Egypt’s revolution redux

Despite mass repressions, Egyptians have once again broken the barrier of fear.

Cairo protests
Small groups of protesters gather in central Cairo shouting anti-government slogans in on September 21, 2019 [Reuters/Mohamed Abd El Ghany]

For years, articles and analyses, including those I have written for Al Jazeera, have predicted that another Egyptian uprising was a matter of when, not if. We may possibly be getting an answer to the “when” question.

On Friday, Egyptians in several governorates organised anti-government protests demanding the resignation of current President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi.

Chants in major squares and streets across the nation mirrored the now-famous chants of the Arab Spring protests which led to the removal of longtime dictator Hosni Mubarak in February 2011.

Friday’s protests prominently featured what became one of the central slogans of the 2011 uprising: “The people want the fall of the regime.” Protests continued in the city of Suez on Saturday, with smaller demonstrations reported in Cairo and Mahalla.

An unlikely instigator

The weekend demonstrations came at the behest of Mohamed Ali, a disgruntled former military contractor living in self-exile in Spain. Earlier this month, he started releasing self-recorded videos critical of the regime, in which he provided intricate details of alleged corruption, including lavish spending by President el-Sisi and his family.

Ali worked with the military for more than a decade. Given his insider status, many Egyptians believe his allegations are credible.

The recordings have been viewed millions of times, and several prominent hashtags have taken over the Egyptian Twittersphere. A week ago, Ali called on Egyptians to hit the streets in protest.

On Friday, hundreds of people in several cities, including Cairo, responded to his call and walked out to demonstrate against the regime, to the surprise of many observers.

Ali has subsequently released more recordings, asking Egyptian defence minister Mohamed Zaki to arrest Sisi, and the army to stand by the people. He also called for a “millioniya” (a million-man march) this coming Friday.

The regime’s response

On September 14, in an unprecedented act of defensiveness, el-Sisi responded directly to Ali’s claims during a speech at a hastily organised National Youth Conference. The president appeared to confirm, rather than deny, the allegations that he ordered the construction of lavish presidential palaces. “Yes, I have built presidential palaces, and will continue to do so,” he said.

The government initially tried to discredit Ali as a sympathiser of the Muslim Brotherhood, the now-outlawed group that won several elections in post-revolution Egypt, but those efforts failed. Streams of credible evidence from Ali’s political, business and personal history make it clear that he is not an Islamist.

Then the government switched gears entirely, trying to present Ali as an ungodly womaniser. This strategy also failed. Even Islamist media outlets based abroad have been overtly sympathetic to the former military contractor, calling him a hero and urging Egyptians to overlook his personal life.

Friday’s response to Ali’s calls for protest seems to confirm that, for many Egyptians, such details are insignificant.

An atmosphere of fear

Predictably, el-Sisi’s sycophantic media outlets downplayed Friday’s protests as small and unimportant. This was the same strategy employed by the Mubarak regime in 2011.

But images and footage of protests, which took place near the symbolic Tahrir Square area and elsewhere in Cairo, as well as in a number of other cities, including Alexandria, Mansoura and Suez, were widely circulated on social media and attracted the attention of foreign media.

Given the larger context of Egyptian politics, the demonstrations are quite meaningful, even if they are still smaller than the anti-Mubarak protests of 2011.

Protests were effectively banned in Egypt in 2013 after security forces cracked down on anti-coup sit-ins on August 14, 2013, killing more than 900 protesters at two large sit-in sites in Cairo. In a subsequent report, Human Rights Watch said the massacres constituted “likely crimes against humanity”.

Since the summer of 2013, more than 60,000 people have been arrested, many for protesting illegally; and hundreds of others have been forcibly disappeared. In detention centres and jails, there has been routine use of torture, including rape.  

Given the demonstrable authoritarianism and brutality of the el-Sisi regime, and the overall risk associated with all forms of public dissent, it is difficult to dismiss the current protests as small or insignificant. If nothing else, Egyptians have broken a formidable barrier of fear.

What do the protests portend?

Egyptians have long been dissatisfied with key aspects of el-Sisi’s rule. The president has effectively prevented scientific polling in Egypt, so there is no way to accurately determine his true approval rating.

From the standpoint of the revolutionaries who hit the streets to protest against Mubarak in January 2011, el-Sisi has failed on all fronts. In particular, freedoms are far fewer today than they were under Mubarak, and the economic situation has worsened.

El-Sisi’s key economic projects – a new capital city with a water park and massive tower, and the Suez Canal expansion – are seen by experts as acts of wasteful spending that will not meaningfully benefit Egypt or Egyptians.

At the same time, he is perceived to have mismanaged the nation’s water crisis, mishandled the country’s crumbling infrastructure, and acted against national interest by giving away two islands in the Red Sea to Saudi Arabia.

Today, about one-third of Egyptians live in poverty, on less than $1.50 per day. More realistic poverty markers suggest Egypt’s poverty rate is much higher than that.

Inflation rates and austerity measures, including subsidy cuts, have made it difficult for the average Egyptian to commute to work, put food on the table or seek medical treatment.

In the face of poverty, political mismanagement and economic disarray, and el-Sisi’s persistent references in his public speeches to how “very poor” Egypt is, Ali’s insider tales of lavish spending of taxpayer money by the president, his family and close confidants have fuelled public anger.

Regardless of how things play out in the immediate future, the current protests might signal the beginning of the end for el-Sisi’s rule. In the coming days and weeks, pressure is likely to continue to mount.

If protests are large enough, and especially if they are prolonged, the military may be forced to intervene to eliminate the president from the political scene. Given fractures within the power structure, there may be some in the military apparatus who are itching for such an opportunity.

If and when that happens, the larger and more important questions will revolve around how Egyptians who aspire for true democracy can overcome an authoritarian system that extends far beyond a single man.  

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial stance.