Demonstrations have erupted across Egypt since September 19, within working class areas in Cairo’s districts of Nasr City and Giza, and smaller towns and cities elsewhere in the country, including Alexandria and the port city of Suez. Protests were initially small, and then quickly proliferated as more Egyptians became inspired to take to the streets, breaking through an atmosphere of fear imposed by President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi’s repressive government.
People held banners and chanted slogans against the regime. Others set a police car on fire while some threw stones at security forces, expressing their sheer frustration against the establishment.
They are largely a continuation of September 2019’s protests, when exiled businessman and government opponent Mohamed Ali, who now lives in Spain, encouraged people to protest via online videos.
While Ali resumed his external activism this September, a triggering factor of these renewed demonstrations was the Egyptian government passing a new law, which entailed that residents should pay fines to legalize homes built on agricultural land.
Though many Egyptians would struggle to pay fines, al-Sisi said in a warning speech, that “if it becomes necessary, [he] will deploy the army to all of Egypt’s villages to enforce the law,” with threats to demolish peoples’ homes.
After the subsequent outrage to this, 2,300 people have been detained, including 111 minors between 11 and 17 years old. This makes it the worst crackdown after the bloody Rabaa massacre in August 2013, a month after the counter-revolutionary coup which saw the military seize power from Mohammad Morsi’s Muslim Brotherhood government.
“People protested because the government said land on which dozens of houses are built, housing dozens of families, belongs to the Ministry of Endowments.”
“People protested because the government said land on which dozens of houses are built, housing dozens of families, belongs to the Ministry of Endowments,” said a resident in Giza, whose brother was detained.
The security forces have therefore attracted widespread criticism.
Further Regime Brutality
“Egyptian security forces have used tear gas, batons, birdshot and on at least one occasion live ammunition, and arrested hundreds of protesters and bystanders to disperse rare, scattered demonstrations over several days,” said an Amnesty International statement on October 2.
Al-Sisi has opted for further repression, as the security forces’ mass detentions of protesters show. Some were shot at in the Nile city of Beni Suef, among other locations, either to deter or maim people.
The government even reportedly sentenced 15 political detainees to death in October, which some political analysts believe aimed to scare people away from the streets; setting an example against other demonstrators.
One journalist, Basma Moustafa, was arrested in her village near the southern city of Luxor, while reporting on the alleged killing of a man by police during the demonstrations.
Egyptian prosecutors on October 4 accused her of “using her personal social media account to publish and promote false news.”
However, the arrest evidently backfired as growing condemnation over Moustafa’s treatment by the authorities forced her release the next day. It also revealed the government wanted to whitewash its repressive policies against demonstrators and prevent knowledge of them from circulating.
There are different suggestions over what triggered the protests. Firstly, it is important to remember that such protests in Egypt were already brewing, given the worsening socio-economic conditions. Al-Sisi’s latest move was clearly the final straw.
One out of every three people live below the poverty line, while the military controls a significant amount of the economy.
One out of every three people live below the poverty line, while the military – which runs Egypt as a “mafia” government – controls a significant amount of the economy. Many Egyptians struggle to get by on a daily basis, as the government pursues its own megaprojects including a new “administrative capital,” costing at least tens of billions of dollars. Cairo continues to ignore the peoples’ needs, with widespread complaints of al-Sisi’s government mismanaging the economy.
Some have given excessive credit to Mohamad Ali’s role in driving the protests. Ali has arguably played a crucial part in giving Egyptians confidence to rally in protest. But he is merely tapping into opposition towards al-Sisi, along with the peoples’ desires for change that have prevailed under his auspices, which would have erupted eventually without Ali’s guidance.
The sentiment that caused Egypt’s 2011 revolution and overthrew autocrat Hosni Mubarak, has not disappeared. This is despite attempts by another despot, al-Sisi, to contain such sentiment, after the 2013 counter-revolution which saw him assume power the following year.
One could therefore argue that the protests were inevitable.
“The fact that these protesters took to the streets while knowing the very high risk to their lives and safety shows how desperate they were to demand their economic and social rights,” the Amnesty International’s statement added.
As with Sudan’s revolution from late 2018, some observers have paid too much attention to the events that triggered the protests. In Sudan, it was an increase of bread prices; while in Egypt, it is the new exploitative property law. Yet such focus on these individual events ignores the long-standing grievances and underlying hardships that people faced previously, along with their desires to live free of corruption.
In Egypt’s case, the economic fallout from coronavirus would have exacerbated these feelings. As with much of the world, the International Monetary Fund (IMF) predicts a steep decline for Egypt’s economy as a result of virus containment measures and the global shutdown.
Cairo’s establishment however has sought to use its favorite bogeyman to downplay the protests. The pro-government publication Egypt Independent smeared Mohamed Ali as a Muslim Brotherhood collaborator. This echoes the regime’s past attempts of using the Brotherhood, which it considers a terrorist group, to dismiss the people’s true concerns and justify continued repression.
Al-Sisi warned of “instability” after public opposition to his latest plans, which echoes his long-standing “stability” narrative, where his authoritarianism is necessary.
Al-Sisi himself warned of “instability” after public opposition to his latest plans, which echoes his long-standing “stability” narrative, where his authoritarianism is necessary to secure the country against what he terms as “extremism.”
Naturally, many people will wonder where such powerful protests go from here. As conditions get worse, and the government fails to address them, opposition to al-Sisi and his regime can only grow. It will create an increasingly tense environment in the country.
Yet, the regime is clearly hell-bent on crushing any dissent and securing its power, rather than compromising and granting concessions to the people. And many observers are skeptical over how much protests can really challenge Egypt’s dominant military government.
As the international community turns a blind eye to these popular protests and their causes and al-Sisi continues his firm grip on power, September’s events only reveal that there is no relief in sight for the Egyptian people.