Egyptian whistleblower gets 5-year sentence in absentia

A state-run Egyptian newspaper says a self-exiled businessman who sparked rare protests with his allegations of military corruption has been sentenced in absentia to five years in prison for tax evasion

CAIRO -- A self-exiled Egyptian businessman whose allegations of corruption against the country's military sparked rare protests has been sentenced in absentia to five years in prison for tax evasion.

Mohamed Ali had released a series of viral videos from Spain earlier this year, pitching himself as a former government insider who witnessed high-level corruption and large-scale misuse of funds as a construction contractor for the military. He did not provide evidence to support his claims.

He also called for the ouster of Egyptian President Abdel-Fattah el-Sissi, a former military officer. El-Sissi has dismissed the corruption accusations as “sheer lies and defamation.”

Ali's videos led to scattered street protests against the president in several Egyptian cities in September. Public protest has been almost completely silenced over the past years by draconian measures imposed under el-Sissi.

After they swiftly stamped out the demonstrations, security forces escalated a long-running crackdown on suspected dissidents, jailing thousands in the weeks that followed. Hundreds of them have since been released.

The verdict can be appealed.

Ali had claimed he left Egypt while the military owes him 220 million Egyptian pounds, or $13 million, for services he provided.

During the more than 15 years of working with the military, Ali said his company routinely paid bribes to the military’s business arm, the so-called Engineering Authority, to secure countless contracts for lucrative projects, such as the building of presidential palaces and luxury hotels.

While dismissing the corruption allegations, el-Sissi has said he would continue building new presidential residences for the good of Egypt. “I am building a new country,” the president said.

Over the years, critics have questioned the expanding role of the military in the business world and its economic interests, as well as its seemingly unfair competition with the country’s private sector. They say the military enjoys advantages because it’s exempted from taxation and proper auditing.

In recent remarks, military spokesman Tamer al-Rifai said the army has carried out 2,300 projects employing 5 million Egyptians.

El-Sissi said the military has overseen road projects costing 175 billion Egyptian pounds ($1 billion), and that his government has carried out projects worth more than $245 billion. He said he would inaugurate 14 new cities next year.

He has said the projects, ranging from new roads and housing complexes to an $8.5 billion military-led expansion of the Suez Canal, attract investors and create jobs.

As defense minister, el-Sissi led the military's 2013 ouster of an Islamist president, whose one-year rule proved divisive and sparked nationwide protests.