The rare outburst of demonstrations across Egypt was enough proof that despite repression and crackdowns, there remains a sense of defiance among many Egyptians who have shown a renewed willingness to take the risk of voicing their anger toward al-Sisi.
In scenes reminiscent of the popular uprising of 2011, small numbers of Egyptians took to Tahrir Square in Cairo and several other major cities on September 20, calling for al-Sisi to step down. Experts say while few in numbers, the protesters managed to break the fear barrier created by al-Sisi’s ban on public protests following his military coup in 2013.
Michele Dunne is director of Middle East Programs at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. “We have seen the Egyptian public turning a corner; where opposition to the way that President al-Sisi is running the country has risen and come to the surface and I think there will be more protests in Egypt soon,” Dunne said.
The spark for this rare public protest was ignited when Mohamed Ali, a self-exiled military contractor disseminated videos on social media, accusing Egyptian president and some top army officers of corruption and squandering billions of dollars on lavish presidential palaces and unneeded projects.
The number of Egyptians living below the poverty line rose to 32 percent last year from 27 percent two years earlier.
Being an insider, working with the army, which expanded its grip on the Egyptian economy, Ali struck a chord with average Egyptians at a time the number of Egyptians living below the poverty line had risen to 32 percent last year from 27 percent two years earlier. He called on Egyptians to take to the streets.
The first round of protests on September 20 shocked the security forces because they were not prepared; they were caught by surprise following a soccer match.
Michael Hanna is an Egypt expert at the New York-based Century Foundation. “Once the narrative took hold and the images started going around, they obviously reacted with a big wave of arrests,” Hanna said.
Tactics from the Old Book of Repression
The first round of protests resulted in more than 2,000 people rounded up by security forces across the country. Mohamed Ali called on Egyptians to launch a million-man march the following Friday of September 27.
Security forces took no chances: gangs of armed masked men and riot police were deployed, and blocked all roads leading to Tahrir Square, the epic scene of the 2011 popular uprising.
The response was very different this time. Security forces took no chances: gangs of armed masked men and riot police were deployed, and blocked all roads leading to Tahrir Square, the epic scene of the 2011 popular uprising. Some metro stations in downtown Cairo were closed, while white-uniformed police officers randomly stopped people, checking their identity cards and searching the contents of their social media accounts on their smart phones. The measures aborted any attempt to attain sizable demonstrations.
The Egyptian security forces’ heavy presence in Cairo was a show of intimidation to deter any attempt at public protest.
Such a crackdown on protests against al-Sisi quashed dissent and freed up Egypt’s squares for state-backed rallies praising al-Sisi, painting the previous protest as a plot against the nation. Tightly controlled state media and intelligence-owned private media launched a campaign to tarnish protesters as supporters of the outlawed Muslim Brotherhood organization. Egyptian authorities blocked the U.S. Arabic TV Alhurra and BBC Arabic TV for covering the initial wave of protests.
But according to Michael Hanna this was only the beginning. “Even if popular protests do not immediately occur, what took place in Egypt last month has the possibility of gradually changing political dynamics. That was what happened incrementally between 2000 and 2011,” said Hanna.
The Egyptian government additionally arrested a number of outstanding opposition figures, journalists, and activists who were not associated with this new wave of dissent. Among them was Khaled Dawoud, former leader of the liberal Al Dostour Party, political scientist Hasan Nafaa and Professor Hazem Hosny, previous spokesperson for Samy Anan, former Army Chief of Staff, who was detained for attempting to run against al-Sisi in presidential elections last year.
Subdued International Response
During the last G-7 Summit, President Trump had been waiting for a meeting with Egyptian President al-Sisi, and when he was a little late Trump asked: “Where is my favorite dictator?”
The U.S. administration’s subdued reaction to al-Sisi’s crackdown on peaceful protests in Egypt could be interpreted as a green light for al-Sisi’s tactics.
Michele Dunne complained that the U.S. administration’s subdued reaction to al-Sisi’s crackdown on peaceful protests in Egypt could be interpreted as a green light for al-Sisi’s tactics. “I hope the impression will be corrected by U.S. officials and members of Congress, because the U.S. has stood for the right of peaceful protest in Russia, Hong Kong, Sudan, and Iran.”
The U.S. State Department issued a statement: “The U.S. supports the right of Egyptians to express their political views freely. We understand there have been a number of arrests, and we call upon the Government of Egypt to protect citizens’ ability to exercise these rights peacefully.”
Nevertheless, Sarah Leah Watson, Middle East Director of Human Rights Watch called for more concrete steps and action, not just talk. “The only way to bring stability in Egypt is a government that respects the rights and freedoms of the Egyptian people.” Watson called upon Egypt’s Western allies to suspend military assistance to al-Sisi’s regime.
Few members of the U.S. Congress responded to the crackdown in Egypt. Democrat Representative Eliot Engel and Republican Representative Michael McCaul, both members of the House Foreign Relations Committee, issued a statement. “Egyptians have the right to protest peacefully and to exercise that right without fear of retribution.” The two congressmen called for the release of all those jailed following the September protests.
On the Senate side, U.S. Senator Chris Murphy was among the few to address the human rights violations committed in Egypt’s protests. “We expect demonstrations to be allowed in Egypt and will hold the regime responsible if it responds with force and arbitrary arrests.”
The al-Sisi regime responds with force and arbitrary arrests and got away with it.
The al-Sisi regime did exactly that and got away with it.