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Egyptians emboldened to defy el-Sissi

Sarah Salama
September 24, 2019

Egypt has seen the first significant protests against Abdel-Fattah el-Sissi in six years of authoritarian rule. An Egyptian businessman called for the rallies from exile in Spain, but the regime is putting up a fight.

Protesters yelling in Cairo
Image: Reuters/A. A. Dalsh

"Say it, don't be afraid, el-Sissi has to go," the protesters chant on Cairo's Tahrir Square, the epicenter of Egypgtian revolution in January 2011. After six years of Abdel-Fattah el-Sissi's rule, it seems possible again to protest against the government. Similar slogans led to the fall of long-time dictator Hosni Mubarak in 2011.

People took to the streets in protest on evening of September 20 in Cairo, Alexandria, Suez, Mansoura and Mahalla-al-Kubra in the Nile Delta, according to Mada Masr, an independent Egyptian news outlet. In Cairo, security forces initially held back, but later used tear gas. Over the course of just three days, several hundred people were arrested.

Within minutes, videos circulated online that were first largely ignored by the state media, but then labeled a disturbance by the enemy of the state, the Muslim Brotherhood.

El-Sissi's repressive regime has so far prevented political resistance. The government has largely suppressed protests and criticism. Thousands of Muslim Brotherhood members, government critics, bloggers and activists have been imprisoned. The fact that slogans such as "Sissi, get lost" can now be heard on the street is a sign that the Egyptians are no longer afraid of repression — even if demonstrations without permission from the authorities are forbidden in the country.

Read more: Arabs want an end to military dictatorships

Egyptian insider in Spain

For two weeks now, an Egyptian building contractor and actor by the name of Mohammed Ali has been galvanizing his compatriots. Ali lives in exile in Spain and has published several videos online accusing el-Sissi and the army of corruption. Having worked for the president for several years, he speaks with authority when he discusses el-Sissi's million-dollar real estate deals.

Ali's videos hit a nerve in a country where one out of three people live below the poverty line. Human rights organizations have sharply criticized the government for heavily suppressing any form of criticism or opposition. State repression is stronger than ever before in recent decades.

Khaled Dawoud, a political scientist and member of the opposition, is convinced that the economic woes in Egypt are driving people to take to the streets more than anything else. "The economic reforms hit the average Egyptian hard; at the same time, they see that their concerns are not among the president's priorities," Dawoud told DW.

"Instead he is busy with the Suez Canal, wasting trillions on a new capital and expensive holiday resorts," Dawoud added. "The majority of Egyptians will not benefit from any of this."

Anti-government protesters chanting in Cairo
Last Friday's protests were a rare show of public dissent in el-Sissi's EgyptImage: Reuters/M. Abd El Ghany

El-Sissi has rejected Ali's accusations as "lies and slander." His reaction to the corruption allegations — "I will build more palaces" — fueled people's anger even more. The fact that the president responded to Ali's videos shows how nervous the government is and how much it regards this wave of protest as a danger, said Stephan Roll of the Berlin-based German Institute for International and Security Affairs.

Read more: Can Abdel-Fattah el-Sissi make Egypt great again?

Who are the demonstrators?

In Roll's view, they are mainly young people who were not part of the protests in 2011. The fact that people demonstrate even though they have to expect arrests or the use of firearms is "the symptom of a disastrous political and economic situation," he said. It would also be interesting to know who is behind Mohammed Ali —the man who got people to protest in the first place, Roll added.

"There's speculation that there is tension among the elite," Roll said, adding that the videos don't look as if they were taken spur of the moment but rather as if they had been planned. "Ali may be backed by a part of the military closer to Mubarak and disappointed by el-Sissi," he said.

Read more: Is Egypt using Syrian refugees as a bargaining chip with Europe?

Abdel-Fattah el-Sissi's delivering a speech in Cairo
El-Sissi's repressive and authoritarian regime has drawn condemnation from human rights groupsImage: picture-alliance/Zumapress/President Office

'The world is watching'

The government's response is not sustainable, Roll said, adding that if there are protests again next Friday, things will not look good for the regime.

Human Rights Watch has urged the Egyptian leadership not to prevent peaceful protests, and called on the authorities to immediately release all detainees. "The authorities should recognize that the world is watching and take all necessary steps to avoid a repetition of past atrocities," said Michael Page, HRW deputy Middle East and North Africa director.

Roll, too, has appealed to the international community to put the situation in perspective and to recognize that el-Sissi's regime, which is based on repression, corruption and mismanagement, cannot function in the long run.