A ticking bomb was in the making last month as Mohamed Ali, a self-exiled former contractor with the Egyptian military posted a daring video on social media with explicit details about government corruption and Egyptian President Abd al-Fattah el-Sisi’s lavish spending on numerous palaces throughout the country.

It was like throwing a rock into the stagnant lake of Egyptian politics. All of a sudden, the ripple effect meant that Egyptians all over the world waited anxiously for the next videos of Mohamad Ali to learn more about a regime that has very little clarity about its mega projects.

The anger toward the policies of al-Sisi was obvious as hashtag campaign #ThatsEnoughSisi immediately went viral following Ali’s call for the president to step down.  Within days, his Facebook page “Mohammed Ali secrets” had more than 2 million followers, with more millions sharing his videos across a number of different social media platforms. In one of his videos, he rallied Egyptians behind a valid criticism of the Egyptian president’s squandering of public funds, screaming, “After all this, you say that we are very poor and we have to starve? You wasted billions. Your men wasted millions and millions.”

Social Media Consumption

Media experts in Egypt say that the average Egyptian learns about politics either through foreign media outlets or through the national media. And since, the national media in Egypt is severely controlled and is ranked 163th globally in terms of press freedom, more and more Egyptians are turning to social media as their main source of information.

Egyptians resort to social media as a free format to exchange information and express their otherwise restricted freedom of expression. Ali penetrated the tight control of information in Egypt using a platform Egyptians trust and managed to break the taboo of the untouchable ruler al-Sisi, openly launching a personal attack against the head of the state, which has been impossible through traditional media channels.

Ali, who represents himself as an ordinary citizen and not as a political figure who is trying to sell them an ideology, touched a chord with the Egyptian people.

“Mohamad Ali used the language of the man on the street and not intellectual language that no one understands...”

As Said Sadek, a professor of political sociology at the American University in Cairo, put it: “Mohamad Ali used the language of the man on the street and not intellectual language that no one understands. Ali also was an insider, and that is the difference between him and the opposition who have lived abroad and have never been part of the system. In this way Ali is very different and more credible.”

Sadek added, “Opposition leaders lack this credibility and come under suspicion by the people when they associate themselves with the Islamists and the Muslim Brotherhood. People began to listen to him; especially when they think that he has had nothing to do with the opposition abroad.”

Alternative Political Opposition

Adel Eskander, a media professor at the University of Vancouver in Canada observed that because Ali was not aligned with any political movement nor ideologies, he was able to offer the Egyptians an alternative opposition voice.

“Ali acted like a regular guy and this regular guy approach is what resonated with people and drew in all these different political movements. Before you know it, you had revolutionary socialists, members of the Muslim Brotherhood, and people from different backgrounds getting excited.”

However, experts ruled out an immediate impact of using social media to change the Egyptian regime. Professor Sadek viewed Ali’s movement as an accumulative effect on the regime.

“The regime still enjoys strong regional and international backup and internal backers and I don’t think this will lead to a big change in the government in the near future.”

Nevertheless, Eskander argues that Ali’s videos were really effective in aggravating the institutions and creating paranoia.  He made the government think twice about its next step. 

Confused Reaction

Al-Sisi responded to Ali’s allegations effectively saying, yes I built presidential palaces and I will continue building them for the new Egyptian state. 

For average Egyptians that was an outrageous response, as austerity measures have made their lives unbearable.

But for al-Sisi’s supporters, the response was to accuse Ali of conspiring against the military, and being a threat to stability after being lured in by the Muslim Brotherhood, the now-outlawed Islamist political group which is considered the Egyptian government’s number one enemy. However, Professor Eskander ruled out this association.

“Ali is a very unlikely character to receive support from the Muslim Brotherhood.  Ali might have started his own movement calling on al-Sisi to step down; however the Muslim Brotherhood and its supporters outside of Egypt came to his aid and started advocating for him.” Dr. Eskander added,” Before you know it, his videos are being played endlessly on all of their Turkey-based TV stations, including Mikammilin and Esharq.”

The war that Ali started on social media met a counteroffensive staged by Egypt’s traditional media outlets.  TV presenters loyal to al-Sisi described Ali as a “fugitive” who had fled the country for failing to settle debts after receiving hefty bank loans. 

Other presenters loyal to Sisi started bashing the Ali’s character, claiming he spends his time in Spain at night clubs and chasing women.  Even Dar-al-Ifta of Egypt, the most prominent Islamic educational institution joined the war against Ali and posted on Twitter saying: “If you see a man who is defending the truth but is cursing, insulting, with anger, then learn that he has bad intentions because the truth isn’t in the need of such (actions).”

But all that did not stop Ali from posting more videos, sometimes on a daily basis, which have been shared by Egyptians widely not only on Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter, but also on WhatsApp. 

Mohammad Ali’s social media campaign might not have affected the Egyptian political scene tremendously, nor has it brought about a major revolution like the one Egypt witnessed in 2011. Nevertheless, it has had an impact that will affect ordinary Egyptians in a major way.

Mohammad Ali’s social media campaign might not have affected the Egyptian political scene tremendously, nor has it brought about a major revolution like the one Egypt witnessed in 2011. Nevertheless, it has had an impact that will affect ordinary Egyptians in a major way. 

For example, the Egyptian government has started paying its smaller contractors’ past due invoices, and it has made promises to raise salaries and improve pensions.  The government has also promised to postpone raising electric prices and slightly reduced the price of fuel.

To win over poor Egyptians, al-Sisi promised that he will personally oversee the re-enrollment of almost two million citizens who were removed from the country’s food assistance program, and the Egyptian parliament recently vowed that the coming period will witness political, media, and party reforms.

Where this will go is uncertain, but the lid has clearly been lifted off the Pandora’s box of silence.