On Friday 20 September, hundreds of people took to the streets in Cairo and other cities in Egypt to demonstrate against the country’s president, Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, in response to videos shared on social media exposing government corruption. Since Sisi came to power protests have been non-existent due to a crackdown on dissidents under the current regime. The recent protests thus came as a surprise to the regime and international observers. The demonstrations continued the next day in the port city of Suez, were hundreds of anti-government protesters clashed with security forces, who fired tear gas and live bullets at the protesters. In total almost 1,900 people were arrested by the authorities. Gamal Eid, head of the Arab Network for Human Rights Information, described the arrests as part of the “most violent campaign in Egypt’s modern history”. Most media outlets in Egypt didn’t mention the demonstrations, though a lot of footage has been shared on social media by protesters themselves. Sisi returned from the UN general assembly on Friday 27 September, urging the public that the protests are merely an incident. “Don’t worry about anything,” he said. “What happened before will not happen again.”
What caused the protests?
The ongoing unrest began after Mohamed Ali, a former military contractor, released a series of viral videos in which he accused Sisi and powerful military officials of corruption, such as wasting public funds on mega-projects and palaces. Since Sisi took office, the construction business has seen a incredible rise of military-owned firms which are competing with other businesses. Egyptian businessmen have complained about the advantages granted to these military-owned firms, calling it unfair competition. Sisi has defended the increasing involvement of military officials, stating that it is the only organization who can deliver large and complicated projects fast. Ali was working together with military contractors, but fell out of favor over payment issues. Due to his involvement in the construction business Ali’s allegations against the Sisi regime are taken serious by the public in Egypt. Ali accused Sisi of wasting public funds on palaces and projects which were undertaken as a favor to generals in his inner circle. The allegations sparked anger among the Egyptian population which is dealing with low employment and unpopular austerity measures, resulting in the recent protests. Ali, who is living in self-exile in Spain, has been constantly campaigning against the Sisi regime. In recent videos, Ali demanded the minister of Defense to arrest the president and claimed he received support from army and police officers. After the first protests, Ali urged Egyptians to join in a new march the week after to fill all ”major squares” of the country. His call for more protests caused security forces to seal of many squares across cities in Egypt.
In recent years the Sisi regime succeeded in suppressing protests, effectively banning them under a law passed in 2013. Under Sisi’s rule many Islamists, secular activists and popular bloggers have been jailed in an attempt to silence opposition sentiments. Recent demonstrations across Egyptian cities may indicate that the regime has lost its grip.But regime officials made it clear that they intend to use force to quell any demonstrations in the future. In a brief statement, Egypt's Ministry of Interior warned it would "confront any attempt to destabilize social peace in a firm and decisive way". Among those arrested in recent days, are some prominent opposition figures who are not directly connected to the protests, like human rights lawyer Mahienour el-Masry, opposition figure Khaled Dawoud and Hazem Hosny who attempted to run for president last year. Sisi has tried to gather support for the arrests by using state controlled media. For example Al Dostour, a private pro-government newspaper, which posted the faces of 33 opposition figures on its frontpage along with the headline: “Beware of them”.
The regime has increased police presence in the large cites and several key points in Cairo have been sealed of in anticipation to possible protests, police forces are even checking mobile phones for political content.
One of the few opposition organizations who survived the recent wave of arrests and general crackdown on dissidents is the Civil Democratic Movement (CDM). The CDM is an alliance formed by 8 political parties, among these parties is our sister party the Egyptian Social Democratic Party. This coalition was established in December 2017, in order to mount a unified and effective response to the monopoly of the Sisi regime. It has brought together Liberal and leftwing parties in a desperate attempt to force a change, though many of its prominent members have been arrested. Like Khaleed Dawood who was recently was arrested by police after the protests began. The CDM called for a “national dialogue” after the protests broke out. The banned Muslim Brotherhood party issued a statement on social media supporting the anti-Sisi protests. To the surprise of many, Mohamed Ali is now the leading opposition figure. His unorthodox style of using his social media to spread his ideas, and his insider information on corruption scandals has made him a popular figure. Although some merely see him as businessman who is looking for revenge after his business collapsed. Like a protester in Suez who described Ali as “a thief who had a problem with his thieving government so he decide to shame them”.
With the media outlets in control of the Sisi regime, many opposition figures in jail, security forces blocking major squares and cracking down any anti-Sisi demonstration, the current wave of protests are not expected to cause a major shift in the political situation of Egypt. Pro-Sisi rallies are taking place in response to the recent protests, although several sources confirmed that employees of state owned companies were ferried in to bolster these rallies. Some think the corruption allegations by Ali and subsequent protests can force a change in the current regime. But current developments suggest the opposite. If Ali delivers more evidence of corruption, bigger protests may follow. But the opposition has been marginalized over the last years and information has to be spread trough social media. Large scale protest which could really challenge the regime are therefor hard to organize.
Sources: Guardian News24 Ifex Reuters BBC
Disclaimer: Image is taken at a protest in 2015, after an Egyptian Facebook user had been sentenced to three years in prison for photoshopping a picture of Sisi and adding the mickey mouse ears.