On Friday evening, after a soccer match between Egypt’s two most popular teams, fans poured into the streets of Cairo to chant slogans. However, they did not chant for the winning team, their chants called for the removal of President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi.

The protests brought together hundreds of people, far fewer than the hundreds of thousands who took to the streets to oust two presidents, one in 2011 and the other in 2013, but it was still a remarkable sight due to its rarity. Protests are uncommon in Sisi’s Egypt because they are outlawed and are always met with force.

The protests also spanned several governorates, and related social media interactions were in the hundreds of thousands. The protesters were responding to a call for action by contractor Mohamed Ali. Speaking from Spain in a series of videos posted on YouTube, Ali accused military leaders of corruption and squandering public funds.

The people’s outrage was sparked by Sisi’s arrogant response to Ali’s criticism. He said he intends to continue to build presidential palaces in a country battered by years of austerity measures that have seen an unprecedented drop in living standards. Just a few weeks ago the official statistics agency released its household spending survey highlighting increased poverty rates.

A screenshot from a video report on France24 showing protesters in Cairo on September 20.

Sisi vs Ali

Ali released his first video on YouTube two weeks ago. In the video, he said Major General Kamel El Wazir, the transportation minister and former head of the Armed Forces’ engineering authority, and Major General Essam El Kholy, the head of the authority’s major projects division, were responsible for corruption relating to the construction of an EGP 2 billion (US$123 million) hotel on the outskirts of Cairo. Ali’s Amlak Company was contracted to execute the project. 

The video went viral but was later blocked. However, it again went viral after being reposted elsewhere. It is difficult to determine how many people watched it overall, but some versions of the content registered more than a million views.

Later, in another video, Ali also accused the military of squandering public funds on other projects he executed, such as an EGP 25 million renovation of a presidential wing in Alexandria.

The videos did not merely reveal corruption – they provided an unfamiliar critical voice in a media landscape controlled by the presidency.

It became clear how much these videos had shaken the country’s leaders when the presidency announced a surprise conference on September 14, in which Sisi responded to the videos. In his response, Sisi named Ali directly and said that the country’s intelligence agencies begged him not to speak on the matter but that he chose to do so to preserve the people’s trust in him.

Sisi then boarded a plane for New York for the annual General Assembly at the United Nations.

Police crackdown

After Sisi had left the country, the protests erupted. The police reaction was at first confused. Protesters in some areas reported that the police did not interfere with them, while those in other areas said arrests were made and tear gas was fired. 

By the morning all protests had been dispersed and human rights organizations had reported that more than 200 people had been arrested in 12 cities.

The Egyptian Commission for Rights and Freedoms was able to track 220 arrested protesters, 34 of whom were women. The majority of the arrests were in Cairo and Alexandria.

Confused political parties

Ali’s videos took the country’s leadership by surprise. 

Soon after the protests, several parties issued statements supporting the protests and listing demands that mainly focused on releasing political prisoners, opening up the public space, lifting restrictions on civil society, expanding press freedoms, and rescinding constitutional amendments.

The amendments, which were passed in a referendum in April, allow Sisi to remain in power until 2034.

No government action has yet been taken because the country’s politicians are surprised that the videos could trigger such protests and the fact that it is unclear what other unseen players are involved. One such example was a webpage attributed to former armed forces chief of staff Sami Anan, who has been imprisoned in the Maadi Military Hospital since announcing his intention to run for president in the 2018 elections. 

The page claimed that Anan was encouraging people to protest against the president, but his son and lawyer told a domestic news website, Mada Masr, that he was unaware of such a statement.

In the meantime, as major cities Cairo, Alexandria, and Mansoura returned to calm on Saturday, protests in Suez, the major industrial city known as the torchbearer of the 2011 revolution, continued for a second day. Early on Sunday, a group called Suez Youth for Change issued a statement criticizing corruption and rising unemployment in the city.

This combination of pictures created on September 22 shows confrontations between Egyptian security forces and protesters in al-Arbaeen Square in the center of the port city of Suez. Egyptian security forces clashed with hundreds of anti-government protesters on September 21, firing tear gas and live rounds, said several residents who participated in the demonstrations. A heavy security presence was also maintained in Cairo’s Tahrir Square, the epicenter of Egypt’s 2011 revolution, after protests in several cities called for the removal of general-turned-president Abdel Fattah el-Sisi. Photos: AFP