Money and image: Framing Mohamed Ali’s face off against Sisi
 
 

Before September 2, 2019, Mohamed Ali was an aspiring actor and minor celebrity. He looks a bit like actor Asser Yassin, loves horseback riding like Ahmed Elsaka, and is fond of being photographed with his luxury automobiles like Mohamed Ramadan. 

Asser Yassine

Ahmed Elsaka

Mohamed Ramadan

But none of that made him leading man material. When he took a gamble and produced a star vehicle for himself — Elbar El Tani (Other Land, 2016) — it lost LE27 million, and he gave it to television networks for free. No one remembers it. 

But on September 2, he would suddenly step into the limelight, marking a clear break between everything he accomplished before that date and everything that would come after — without spending LE27 million or enlisting the services of a director or film editor, or even a professional camera. He uploaded a video on his personal Facebook page demanding his money: LE220 million owed to him by the state for contracting services he had rendered on construction projects. Other videos followed. Titled “Exposing corruption among the military elite and the head of the Egyptian state,” the videos offered a detailed account of the extravagant spending he personally witnessed after being hired to implement the projects. 

Delving into the Mohamed Ali videos is like walking into a minefield: you never know where the next surprise will be — maybe behind you, maybe next to you — but you know it’s coming, without preamble or tedious exposition. The plot twists will nail you to your seat. This is no ordinary contractor in his mid-40s, unfamiliar with social media, who appears on the screen with his paunch and mustache to blather briefly and pop off a hello to his Facebook followers. This is a man who knows how to hold the camera’s gaze and stage a proper shot. He begins his first video saying, “Sorry, you’ll have to forgive me. I’ve always separated the contracting business from acting, but they’ve forced me to do this.” 

A showman with balls

Ali’s character in his videos is that of the intrepid blue-collar badass. A savvy operator with a nose for business. A total baller who flashes cash and treats himself like a prince. An avaricious charmer. But he’s also a muscleman, a streetwise tough and foul-mouthed scrapper, and, when necessary, a real thug. The videos exhibit a charisma that’s unfortunately absent from his films. He speaks with his eyes and eyebrows. He’s skilled at highlighting the sexy parts he knows will go over well. He snorts with derision, curses, and smokes. He hasn’t been bought off or strong-armed. He speaks plainly and doesn’t mince words. He holds a pen that he scribbles with while talking (“Sorry, I like to doodle while I talk”). When he smokes, he blows the smoke straight into the camera. He uses his acting skills to endow the scene with an adequate level of suspense and excitement. In the first video, he appears in a black shirt, unbuttoned to reveal his chest hair, next to him a pack of cigarettes and behind him a window with a view of the sea. His general demeanor is that of a young millennial at the in-between stage of his life, after completing university and taking his first job but before he starts a family. It’s a look of macho swagger: the cultivated pose of young men keen to show off their assets with a tight shirt and other accessories, like a pack of cigarettes — typically Marlboro Red or LM Blue — and a packed keychain that lands with a thud when they toss it on the café table, likely in the slick, flashy, newly monied Mohandiseen, before ordering a shisha.

Aside from ballsy social climber, Ali is a master of the photo op, keen to manufacture and package himself as an image. He has worked at playing a role and so he has become an actor. In his home hangs a painting of himself in pharaonic dress, an important part of his image being the evocation of the symbol of the pharaoh. He shares posts on Facebook documenting his success in Europe, appending the caption “the Pharaoh’s rise in Europe.” He establishes a business in Spain, The Fourth Pyramid, which in turn is just one big photo op: the enterprise is “a cultural beacon,” Ali says, undertaken in concert with Spanish businessmen who appear with him in the photos that adorn his Facebook page. He visits a temple with pharaonic antiquities in Spain and is photographed with the tourists. When his film was screened at the Cairo Film Festival, he made a splashy entrance, arriving in a luxury car surrounded by bodyguards. He also takes pains to document his status as an influencer on social media, posting photos of himself receiving the Luxembourg Peace Prize for his film, Other Land.

Money and image

This profile stands at odds with the character of the downtrodden-but-honorable hero who enters the hornets’ nest and, stunned by the magnitude of corruption he finds, comes forward to speak truth to power. This has confused many viewers’ perception of the videos. He isn’t a poor, honest soul. He’s rich — very rich, in fact. He is photographed with his Ferrari; he produces films with enormous budgets and thinks nothing of it when they bomb; he informs his followers that he has purchased a villa and two cars in Spain so his kids don’t experience any change in their standard of living; he sold a villa to actor Mohamed Ramadan for less than market price as a favor to a friend. Above all, and most importantly, for 15 years, he worked mostly with the military, and it made him rich. Then they stung him, he decided to get payback. And when he did, it was only ever about the money.

Ali is not the classic poor, honest hero, nor is he the educated, middle-class striver who stands up to oppression. The trope he employs, and to which a broad swath of the public is receptive, belongs to a different moment borne of a new reality. It’s significant because it breaks with a major rhetorical theme underlying the good guy narrative in mainstream Egyptian dramas of the post-independence Nasserist state: we may be poor, but at least we live decent, honest lives. It’s the trope of honor and decency as a form of class solace, consolation, and solidarity, a discourse firmly backed by the post-1952 state as a guarantor of social control and, in turn, class discipline. The theme of hundreds of films and television series, it was used to manage public discussion of class conflict by transforming the material crux of the conflict into a moral or symbolic one. But Ali’s fight is actually a fight over money: Give me my money. It is a fight that gets to the heart of entitlement to wealth and does not view acquiescence as an option. 

In classic Egyptian dramas, morals are always set against money — the poor, honest citizen vs. the corrupt fat cat — in a story in which moral fiber and other values of social and self-restraint always triumph. In this type of conflict, restoring balance to the universe depends on the poor protagonist acquiescing to his class position. The rhetoric of honor is therefore tied to the idea of acceptance: keep your money, sir, it says; it’s true we’re modest people, but it’s enough that we can sleep at night. 

This association reached its peak in the 1980s in the wake of the infitah, when attempts to improve one’s standard of living were inevitably tied the loss of moral values. In drama, this was expressed as a turn against a growing culture of consumption and outward appearances and disaffection with Sadat’s liberalization policies, which threatened the established middle class. 

The rhetoric of honor was also deployed to reassure the old middle class. The hero would encounter temptation and pressure to succumb to his social-climbing ambitions, which necessarily meant abandoning his honor. In this, the hero would fall prey to the inducements of the lower-class hucksters of that era: black marketeers, contractors, assorted brokers and middlemen, import-exporters. In the film The Doorman Bey (1987), protagonist Fouad al-Mohandis goes from being a respectable civil servant to an assistant to his doorman, played by Ahmed Zaki, who has become a contractor. Balance is restored when the doorman returns to his position and salutes the civil servant. 

The Doorman Bey:

While the working-class heroes played by Adel Imam weren’t downtrodden or servile — they were poor, but gregarious and generous, hustlers — their dramatic conflicts were not ultimately about wealth accumulation, but being a player. They were very often true to the theme of acquiescence to poverty and celebrated its aesthetics. Imam didn’t play a hoodlum; he played on the fine line between working-class chivalry and the affectations of masculine bravado.

Al-Mansi :

After 2011, the heightened sense of instability gave rise to sharp polarization. Each genre of film was increasingly tailored to specific audiences defined by class and education, leading to a paradigm shift in the general archetype of the dramatic hero. El-Sobky Film Production, which is behind mainstream cinema productions, put out films for the working class in which Ramadan played the working-class hero as gangster outsider, representing a social group living on the margins of the state and outside its class stratifications. The character was well suited to a moment of intense class anxiety amid an unstable, shifting landscape. The gangster went beyond Imam’s brash working-class heroes, making more room for displays of masculinity and normalizing the pitiless use of force to establish oneself. In these films, acceptance of one’s class position doesn’t entail resignation. It means celebrating practices that exemplify class identity and setting things right, with violent thuggery if necessary, as seen in Abdu Mouta (2012) and Qalb el-Asad (Lionheart, 2013). To some extent, this trend represented the dismantlement of the educated-but-poor good guy trope, which gave way to the hard-bitten hero who knows how to take what’s his.

 Abdu Mouta:

But 2013 added a crucial new detail to this character coup: now the working-class hero, dissatisfied with his lot in life, actively tries to become rich, no matter what it takes. It would not necessarily be the path of Ahmed Zaki in Al-Nimr al-Aswad (The Black Tiger, 1984) who works his way to the top, thereby offering a positive example for young people. There came to be an unprecedented degree of tolerance for — or rather, indifference to — making it to the top through shady means. Ramadan has played this character, too, in series like Al-Ostoura (The Legend, 2016). The hero is brazen, unashamed by his desire to amass wealth and show it off, because he sees it as a marker of success and power. 

This hero is also preoccupied with performative displays. He displays his wealth, shown standing next to his new car or in his palatial home. He displays his masculinity as a way to display power. He’s bursting with macho energy; he sweeps things up and crashes them down, breaks and slams and bangs. Although this character type was geared toward a particular audience, its aesthetics escaped their narrow cultural confines to shape mainstream tastes, even those of its competitors, who attempted to clone its aesthetics in works targeting other classes. 

In his videos, Ali plays the archetype from The Legend. When marketing himself on social media, he often uses the phrase “the come up”: the rise of the Egyptian Pharaoh abroad; a young, working-class man who came up from nothing and snatched a fortune from the jaws of the lion. He didn’t finish university — he worked with the army for 15 years and came out of it a millionaire. He flaunts his wealth. He buys a Ferrari and films himself racing it through a spray of water. He is photographed horseback riding. He covers his Facebook page in tasteful photos of him relaxing at home with a coffee, wearing a smart suit. At the same time, he’s a real man’s man, a strapping fellow. He snorts and curses and smokes and shows us his chest hair. He bellows in the video like he’s in a brawl. When videos are leaked showing him with girls at nightclubs or with a young woman in a café telling him in broken Arabic, “I luff you, Mohamed,” it only increases his followers’ admiration. In his videos, he spouts off vulgar insults with abandon, running roughshod over the norms of civility that usually govern media appearances. 

Al-Ostoura:

“Of course you’re shaken. You’re saying, Who is this guy? Now you have a problem. Because I’m not a liberal, I’m not Brotherhood, I’m not a secularist. I’m a working-class guy.” (third video, 4 September 4, 2019)

Ali is a child of the post-2013 world, the world of naked conflict, stripped of symbolic intermediaries. When he gets into a fight over money, he says, “I want my money.” He finds no wisdom or solace in the rhetoric of honor—he just wants his cash and who cares how he came by it. He wants the fortune he’s entitled to, and he won’t be taken in by symbolic consolation. Nor is he convinced that his social status and material struggles are a God-given fate to which he must submit. When he was bitten and fell into a dispute with state leaders, he didn’t shut up and take it. He decided to get one over on them and go toe-to-toe with the president in a war of words. 

In his videos, Ali does use honor as a standard for judging himself against his opponent — “You’re not an honorable man,” he says — but the fight is shorn of any symbolism. The crux of it isn’t moral fiber, and there is no symbol mediating his demand for cold, hard cash. 

He also has shown no interest in playing the educated, middle-class guy with a moral center. Morals are irrelevant. It doesn’t matter if he’s a philanderer or an educated man from a good family. None of that is important, and he hasn’t even tried to fake it. The currency we’re dealing with is not moral — true love, for example — but the Egyptian pound. It’s a fight about money. And it’s perfectly suited to a time when symbolic representations of the state’s existence — competing constituencies engaging in politics, or a charade thereof — have withered away.

In the videos, the rhetoric of honor is not one of consolation (we’re content because we’re honorable) but of entitlement (you’re not honorable because you stole “our” money and we deserve it). The trappings of wealth are not denied; they are treated as legitimate earnings. 

At the same time, Ali turns his personal fight into a struggle against the powers that be. Not like Imam in The Forgotten (1993) or Playing with Giants (1991), where he’s a put-upon civil servant who works a con and then returns to his old life. Class revenge is fundamental to Ali’s trope: the corrupt rich bastards took what was rightfully his and he wants it back.

The battle of images

Ali gave his audience a juicy, tell-all soap opera to discredit his antagonist (“Your wife can’t stomach sleeping on Suzanne’s [Mubarak’s wife] bed;” “She wanted renovations that cost LE25 million;” ”He buried his mother with my money.”) It’s the right script to follow when you’re dealing with a self-described honorable man. Moral pretension always conceals something, and scandal is the only way around it. 

But Ali’s videos do not cast the material conflict as a morality play. It’s a novel form of class conflict that deviates from the standard class-moral conflict. This moment isn’t only one of naked conflict: it’s a time of competing public images. Each class/antagonist promotes a particular portrait of themselves and uses it to sling arrows at the other. It’s a pantomime of sorts, a struggle for representation, both political and theatrical, a battle of images between an actor/representative of a particular class and an actor/representative of the bad guy/the fat cat/the man.

Ali is not the leader of a popular or class struggle, but he portrays a character beloved by the working class, like that played by Ramadan in The Legend. He is not a representative of the people, and his portrayal does not necessarily reflect them. But he does represent a type they admire, and since it’s a battle of images, they might as well go into battle as this character. Ali casts his fight with Sisi as a folk drama, standing in for the common man as the president plays his rich, corrupt antagonist. 

The Contractor versus the President is presented as a personal conflict. Man to man, two guys will duke it out in the hood, with manliness here being a largely performative pose. Ali plays the paragon of working-class masculinity against Sisi’s more simpering version of manhood. Ali is the post-2013 gangster outsider, while Sisi personifies the Nasserist state.

“Lots of things we read as just slogans, and then suddenly it’s something else altogether. I want us to talk in front of the people, so they can hear us. Show a little decency. Man to man. God, you’re not a man. Why do you shout into the mic?” (video, September 4, 2019). 

Sisi’s state goes to excruciating lengths to present itself as the avatar of the state established by the 1952 revolution, its final, perfect culmination. Ironically — or perhaps consequently — it plays on the weakest points of that state’s symbolic repertoire, those moments when it is most naked, desiccated, and Spartan, shorn of any symbolic value, when all it knows is it wants power in its most primeval form. As a result, the political struggle is drained of much of its symbolic potency: the preoccupation of those at the top of the ladder becomes simply a primitive fixation on taking full advantage of the privileges of the status quo to fully exploit interests and amass the biggest possible fortune, and fast. As a result, the regime is no longer a mere political authority; it’s a genuine plutocratic class, with no need for business partners. It alone distributes the wealth. This means the logic governing its conflicts is naked material interest, a logic that also necessarily governs any moves against it.

At the same time, the regime deploys the moral rhetoric of honor to comfort the audience/people/non-ruling classes: yes, we are really poor, it says, but Egypt is the mother of the world. It is an attempt to purge the conflict of any material dimension, but in open conflict, when the battle begins, this dramatic device is useless.

Since moral pretension dictates an obsession with presentation, and since the rhetoric of honor is not about realism but about projecting a particular image, the regime is obsessed with staging as many photo ops as it can. It is the quintessential representative state. January 25 was a photo op, as far as it was concerned, so it staged another one like it on June 30. All its accomplishments are photo ops designed to impress: the “new” Suez Canal, the new administrative capital, new cities, days-long youth conferences that present Egyptian youth in an honorable light, the sweeping away of veteran media personnel to make way for educated, presentable journalists. 

But the Sisi regime isn’t only obsessed with manufacturing images; it wants them to be just so, and how can they be just so unless they have creative control? So Sisi’s state has made image control, literal and figurative, a priority, taking over the media, television, film, and drama markets in a bid to own the image in full. It’s General Intelligence Service, headed by Sisi’s former Chief of Staff Abbas Kamel, acquired Egyptian Media Group, which in turn swallowed up most existing drama production. It has purchased private satellite channels, shut down newspapers, and blocked hundreds of websites, including this one, where you are currently reading this essay. The president himself is preoccupied with projecting a particular image and faithfully embodies the role of the dramatic hero favored by the post-independence Nasserist state: poor (“I spent eight years with nothing but water in the fridge”), honorable (“Am I building these palaces for myself? It’s all for Egypt”), and educated (“The most important thing is education”). A simple civil servant. He’s tried to reprise this character in his speeches (“Your honorable son is a faithful servant”), but the moment has passed.

‘Egypt looks to me.’ Dude, are you for real? If you wanna act, do what I did. I was just a contractor and went and started acting. Why don’t you see if there’s a producer who wants to sign you? Maybe you get work, maybe not, but anyway you sit around all day acting with a mic in your hand. Sometimes it’s a drama, sometimes an action flick. And then in front of the foreigners you act like a pus — pardon my French. Whatever. We got girls over here in the hood who could kick your ass.” 

This is the moment of hyperrealism. The image no longer records reality, it simulates it, and in doing so, it reproduces and shapes it. The most powerful image is unvarnished, shorn of any television polish because the goal is to be real. Live video has the upper hand here and Ali’s image is more powerful. Not only is his language plainspoken and lacking in metaphor, he gives us a live image that presents itself as a simulation of the truth. Sisi still lives in the older era, when photos were a record, and could be used to present an honorable portrayal of himself, the state, and its youth — a glossy portrait. Ali is virtual reality.

“I’m not gonna do any post-production work or editing. I don’t care about that bullshit. I’m a man who says it like it is, from Agouza, a working-class guy like everyone else.” (first video, September 2, 2019).

In hyperreality, the line between the real and the imagined fades, and with it the ability to distinguish fact from fiction. We don’t really know what’s happening, but we feel that something definitely is. 

In his rhetoric, Ali moves from the personal to the universal: not just my money, but the whole country’s money. He portrays a realistic dramatic character, and then he asks the audience to play the hero with him, to enter the frame. And they have obliged. 

Ultimately, the dramatic showdown between the dissident contractor and the Sisi regime is too on the nose — artless and ridiculous. If this saga weren’t real, it would just be the contrived ending to a corny film: the state controls all access to images when a genie arises from the depths of Facebook. It meticulously edits and airbrushes the photo, but is plagued by a live video of unvarnished speech filmed with a non-professional camera. Honor is the linchpin of its symbolic discourse when scandal is its underlying narrative theme. It functions like a real-estate developer and film producer whose president loves theater (“Do you want to be an actor?” Mohamed Ali asks Sisi), so of course the Egyptian state would be stymied by a contractor-turned-B-list actor. A state founded on staging the perfect scene, tripped up by the sidekick who steals the show. 

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Leila Arman