Egypt Protests: Paid Protesters Mean Appearances Can Be Deceiving


It only took one week in Egypt for me to discover that someone is paying for false protesters. It was a shock really, considering that our newspapers are riddled with sexy quotes from Egyptian revolutionaries who don’t believe democracy and the Muslim Brotherhood can coexist.

My second night in Alexandria only fueled the naiveté. I ordered a mango smoothie from the best juice bar on the Corniche. And before I could finish it, my two waiters had started to show off the back of their white embroidered work jackets, pulling taut the cotton shoulders and straightening their posture. "January 25" was sewn across in a flashy red stitch. And the men turned back to me, grinning and proud of their apparel, as if to say they’d supported the revolution from its very onset two years ago.

I bet those guys are full of great anti-establishment sound bites. And by the looks on their faces, I might even go as far to say that I’d believe a quotation if ever they gave me one. But some protesters are not real at all. Some are being paid to take to the streets.

On a Friday morning, I was scheduled for a train from Alexandria to Cairo. And as my taxi driver and I rushed to the station, we passed a dozen riot police lined up in a parking lot. They were ready for some clash I could not sense. The roads to the station had been clear. Alexandrians bustled no more than usual.

When I asked my taxi driver what the police were waiting for, he shook his head as if deeply disappointed and told me that today was nothing special but that sometimes oppositional groups pay men to protest for them. He thought today was just another one of those days. He didn’t say who these oppositional groups were opposing, or really much else, but I trusted that he’d seen this all before, and that soon enough a secretly funded protest would ensue.

The fake protesters weren’t just in Alexandria. They were in Cairo too. That same evening I attended a demonstration in Tahrir, where the hundreds of men gathered there shouted repeatedly, “Shut up, Shut up Mohammad Morsi!” Since arriving I had been looking for other women in the crowd, but saw no one else.

At these protests, females have been the easy targets of sexual harassment. Packed body to body, it is impossible not to be touched in some way. But in the past, many men posed as protesters went through the crowd and molested women. They had been paid.

Whatever mastermind was dishing out cash for this scandal was right: grab a few too many rear ends and women won’t feel safe to demonstrate anymore.

I did eventually see a group of women pass through. But that was only because men in neon reflective vests parted the crowd with their voices, then their hands. Women walked one by one through the belly of the crowd, until they disappeared somewhere far away from me. Then the men in the reflective vests disappeared too and I was swallowed again.

Two years and one month after the Egyptian revolution and everyone’s still wondering where it is going to go. To be honest, I don’t have an opinion on that. Egypt will become whatever its people allow it to be. If that means Morsi or someone else, so be it. But I will say that in Egypt there are donors who are trying to buy their revolution, to buy political change. Who knows if Egyptians are falling for it. Maybe the revolution is for sale. But the next time CNN flashes an enraged protester on your screen, ask yourself — Was he paid for this?