punishing families of opponents abroad,” Joe Stork, deputy Middle East and North Africa director at Human Rights Watch said. “The government should cease these vindictive attacks, which amount to collective punishment.”
‘The country itself is collapsing’
The granular details of Ali’s plan are still being hammered out, but he plans to unite disparate groups of exiled opposition leaders opposed to Sisi and pair them with experts and academics who will draw up a roadmap for how Egypt should be governed going forward.
This plan will then be put to the 100 million Egyptian citizens as a referendum — that will take place as an online vote — with the result showing the scale of opposition to Sisi’s rule.
Ali refused to name the opposition leaders he is in contact with, but a source with knowledge of Ali’s plans told VICE News that he is scheduled to meet one of the leaders of the influential Muslim Brotherhood in Istanbul later this week to bring them on board.
But, crucially, he has not received the support of anyone within the military, which holds huge power over who rules Egypt. When asked if it was naive to try and overthrow Sisi without some support from the military, Ali said:
“The general public is much larger than the military. The military is 450,000 people, the population of Egypt is 100 million. So the power is definitely with the people.”
Ali claims Sisi’s support among the public is as low as 5 percent and while some agree with his assertions, others point out that putting his plan into action won’t be that easy.
How can this referendum happen?” a well-known Egyptian activist and writer known as the Big Pharaoh, told VICE News. “The regime arrested over 4,000 people after a few hundreds took to the streets in September. There are no mechanics to hold this referendum.”
Ali’s transformation from insider spilling the beans on political corruption to the leader of a new political movement may also damage his ability to speak directly to the Egyptian public.
“Mohamed Ali lost traction when he stopped being a whistleblower revealing secret corruption and started to be a ‘political leader,” the Big Pharaoh adds.
“Ali has nothing new to add has lost the cause and the response we saw at the beginning has faded,” Liliane Daoud, a journalist who was deported from Egypt in 2016, told VICE News.
But Ali remains hopeful, saying that the protests alone show that Sisi’s regime is not as strong as it once was and that by uniting the opposition, there is a chance for change.
“Because the fear has been broken, the credibility of Sisi has collapsed, the country itself is collapsing. People are frustrated, they want to change,” Ali said.
Cover: Egyptian self-exiled businessman Mohamed Ali poses during an interview in an office near Barcelona on October 23, 2019. (Photo: JOSEP LAGO/AFP via Getty Images)