In his first public response to accusations by a former business partner made in a series of viral videos over the past 10 days, President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi called the claims that he and the Armed Forces squandered public funds on vanity projects “lies.”
The allegations were made by Mohamed Ali, whose contracting company carried out civilian projects for the Egyptian military, which has become heavily involved in wide swaths of the economy since Sisi came to power in 2013. Ali, who is now in Spain, published a series of videos on social media in which he accuses Sisi of wasting money on presidential palaces and the army of squandering billions of Egyptian pounds on real estate projects, including a luxury hotel in a Cairo suburb.
However, Sisi rejected these criticisms in his statements at the eighth National Youth Conference, which media and security sources told Mada Masr last week was hastily organized specifically to address Ali’s criticisms and their widespread reach.
Sisi refuted Saturday the information Ali revealed with familiar talking points on “threats to national security” and the sacrifices necessary for “state building,” rhetoric that has been used to silence critics at home and abroad.
“I built presidential palaces and will build more,” Sisi said from Al-Manara International Conferences Center, which is owned by the Armed Forces. “Is it for me? I am doing this for the new state. Do you think when you speak untruthfully, you will scare me? No. I will continue to do more and more, but not for me. Nothing is in my name. It is in Egypt’s name.”
Many of the titles of the conference sessions were telling of the president’s way of framing Ali’s criticism. In one, titled “Assessing the experience of combatting terrorism domestically and internationally,” Sisi made tacit but pointed references to Ali.
“Someone comes wanting to defame you and scare you and worry you and waste the great value of what the Armed Forces have done for Egypt. What is this? This is Egypt’s army. This is Egypt’s army. This is Egypt’s army, which is also the center of gravity for Egypt and the whole region. In God’s name these are the conditions. So, how then?”
Sisi addressed Ali directly in a session titled “The media influence in dismantling the state through spreading lies.”
Criticizing the use of social media to disseminate information, Sisi suggested the construction of the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam, which has been framed as an existential threat to Egypt’s downstream water supply, was only possible in the aftermath of the 2011 revolution and people’s misguided belief in social movements propelled by social media.
“You tell me: ‘Sisi find a solution. Get us water.’ But this is your doing! Social media networks contributed to falsifying people’s awareness, that issues can be solved by movements like this. So we moved, but when we moved we paid and are still paying and will continue to pay,” Sisi said.
In the face of Ali’s viral videos, Sisi presented it as his duty to publicly reassure people, despite supposedly being cautioned against such a move.
“All the agencies told me please do not talk about it. And they kissed my hands, saying please don’t do this. I said: What is between the people and me but trust. They believe me, and when someone plays in this area, this is the most dangerous thing in the world,” Sisi said. “Every older woman in her house is praying for me and believes me. How do I leave her confused wondering about what the story is? Did you really do what was said, or not?”
The eighth iteration of the youth conference, which mainly focused on Ali’s accusations, came together in a rush that sent politicians, media, and security personnel scurrying to build a platform for the president to denounce the criticism, according to multiple sources who spoke to Mada Masr last week.
Despite initial plans for the next youth conference to be held in November, the Egyptian Media Group, the media conglomerate owned by the General Intelligence Service (GIS) and which controls nearly all media outlets in the country, received news on Tuesday that the conference would be held on Saturday, a source from the company told Mada Masr, leaving them with only days to prepare.
The names of the media professionals assigned to moderate the three sessions were sent to the company the next day, including television presenter Ramy Radwan, who moderated the “Ask the President” session, according to the source.
Sisi had praised Radwan after he moderated the Ask the President session in the last youth conference, describing him as “a personality for the new generation that we want.”
A week later, Radwan replaced Osama Kamal as host of the talk show “DMC Evening” after Kamal was abruptly dismissed for straying from strict programming instructions handed down by members of the Presidential Leadership Program, according to a source from inside the network. Many of the leadership program’s members have recently been appointed to key media management positions.
At the close of the last youth conference on July 31, top officials in the GIS, the presidential media office, the National Training Academy and other media personnel met to discuss preparations for events and session timetables, but did not mention a specific date for the next conference, according to the source.
The seventh National Youth Conference closed just 44 days ago, the shortest time between two conferences since they began in October 2016.
There were discussions in the circles surrounding Sisi, which included GIS representatives, that identified the youth conference as one of the best ways to deal with the crisis created by Ali’s videos, according to a security source.
The rushed preparation of the conference, however, resulted in problems for the organizers. One of the members in the Presidential Leadership Program, who spoke to Mada Masr on condition of anonymity, said that conference registration opened on Tuesday, just five days before the event, which did not allow sufficient time to complete the usual security checks on participants to issue the required permits.
For the last youth conference in July, there was an 11-day window to register before the event began, said the source, who was involved in the preparation of the seventh and eighth youth conferences.
According to the source, top officials in the Presidential Leadership Program told organizers to register previous conference attendees who had already gone through security checks, especially as a smaller audience would be needed to fill the conference’s shorter, three-session agenda.
According to the security source, those surrounding Sisi also discussed how the issue should be brought to Sisi’s attention: whether through a direct question involving Mohamed Ali’s name and what he said or via indirect reference to Armed Forces’ investments and the rumors surrounding them.
The majority of those involved in the discussions preferred a direct question because of the significant impact of the videos and the need to deal with the issue in an unconventional manner, according to the source.
However, the final discretion on how to handle the session was left to Sisi, the source said.
Saturday’s conference was held in Al-Manara International Conferences Center, which is owned by the Armed Forces and run by the National Company for Exhibition and International Conferences. The convention center was opened by Sisi in October 2017 to compete in the conference tourism industry. Since then, the center has come to dominate the market over other players, including the Cairo International Convention and Exhibition Center, which is owned by the Ministry of Industry and Trade. Since its inauguration, the Manara convention center has held a number of the country’s most significant events, including the 39th Cairo Film Festival, the EDEX Exhibition for Defense and Military Industries, the 100th anniversary celebration of the Wafd Party, the Opera Egypt celebration and Sisi’s 2019 Eid al-Fitr celebration.
This article has been amended to remove the incorrect description of the formal mode of address siyadto as abnormal usage for heads of state in Egypt.