Protests broke out overnight in Cairo and several other Egyptian cities in a rare show of defiance against the regime of Abdel Fattah el-Sisi, the president, who has ruled with an iron fist since 2014.
Police used tear gas to disperse scattered protests in Cairo who were calling for Mr Sisi to step down. The Egyptian Center for Economic and Social Rights, a civil society group, said there were dozens of arrests among the crowds in the capital, in the port city of Alexandria and in Nile Delta towns.
The protests came in response to online calls for demonstrations by Mohamed Ali, a disgruntled building contractor who had worked with the Egyptian military, before fleeing to Spain. There, he has made a series of videos alleging misuse of public funds by Egypt’s army and the president. The videos have gone viral over the past two weeks.
Mr Ali cited projects he said he was involved in, such as the building of a luxury hotel and presidential residences as examples of wasteful spending.
Protests have been banned in Egypt since 2013 after Mr Sisi, who was then defence minister, ousted his elected Islamist predecessor in a popularly backed coup. He was elected president in 2014 and since then his regime has cracked down on dissent arresting thousands, mostly Islamists, but also secular activists and journalists.
Mr Sisi dismissed Mr Ali’s claim last week as “sheer lies and defamation,” aimed at undermining the country and weakening confidence in its army and president. Under his rule, the military has widened its involvement in the economy and has overseen billions of dollars’ worth of infrastructure projects acting as the state’s main contractor.
Mr Sisi said: “The army is patriotic, honourable and strong. Its firmness stems from its honour.”
He did, however, confirm that he had “built presidential palaces” and said he would continue to do so. “All of this is not mine. It belongs to Egypt,” he said pointing to a new capital he is building east of Cairo.
Despite Mr Ali’s unlikely background — he explained he was angry because he had not been paid by the military around $13m — his daily online diatribes against the regime appear to have hit a nerve with many Egyptians.
Economic reforms under a loan deal with the IMF have earned Mr Sisi international praise, but inflation coupled with austerity measures have added to the burdens on the poor and the middle classes. Government figures recently released show that a third of all Egyptians live below the poverty line — a rise of more than 4 million people between 2015 and 2018.