In Egypt, Cracks in el-Sisi’s Armour Emerge

Egypt was rocked by unusual protests against President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi at the end of September, surprising both domestic and international observers. On the evening of September 20, several hundred people took to the streets of Cairo and smaller cities like Alexandria to demand el-Sisi’s resignation.  The protesters chanted “down with Sisi” and “leave now,” until security forces arrived to disperse the crowds with tear gas. Many of the protesters in Cairo had gathered in Tahrir Square, well-known for its role as a central location in the Arab Spring. However, the September 20th protests were not as large as those during the Arab Spring and appeared to have been more of a spontaneous gathering. On September 27th, a second, albeit weaker, round of protests emerged, largely due to the government’s aggressive response, mass imprisonment of young people involved in the first week’s events, and the heavy presence of security forces in downtown Cairo.

Protests have been illegal under Egyptian law since the military’s seizure of power from former president Mohamed Morsi in 2013. This law, combined with the authoritarian el-Sisi’s ascent to power and subsequent jailing of political opponents and use of other oppressive tactics, has made protests in Egypt essentially nonexistent. In fact, this round of protests was the first of their kind since el-Sisi came to power, with even relatively small uprisings against executive authority seen as surprising.

What motivated these protests?

Economic grievances were among the most crucial motivators of the protests, with a reduction in inflation, a decline in debt and deficit rates, and increase in growth unable to obscure a dismal economic reality.  The government has “devalued the Egyptian pound and raised the prices of basic goods and services” and struck nearly two million Egyptians from programs providing subsidies for staples such as rice, pasta, fuel, and electricity. The World Bank estimates that some 60 percent of Egyptians are poor, and 33 percent are living below the poverty line. With this in mind, Egyptians are fed up with el-Sisi’s failure to return prosperity to Egypt, a country that has been suffering economic hardship for decades.  

This frustration came to a head after Mohamed Ali, an Egyptian actor-turned-contractor, began releasing videos in early September exposing the corruption he had witnessed under el-Sisi. The videos, some of which have been viewed over a million times, describe “the Sisi regime’s misdeeds against the Egyptian people.”  Ali alleges that el-Sisi misuses public funds to benefit his allies; after Ali pledged his allegiance to the Egyptian military, he immediately began receiving large, unsolicited, and ultimately profitable government contracts.  Most importantly, Ali accuses el-Sisi of lying to the Egyptian people by claiming that the government is too poor to help them — Ali says he has seen firsthand how the president and his cronies live lavish lifestyles.  These revelations stoked rage in many poor Egyptians, who were able to identify with Ali – an uneducated Egyptian who worked his way to success and did not use the complicated political double-speak of many Egyptian politicians. 

However, Ali’s unusual position and sudden desire to speak out has some observers asking questions.  Some wonder if Ali is perhaps a puppet controlled by members of el-Sisi’s government seeking to undermine the president, and whether the protests were truly spontaneous or the result of more careful organization by the Muslim Brotherhood, an Islamist group el-Sisi despises.

How did the government respond?

El-Sisi’s government responded to the protests with heavy-handed aggression, shutting down downtown Cairo and arresting thousands. The government has detained over 3,000 people since the protests began, many of whom had little or nothing to do with the protests.  Mass arrests have targeted everyone from children on their way to buy school clothes in Cairo to people who just happened to be in the city around the time of the protests, many of whom are illiterate.  Amnesty International recorded the imprisonment of at least ten journalists — oddly, many were pro el-Sisi. Prisoners have been denied food and water and are unable to contact family members or receive legal counsel. Multiple foreign nationals have been arrested and forced to confess to conspiring against Egypt.

Egyptian security forces swarmed Cairo immediately for days after the protests. Armoured vehicles were placed outside mosques and government buildings, while security agents patrolled the city and randomly detained citizens for questioning. People — especially those on motorcycles — were stopped by security forces, forced to show identification, and even share their social media accounts. Military forces occupied major intersections and shut down Cairo’s shopping district, rendering usually popular areas of the city completely empty.  

El-Sisi claimed to understand “the position of citizens who have been negatively affected” by Egypt’s economic situation.  He attempted to make amends by promising to return subsidies to the two million Egyptians who had been cut from the program, but it is clear that his concessions were only to save face.  Essentially no efforts have been made to reform the fractured political, social, and economic systems in Egypt. It is unlikely that el-Sisi will ever voluntarily implement reforms, given that providing the people with greater freedom and rights would threaten his dictatorial grip on the nation.

Social media’s changing role in protests

Social media played an interesting role in the uprisings, both as a platform for communication between protesters and a means by which government forces could find evidence of subversive activity. In the days and weeks following the protests, plainclothes police officers stopped people on the streets and demanded their phones to scour their social media for any sympathy for the protestors. Those charged with “misusing” social media were immediately imprisoned.

Meanwhile, social networks were key for spreading the word about the protests and allowing Egyptians not near the center of the action to participate, even if it was just by “liking” a video of a protest.  Especially after the government’s brutal crackdown following the first week’s protests, some people on social media began circulating old videos of protests on social media to exaggerate the movement’s size and encourage others to join during the second week.

Social media has posed a particularly salient and difficult challenge for the el-Sisi.  While the government controlled essentially every other aspect of Egyptian media, social media has remained elusive and free.  Following the protests, the government attempted to discredit this form of information sharing, stating that social media should not be considered a form of news due to its “fake accounts and fabrications.”

Is this the end of protests in Egypt?

Although revolutionary activity has quieted in past weeks, this does not mean that the Egyptian people have been appeased. The el-Sisi regime’s extreme violence and oppression have caused people to take a step back for now, but there is a strong chance that this round of uprisings will not be an isolated incident.  El-Sisi has changed the Egyptian constitution to allow himself to stay in power until 2030, but his corruption and authoritarian tendencies are unlikely to change in that time.  Whether or not the Egyptian people continue their fight against el-Sisi depends on the question with which many Middle Eastern countries struggle: freedom versus stability.  As the Arab Spring demonstrated, the overthrow of despotic regimes can cause complete chaos and may not even guarantee better executive leadership. This fear of a repeat of the Arab Spring’s failure in Egypt may hold some people back.  However, there are others who argue that society cannot progress unless democratic rights are granted, and Egypt’s continued misery is evidence of that. Whether or not Abdel Fattah el-Sisi makes it to the end of his term in 2030 will depend on which side of this debate Egyptians fall.
It can be informative to consider these protests in the context of a recently increased expression of frustrations in the Middle East and North Africa. Widespread protests erupted in Tunisia in December 2018, mass protests over the summer in Sudan resulted in a brutal crackdown, protests have been shaking Iraq in recent weeks, and even Lebanon fell victim to uprisings in September. While calling this widespread unrest a second Arab Spring may be a reach, it is worth noting how protests are becoming more frequent and widespread. This is perhaps indicative of a generation of young people who came of age post-2011 and are unsatisfied with the general failures of the Arab Spring.  The bulk of the protesters in September were young men who were not prominent leaders in 2011; most of the established Arab Spring activists “generally looked suspiciously at this round of demonstrations.” If these young people are able to lead a movement that is not as explosive as the Arab Spring, but is simply a consistent pressure campaign of corrupt leaders, they will truly become a force to be reckoned with.

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Author: Julia Broomer

Julia Broomer is a staff writer at The Compass. She is a freshman majoring in International Affairs with a concentration in the Middle East and minoring in Arabic and Sociocultural Anthropology.  Her interests include counter-terrorism, social and political conflict in the Middle East and North Africa, and comparative cultures in the region.