Under the government of President Abdel-Fattah el-Sissi of Egypt, so little dissent is allowed — and what little there is comes at such a high price — that when just a few hundred people across the country called for el-Sissi’s ouster in a burst of scattered protests Friday night, it came as a shock.
The apparent trigger for the demonstrations was almost as unexpected: Mohamed Ali, a 45-year-old construction contractor and part-time actor who said he got rich building projects for the Egyptian military and then left for Spain, where he began posting videos on social media accusing el-Sissi of corruption and hypocrisy.
When the protests erupted, it was at the time and date Ali had urged from afar.
But the extent, and durability, of Ali’s out-of-nowhere influence remains to be seen. His surge from obscurity to prominence has also raised questions about whether his sudden fame has been helped along by powerful interest groups inside or outside the government.
On Saturday evening, about 200 protesters in the Red Sea city of Suez were met with police officers firing rubber bullets, according to posts on social media and a witness.
The test of how deep Ali’s influence is could come as soon as this week. In a video posted Saturday evening, Ali called for a new round of protests to take place this coming Friday.
Since coming to power in a 2013 military takeover, el-Sissi has cemented his hold through harsh repression.
An Egyptian monitoring group, the Egyptian Center for Economic and Social Rights, said Sunday that at least 274 people had been arrested at the protests, and that some demonstrators had reported being beaten and tear-gassed.
Ali’s exposés have resonated with many Egyptians, who have watched el-Sissi erect enormous building projects while their own finances collapse.
Most protesters Friday appeared to be young men in their teens or early 20s.
Good-looking and fit, Ali may be seen as something of a folk hero, analysts said.
But Ali’s motivations remain murky, as do his exact whereabouts in Spain.
He could not be reached for comment.