An Egyptian man, Mohamed Hosni, set himself on fire in the middle of Tahrir Square in Cairo on November 12. Taking place in the epicenter of the 2011 revolution that prompted the resignation of then-President Hosni Mubarak, the episode was intended to protest the corruption of state officials at the bank where the man worked, and the persecution he endured for denouncing it. Mr. Hosni survived the ordeal, but will the Egyptian government survive?
Mr. Hosni, who is now hospitalized, accused current Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi and the country’s leaders of being “thieves.” It’s unlikely that Mr. Hosni’s recovery will be a pleasant one, as the government and the media promptly described him as a “madman” and a “Muslim Brotherhood puppet.” But just as quickly, analysts could not miss the significance of the episode, as it was reminiscent of the December 2010 self-immolation of Tunisian street vendor Mohamed Bouazizi in the town of Sidi Bouzid, which in the popular imagination catalyzed the Jasmine Revolution in Tunisia and the “Arab Spring.”
Mr. Hosni’s act is but the most dramatic of several spontaneous episodes of anger – during which at least two people were killed – against a government defined as militarist and corrupt. Certainly, countless Egyptians blame the government for the difficult living conditions they face.
Impoverished and exhausted, Egyptians have returned to the streets, pushed by the symptoms of a structural crisis.
Impoverished and exhausted, Egyptians have returned to the streets, pushed by the symptoms of a structural crisis, exacerbated by the coronavirus epidemic and the al-Sisi government’s failure to reform and reduce poverty. The fear of hunger and the risk of losing their homes have left people with little to lose and eager to protest.
The sharp rise in the number of demonstrations appears to be linked to new government measures aimed at curbing the phenomenon of illegal construction in government designated “agricultural land.” The related ordinance, issued in January 2020, demands the demolition of buildings deemed illegal, including homes belonging to the poor – amid the pressures of the coronavirus pandemic and higher overall prices for food and consumer goods. The government has succeeded in tightening fiscal policy, keeping inflation under control. But the number of Egyptians living below the poverty line has increased in the past few years, and the roots of this degradation reach far deeper than the impact of Covid-19.
Certainly, the pandemic has damaged the economy and the tourism and hotel sectors in particular. Over 6,500 people have died from Covid-19 amid some 117,000 cases, and the government has yet to adopt containment measures to confront the second wave, which could cause up to US$18 billion in losses. The most affected areas are the towns overlooking the Red Sea, such as Sharm el-Sheikh and Hurghada, which rely on seaside tourism during the winter, one of the pillars of the entire Egyptian economy.
Tourism Industry Bailout is Not Enough
Many had hoped for an economic recovery following the already staggering losses of 2020. In the wake of lockdown and border closure measures in several European countries, higher-brow tourism in Cairo and the Nile Valley has suffered and destinations such as Luxor and Aswan have been especially hard hit. Egypt’s central bank has issued a bailout package to help tourism workers, preventing layoffs. Still, despite the fact that close to two million people work in the tourism industry, they account for only two percent of the total population. And job losses have occurred in all sectors amid structural reforms, aimed at “liberalizing” the economy.
Some economists have argued that GDP growth has resulted from austerity – a reduction of subsidies for basic goods – and a devaluation of the Egyptian pound.
Egypt still expects GDP growth in 2020, even though 2.7 million jobs were lost between April and June. But some economists have argued that GDP growth has resulted from austerity – a reduction of subsidies for basic goods – and a devaluation of the Egyptian pound (to encourage investment), as part of an overall restructuring that President al-Sisi mandated since he took power in 2013. In other words, Egypt’s economic reform has not reduced poverty; rather, its aim was to qualify Egypt for IMF loans and attract foreign capital, which has largely fueled construction of mega-projects.
In this context, the Covid-19 pandemic has served to merely highlight the structural problems of the Egyptian economy, which has not improved under al-Sisi. The role of the state and the military remains dominant but rather than alleviating poverty, the goal has been altered to focus on fiscal rigor, resulting in impressive GDP statistics but few if any benefits for the average Egyptian. Citizens continue to confront unemployment, higher costs of living, and unsustainable demographic growth, as the Egyptian population has surpassed 101 million – up from about 90 million in 2010 – while resources and services stay limited.
No Political Reform, Just Crackdowns and Repression
To confront the protests, Egyptian authorities have intensified crackdowns against people considered to be linked to “terrorism” and national security threats, which inevitably means opponents and activists affiliated with the Muslim Brotherhood. The fact that reliable pro-government MPs Abdel Rahim Ali and Mortada Mansour lost their seats in last November’s parliamentary elections sent a clear signal of grievance – especially since the vote was believed to be rigged in al-Sisi’s favor.
The July 3, 2013 coup against the democratically-elected former President Mohamed Morsi, of the Muslim Brotherhood, has tainted al-Sisi’s political logic.
The July 3, 2013 coup against the democratically-elected former President Mohamed Morsi of the Muslim Brotherhood, following Mubarak’s resignation, has tainted al-Sisi’s political logic. His government declared the Muslim Brotherhood a terrorist organization in December 2013, using attacks against it as part of a wider campaign against terrorism. That policy endeared Cairo to Riyadh and Abu Dhabi, which also designated the group a terrorist organization in 2014.
However, rather than displaying strength, the Egyptian Ra’is (ruler) appears terrified of making a mistake; the mistake that he believes his predecessor, Mubarak, made when he avoided cracking down on the Tahrir Square revolt, while repressing the Muslim Brotherhood. In the end, he was ousted by his own army.
Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch claim that al-Sisi has arrested over 60,000 political dissidents of all stripes, including Muslim Brotherhood members, liberals, communists, progressive opponents, journalists, bloggers, lawyers, activists, and trade unionists. He has also reportedly shut down websites, news agencies, newspapers, and opposition parties—the main one being the Muslim Brotherhood, adopting a rather liberal attitude in the definition of terrorism.
Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch claim that al-Sisi has arrested over 60,000 political dissidents of all stripes.
The West (France in particular) and Cairo’s regional allies in the Gulf (Saudi Arabia and the UAE) may appreciate the semblance of stability. Yet, stability that relies on a ruthless security apparatus to prevent any form of opposition without addressing its causes is always unstable. And, targeting the Muslim Brotherhood is pointless, even from the perspective of regime preservation.
Indeed, as 2011 showed, the movement that drew hundreds of thousands of people, from all social classes and political affiliations, to demand the termination of President Mubarak’s regime adopted the slogan “’aysh, Hurryah wa ‘adala ‘ijtima’iyya” (Bread, Freedom, and Social Justice). It was less a political “revolution” and more of a social one. There was no ideological adhesive that drove the protest. The Muslim Brotherhood, which the al-Sisi government has been so keen to repress, played an observer role, at best, in the February 2011 revolution. In broad terms, the conditions for yet another revolution, that is widespread dissatisfaction, still exist now.
Despite its authoritarianism, characterized by the arrest of political dissidents, torture, and disappearances (even of foreigners suspected of merely investigating social problems as the case of Emilio Regeni suggests), the al-Sisi government has proven to be impotent and weak. It has led Egypt along the wrong path from the beginning. His intensified authoritarianism underlines the fact that the Egyptian people have not obtained what they demonstrated for in the streets of Cairo a decade ago. In fact, al-Sisi represents the main threat to Egyptian security because he has failed to bring about social change.
Egypt Hasn’t Changed Much Under al-Sisi
Ultimately, Egypt under al-Sisi has not changed much from Egypt under Mubarak. And what has changed has been for the worse. The Egyptian “Arab Spring” captured the world’s attention. For a few weeks, it seemed that the most populous Arab country would lead – even more than Tunisia – a period of radical political and social change. It did not. Now, as the tenth anniversary of the January 25, 2011 Tahrir Square revolt approaches, Egypt finds itself ruled by an even more dictatorial government than Mubarak’s.
Al-Sisi has allowed the military to dominate in all sectors. The stress on repression further bloated the internal security apparatus.
Al-Sisi’s Egypt appears to be closer to the one led by the Gamal Abdel Nasser regime in the 1950s and 1960s. Only it lacks Nasser’s nationalist and socialist ideals which inspired many Arabs and lifted numerous Egyptians out of poverty. Al-Sisi has allowed the military to dominate in all sectors. The stress on repression further bloated the internal security apparatus and the dreaded “Mukhabarat” (secret police). The armed forces, meanwhile, took an ever more prominent role in the Egyptian economy. By the time Mubarak resigned from office (or was forced to do so) in February of 2011, the army already controlled 50-60 percent of the economy – with interests that extend well beyond the military sector.
Predictably, such control has led to substantial corruption in the military ranks, including, of course, by Mubarak himself. The students and young professionals, mostly Western educated elites, who launched the anti-government protests in January and February of 2011, wanted to end the military cronyism – the de-facto military dominance of the economy – and, especially, the “state of emergency” which was adopted in 1981 and renewed over the years to fight the threat of terrorism. The latter was one of the key demands of the “Arab Spring” and it was revoked after the Mubarak regime’s fall but revived under al-Sisi. The state of emergency gives enormous powers to the security forces; it bans the right to protest, and restricts the freedoms of opinion, association, and media.
And this is the essence of al-Sisi’s instability. The president has become dependent on the security apparatus, which could turn on him – as it did with Mubarak – should the revolutionary spirit engulf the country to such an extent that repression becomes too costly in blood and lives. Al-Sisi is repeating the mistakes of Shah Mohammed Reza Pahlavi, who repressed political opposition using one of the most sophisticated and brutal security organizations, while failing to address the causes of discontent. Let’s not forget, that Shah had also come to power following a coup against a democratically elected and populist government.