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PoliticsMiddle East

Egypt's poorest risk rare protests

Tom Allinson
October 7, 2020

The rare participation of Egypt's rural poor in recent protests shows "Egyptians have had enough," human rights observers say. But authorities have consistently shown no hesitation in using a heavy hand to silence them.

Three helicopters fly past an Egyptian flag
Image: Sayed Hassan/dpa/picture-alliance

After Egyptian activist-in-exile Amr Waked asked late last month why sustained demonstrations across Egypt weren't being reported by international media, the arrest this weekend of journalist Basma Mostafa drove home an unmistakable reply.

Mostafa was detained by authorities on Saturday while covering clashes that had broken out in a village near the southern city of Luxor after police allegedly killed a man, according to her lawyer and the independent news website she works for, Al-Manassa. Egypt's prosecutor-general ordered her release Tuesday pending further investigation.

A smiling woman with light curly hair takes a selfie
Basma MostafaImage: privat

The shooting reportedly took place last Wednesday while police were searching for people involved in a series of rare protests in Luxor and across the country. Local residents responded with outrage, leading security forces to place the village under an effective siege, independent outlet Mada Masr reported.

Mostafa's arrest is part of a continued but intensifying crackdown on dissent, involving the silencing of independent media and the dispersal of protests using teargas, batons and shotgun pellets. Rights groups say that since Saturday more than 700 people have been arrested and 15 political prisoners executed.

While those executed had been convicted in previous years, the timing raises questions, Human Rights Watch researcher Amr Magdi said: "What we can say for sure is that the continued use of the punishment of execution serves a purpose: to terrorize the population … to tell people they can be executed if they commit certain crimes or even if they just oppose the government."

But protests this year are different from those seen last year, mostly emanating from low socioeconomic rural areas that are not usually involved in activism, Magdi said.

"To see that many of these towns and villages have joined mass protests tells us that Egyptians have had enough, especially due to economic grievances."

Killing leads to 'Day of Rage'

The spate of dissent was triggered by a series of events around the September 20 anniversary of protests against corruption, which President Abdel-Fattah el-Sissi's security forces violently put down last year. About that time, exiled dissident Mohamed Ali alleged that Egypt's military-dominated government has engaged in lavish spending projects while squeezing the poorest in society.

Read moreEgypt quells protests with more stick than carrot

In the run-up to the anniversary early last month, police also allegedly tortured a young bird shop owner to death after he refused to pay a bribe, his family reported. 

The episode fed into calls — mostly from activists abroad — for a "Day of Rage" on September 20. That was followed by six consecutive days of small protests across the country during which hundreds were arrested. Police are currently holding more than 400 "mostly poor workers and farmers," according to Gamal Eid at the Egypt-based Arabic Network for Human Rights Information. Journalist Basma Mostafa and many of those detained face charges of "spreading fake news" and "joining a terrorist group," an apparent reference to the outlawed Muslim Brotherhood (MB).

'Regime propaganda'

Such accusations are "standard" said Michael Wahid Hanna, a senior fellow at The Century Foundation, a US think tank.

"These are absurd charges, obviously, but they are part of a much broader effort to both stigmatize, smear and criminalize," said Hanna. "The regime only has one approach; any instance of dissent is effectively repressed."

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After the Brotherhood was disbanded following el-Sissi's 2013 ouster of Egypt's first democratically elected but divisive Islamist president, Mohammed Morsi, the organization has been unable to organize such protests in Egypt, said Stephan Roll, the head of research on the Middle East and North Africa at the German Institute for International and Security Affairs.

"This is pure regime propaganda," Roll said. "Of course, it is possible that members or sympathizers of the MB were also involved in the protests. But the background of the protests was mainly the disastrous economic situation in the country."

Read moreCan Abdel-Fattah el-Sissi make Egypt great again?

Economic policies have 'devastating consequences'

Residents in the village near Luxor where Basma Mostafa was arrested told Mada Masr that protests there have been fueled by harsh economic conditions, aggravated by government measures, COVID-19 and rising poverty.

In July, at the same time the coronavirus pandemic hit low-income workers in Egypt's vital tourism sector, the electricity minister partially removed subsidies on power, raising the price by 26% for low-income households.

A new government campaign to demolish thousands of houses built without permits or to hand out fines seen as exorbitant to their owners has also stoked anger. El-Sissi has reportedly ordered the construction of one million new housing units, now residents say they're being squeezed. 

Machines demolish brick buildings in front of luxury hotels
Shrinking agricultural land and sprawling slums are two reasons why authorities are threatening home owners without permits with demolition or fines.Image: Sayed Hassan/dpa/picture-alliance

These policies, along with the increased price of bread and metro tickets, are "severely affecting" the working poor, according to Yezid Sayigh, a senior fellow at the Carnegie Middle East Center in Beirut.

"Poverty is sharply on the rise, the middle class is being squeezed really hard," and cuts to public sector wages affect "the huge number of public employees who have historically formed the regime's key constituency under all presidencies," he said.

A recent analysis published by Carnegie's Sada magazine found that the government's policies are accelerating the transfer of wealth from lower and middle classes to itself and business elites, "with likely devastating consequences."

Analysts also point to the role of international lenders such as the IMF and countries contributing military aid and supplying arms contracts. These, say critics, simply enable a regime that places the country's economic burdens on the poor without demanding human rights protections from Cairo.

But for HRW's Magdi, the spread of persistent protests to segments of society that had not previously been politically engaged offers some hope.

"Despite all the bloody oppression and all the upsetting news that comes from Egypt on a daily basis, the continuation of these protests and forms of resistance is really inspiring."