EGYPT

07.22.13

The Egyptian Kid Who Took on Morsi

The story behind the 12-year-old boy who became an Internet sensation when he argued against Islamist rule. By Mike Giglio and Maged Atef

Twelve-year-old Ali Mohamed was surprised to learn of his sudden Internet fame. The Cairo middle-schooler had given a video interview to a local news site last fall, in which he presented an eloquent and seemingly ad-lib take-down of Islamist governance and then-President Mohamed Morsi. Mohamed’s answers were so detailed—“fascist theocracy is when you manipulate religion and enforce extremist regulations in the name of religion,” he said—that they seemed to take his questioner off-guard.

The video—in which Mohamed is incorrectly cited as “Ali Ahmed”—received little attention until Morsi’s recent ouster, which followed mass protests inspired by many of the concerns Mohamed had laid out. But it has since gone viral internationally, racking up more than 3 million views on YouTube and myriad mentions in the Western press. “This is amazing. Hope this kid sticks around to run his country!!!” read one typical comment as the video made its rounds.

Mohamed had no idea he’d caused such uproar until his friends started sending him links. “I was extremely surprised. That video was a long time ago,” he says in his first interview since.

But he adds that he sees nothing unusual in the fact that so many people have stopped to listen to a boy his age. “It’s not strange. Age is not the measure. The mind is the measure,” he says.

Mohamed hails from a poor neighborhood in Cairo and a household where talk of politics is constant. His father is a city worker who cleans metro stations, and his mother a housewife who says she raised her son on “freedom and reading.” He plays soccer and swims, and he also reads frequently, from the novels of Alaa al-Aswany to daily news—even delving into Islamist newspapers, he says, “so I can know how they think.”

Mohamed says he protests with his family regularly in Cairo’s Tahrir Square, which is where he ran into the interviewer from the now-famous video, published by a news site called El Wady. Asked about the government, Mohamed launched into an in-depth analysis of how Morsi and his Islamist political allies misused their power and their religion, touching on issues such as police abuse, social justice, and women’s rights, then discoursed on the Islamic bent of Egypt’s new Constitution. His remarks raised suspicion from the reporter on the scene. “Who [told] you all this?” she can be heard asking on camera to which Mohamed replies, “I just know it.”

The reporter presses the point. “I listen to people a lot,” Mohamed says, “and I use my own brain.”

Speaking to the Daily Beast on Sunday, the 12-year-old still had a lot to say.

The protest movement that sparked Morsi’s military ouster sent “a clear message,” he says: “People don’t want this to become a theocratic country.”

He calls Morsi and his Muslim Brotherhood “killers,” “fascists,” and “a terrorist group.”

Mohamed had no idea he’d caused such uproar until his friends started sending him links. ‘I was extremely surprised. That video was a long time ago,’ he says in his first interview since.

“They wanted to change the face of this country,” he says. “The Muslim Brotherhood does not represent Islam. It has nothing to do with Islam.”

Describing himself as a believer—“of course I am religious”—Mohamed says he doesn’t think religion and politics should mix. “If Islam interferes in politics, both will ruin each other. I don’t want any religion to be part of ruling the country,” he says.

And he has some pointed words for the U.S. government, echoing the criticisms of many in the anti-Morsi crowd who have accused America of backing the Islamist president in the face of widespread opposition. “The American administration, and Barack Obama, are supporting terrorists,” Mohamed says.

“But that has nothing to do with our love and respect for the American people,” he is quick to add with diplomatic flair.

Mohamed is already talking like a budding politician—“these citizens are still able to surprise me,” he says of the anti-Morsi protests. And he admits that he’d like to get into politics one day. But, he adds, “it’s too early to speak about the future for me. I’m still young. Let’s see what happens in this country.”