The Egyptian builder living in Barcelona exposed the corruption of his country's military
Mohamed Ali, in the newsroom of ARA / RUTH MARIGOT
Mohamed Ali (Cairo, 1974) is a builder who has spent 15 years building luxury palaces and hotels for Egypt's military upper crust. Last August he decided to go into exile in Barcelona and expose the corruption of Marshal Abdel Fatah al-Sissi's regime, from which he had benefited for years, in a series of videos that became viral. The denouncing that the military live in opulence, squandering millions of public monies in a country where a third of the population is poor, triggered an unprecedented wave of indignation in Egypt. Eight years after Tahrir Square revolution, which ended three decades of Hosni Mubarak's dictatorship, on 20 and 27 September thousands of Egyptians returned to the streets of Cairo and other cities in the country, following the call that Mohamed Ali had launched through Facebook from Catalonia. That's why they call him the Catalan Pharaoh. The challenge to the regime ended with widespread repression: some 4,300 were arrested. The builder, who is also an actor, says he fears for his life. He explains his motives to ARA, in the first interview published by a Spanish media.
After working for the army for 15 years, why did you decide to expose the corruption of the military leadership in Egypt?
When Abdel Fatah al-Sissi was appointed Minister of Defence, I was commissioned to build him a palace. It was 2012 and in the streets, there were beginning strong tensions [between Islamists and secularists], and I was very surprised that with such a critical situation in the country, he worried about the details of the work. He himself was on top of it and his wife and children were wasting public money asking for all kinds of luxuries. We're talking about a four-storey palace with 600 square metres each and a kitchen that looked like a luxury hotel’s one, with eight private wings with suites and a children's area with a swimming pool. The wishes of each of al-Sissi's family members were conveyed to us through an architect, who also chose the suppliers, whom we had to pay above the market price. The total cost of the palace at that time was around six million euros.
How does the corruption fabric work?
The allocation of the works is done directly, without public competition: “You, make me a palace”. There are no contracts or signatures: they pay you everything in cash, and approximately half in black. A military architect oversees each of the residential complexes and each takes a commission, which can reach up to 15% of the cost of the work. And you can't say no, because if you don't pay the commission you don't get the necessary signature to do the work. For the Triumph hotel I paid 1.5% of the 110 million euros that the work cost just to get the signature of a military. And there's no problem, because all the extra costs are covered by the budget of the Ministry of Defence [which in Egypt is secret].
Do you consider yourself a political activist?
I am a citizen of Egypt, apolitical. My family has never had any political involvement. In 2011 when there were protests on Tahrir I thought it didn't go with me, I was in construction and film making. Then came the elections, and I realized that in Egypt there is no politics: decisions are made by a few or sometimes a single person, and I was very close to these people, to this parallel entity of the state that is the military industry. Before publishing the first video I had no contact with any opposition group. Now everyone supports me, from revolutionaries to liberals and even the Muslim Brotherhood. In fact, after the first two videos the regime hacked into my Facebook page and it was other opponents who opened a new one for me. The goal is to turn Egypt into a democratic country that is at the level of Europe: then I will go back to making works and films.
You built yourself an electronic surveillance centre for dissidents
I was commissioned to build a six- or seven-storey building, which had an unusual IT infrastructure. It was financed by the United Arab Emirates. The irony is that the regime then acted against me.
Six months ago, no one in Egypt knew who Mohamed Ali was. How do you explain why you gained such popularity so quickly and why so many people watched your videos?
Because people know that I tell the truth and also because I have suffered injustice in my own skin. The military owes me 12 million euros. That's how they control the builders: you don't get paid until you get into debt with the next one.
Al-Sissi didn’t deny the accusations: on the contrary, he has publicly boasted of building presidential palaces.
He can't deny it: the palaces are there, and everyone can see them. And the net is full of photos taken from outside and inside, the bedrooms, the super luxury jacuzzis. I'm glad al-Sissi recognizes it. There is an Arabic saying that there is no worse misfortune than the one that makes you laugh.
A moment in the interview / RUT MARIGOT
With your videos you pushed the protests of September 20 and 27, which ended with massive repression. There were at least 4,000 arrests. Was it worth it?
I have informations about at least eight thousand detainees. I don't regret having called the Egyptians to the streets. But I regret that there are so many people in prison. Even a pro-regime television presenter said, citing judicial sources, that those who share my videos or carry on their mobile phones the logo of our youth revolution are liable to a fine of up to three million Egyptian pounds [about €160,000, $185,000, £144,000]. For me, all this is a learning experience.
What's the plan now?
I and many people are preparing a plan that includes new forms of mobilisation to guarantee the physical integrity of the people protesting. Not everything has to be demonstrations. We will reveal this in a matter of two or three weeks.
You who know the Egyptian army from within, is it as monolithic a block as it seems or are there internal divisions?
It has been fractured for some time now, especially in the middle and lower strata. Only the top is solid. And it is made up of people close to al-Sissi, several of whom are direct relatives. They know that if there is division between them, they all fall.
Why did you choose Catalonia to broadcast your videos from here? Wouldn't you be more protected in another country?
The first time I set foot in Europe was on a trip to Barcelona in 2014 to make a film about illegal immigration. When I decided to leave Egypt, I thought about going to Germany and then to Holland. But I have five children and the climate in Barcelona is better. A year and a half ago I bought a house in Cabrera de Mar and got permanent residence as an investor.
Do you feel threatened?
I am sure that the Spanish authorities will not deport me, because human rights are respected here. What I am afraid of is that someone close to al-Sissi will send a hitman to kill me. I try to avoid crowds, I watch where I go and try not to expose myself.
Has any Egyptian authority contacted you?
After publishing the first video I was contacted by an anonymous person who told me that President al-Sissi knew what he was doing and that they would pay my debt if I deleted the video from the networks. I was offered an appointment at the embassy in Madrid but it didn't even occur to me to go. Afterwards, I received threats on the phone telling me that my head would be ripped off, and I cut off the contact.
Last June you presented a project to build a large glass pyramid in the three chimneys of Sant Adrià del Besós. At what stage is it?
It's a project that I started before the videos were broadcast. I was on the right track: I had the support of the neighbours and the competent administrations. Now I have parked it because of my situation, but I want to resume it soon. The area is very good for leisure and training facilities.