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Who is behind the protests in Egypt?

Tom Allinson
September 26, 2019

Egyptian President Abdel-Fatteh el-Sissi has suggested Islamists are behind rare recent anti-government protests. But is that just a deflection from the underlying factors fueling unrest in the country?

Egyptian protestor
Image: Reuters/M. Abd El Ghany

Fears of a crackdown amid a "million man march" planned for Friday in Egypt could sound like an exact repeat of the uprising that shook the country in 2011, eventually leading to the installment of the same autocrat, President Abdel-Fatteh el-Sissi, who has threatened to crush the new movement.

But in a country where any kind of public dissent has been stamped-out since the former general came to power in 2013, last weekend's demonstrations have taken the country by surprise, not least because they had broken a barrier of fear.

By Thursday at least 1,900 people had been arrested since protesters took to streets in cities around Egypt on September 20, demanding el-Sissi's ouster and an end to corruption within the military state.

Gamal Eid, head of the Arab Network for Human Rights Information, told Reuters the arrests had been "the most violent campaign in Egypt's history."

What is behind the protests?

Mohamed Ali, an exiled activist and former contractor to the military, stirred Egyptians suffering under austerity measures and poverty, after posting YouTube videos detailing rampant corruption and lavish spending at the military's highest ranks.

State media first attempted to play down the demonstrations, but the spread of videos posted on social media forced the government to change tack.

After dismissing the allegations as "sheer lies" at the United Nations General Assembly this week, el-Sissi accused the Muslim Brotherhood (MB), in a veiled reference to political Islam, and hostile countries of plotting to destabilize the state.

The Muslim Brotherhood or an internal rift?

Once a major player in the 2011 revolution, the MB has since been labeled a "terror organization" by el-Sissi's government, but observers say the allegations are a deflection as the organization is a spent force.

"There's very little or no indication that the Brotherhood within Egypt has any sort of capability to organize on such a scale," David Butter, an associate fellow at Chatham House, told DW.

"Social media activists from outside Egypt who applauded the action might be trying to take some credit, but nothing suggests the Brothers have any involvement at all," Butter said.

Stephan Roll, Head of Research at the German Institute for International and Security Affairs, said internal divisions and the jailing of their membership means that while some former MB members may be involved, a more likely scenario involves support for the protests inside the ruling elite.

"I think [Mohamed Ali] is not a lone wolf, there must be a structure somehow," Roll said.

Although senior members of liberal parties such as al-Dustour and Istiqlal have also been rounded up in the latest arrests, Roll points to grievances stemming from el-Sissi's attempt to bring the previously powerful General Intelligence Services under the military's command.  

Poverty a major force

However, other observers stress that increasing economic hardship due to inflation and a rising rate of poverty has been a driving force.

In 2018, more than 32% of Egyptians lived on $1.45 (€1.33) a day according to state statistics, up from 27.8% in 2015.

"Broad swathes of the population have undergone a fall in their living standards over the last two or three years. That's really the biggest issue," Butter said.

The profiles of those arrested also point to genuine anger and frustration rather than ideological differences, with many of those jailed too young to have been fully involved in the 2011 protests.

"There is a whole cluster of grievances which have been bubbling under the surface on many issues that are being given some sort of coherence and direction by the videos released by Mohamed Ali," Butter said.

Read more: Opinion: Arabs want an end to military dictatorships

Will el-Sissi step down?

El-Sissi has repeatedly shown Egyptians he won't tolerate any dissent and will not back down in the face of protests.

Central Cairo is heavily guarded ahead of protests planned for Friday and reports indicate social media sites are being restricted.

But as long as Egyptians' economic situation remains the same, protesters have shown this "can happen again every day in the future," Roll said.

"Even if this episode doesn't develop into a movement on the scale of some of the previous ones, it's something that's set a benchmark for contesting the political space that Sissi has tried to completely monopolize," said Butter.