international analysis and commentary

Egypt’s protests: back to the future – again?

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Are the recent protests in Egypt the dawn of a new season of challenges? While it is too early to make a definitive judgment, one thing is clear: the protests have come a long away, opening a new phase of social unrest and a further repressive backward evolution of the regime, whose outcomes remain highly uncertain.

It started on Friday, September 20th, when hundreds of demonstrators took to the streets in Egypt’s main cities (Cairo, Suez, Alexandria and Port Said) to protest against corruption, Draconian repression and the drifting prospect of stability and economic prosperity. These demonstrations caused a high degree of international embarrassment as they occurred during the UN General Assembly in New York and a latere of a bilateral meeting between Egyptian President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi and his US counterpart Donald Trump. However, the public endorsement by the US President allowed El-Sisi to reaffirm his legitimacy against the protesters.

The unexpected demonstrations were prompted by viral videos published on Twitter by Mohamed Ali, a former contractor of the Egyptian Ministry of Defense and a real estate agent who lived self-exiled in Spain. Ali accused El-Sisi and his inner circle of widespread use of public funds in luxury investments and illicit trafficking. The President denied it and called the claims “lies and slander”.

Nevertheless, within the “deep state”, and especially among the Egyptian Armed Forces (EAF), these protests were perceived with concern because the allegations undermine the historical and heroic image of the military forces in the popular mind’s eye. In fact, for the first time since 2013, when then Islamist President Mohamed Morsi was overthrown and the former field marshal El-Sisi became the local strongman, the Egyptians took to the streets calling for the removal of the incumbent leader, chanting slogans such as “Sisi, leave!” or “Down with Sisi!”. These are rare events in a country strongly led with the iron fist and where public protests and political dissent are substantially silenced given El-Sisi’s crackdown.

The government’s response has been tactical and based on the classical “stick and carrot” scheme: according to various Egyptian NGOs, in two weeks of rallies, the local authorities have arrested almost 3,000 people.[1] That was achieved by pursuing a zero-tolerance approach, based on several measures: forced disappearances, tortures, banned demonstrations, blocked websites and full control of the press. In short, the government aimed at crushing all dissent. The President urged calm, explaining also that there was simply no reason to protest against the government, and promised to restore food subsidies for nearly two million Egyptians who have been left without staples, including rice, pasta and cooking oil.

While recalling the 2011 protests, the country is changed and these protests are very different. Moreover, the facts unveil some interesting elements. First, the limited rallies have revealed a sort of re-awakening of the Egyptian civil society after years of silent protests post-Arab Spring. Moreover, the myth about one solitary strongman was dismantled by these protests.

In fact, El-Sisi appears to be the most powerful man in the country, despite the foundation of his power being fragile. He does not have any formal political party (like the National Democratic Party during the Mubarak years) or institution/platform (such as the Arab Socialist Union like in Nasser and Sadat’s tenure). According to an article published in Foreign Policy in 2016, the political fate of the President is closely connected to the trajectory of the Egyptian élites and in particular to the military forces.[2]

The army is the only political, social and economic source of legitimacy in the country. In this way, any changes in the institutional pattern can be technically possible only if there is a coincidence of interests between the President and the Egyptian army. An inextricable dependence became more evident after the success of the Constitutional referendum in April 2019, which gave the EAF the role of sole guarantor of the Constitution and the state. Moreover, the army has strengthened its role in setting the domestic agenda, playing a pro-active role  in the socio-economic transformations of the state while preserving its entrenched economic interests (based on unofficial estimates, the military enterprises may account for up to 20-60% of total national GDP; 3% of the GDP according to government data).[3]

Under Sisi, Egypt has become the third-largest arms importer in the world behind India and Saudi Arabia (AFP)

 

Secondly, the state still remains exposed to chronic problems, sharply constraining the level of legitimacy. Since the election of Abdel Fattah el-Sisi as President in 2014, Egypt’s political stabilization process has gone through a mix of civil-military repressive measures, which has led to a new autocratic government, in which the state has reaffirmed its control over all sectors of society without resolving the existing structural problems. Egypt’s democratic process has been frozen and many analysts question the credibility of the promised reforms,  little more an attempt to freeze tensions.

The protests showed that stability under El-Sisi should not be taken for granted. In this context, the economy plays a fundamental role: despite it experiencing a condition of gradual development, the Egyptian people have accumulated frustration in recent years, originated by the government-imposed austerity measures. These actions produced some positive changes in the macro-economic framework but had no significant impact on millions of Egyptians who continue to suffer from long-term structural problems. For example, 33% percent of Egyptians are living under the poverty line and 61% percent of the population under age 30 searching for jobs. Additionally, the government imposed cutbacks in the subsidy system (accounting for some 10% of the annual national budget) and to currency devaluation (the Egyptian pound is devalued by 32.3% and continues to lose value).

These measures have produced anger and discontent among broad sections of the population. At the same time, there is a worrisome lack of appreciation by the Egyptian authorities of the fact that the economy can become a trigger of social unrest and mass protests. If neglected, these elements could favor the emergence of a new season of revolts and strikes due to increases in fuel and bread prices. Such a scenario could also set the scene for a comeback of a new leadership if the EAF were to consider El-Sisi unable to control the protests. Finally, political tensions and outbursts of  violence, which could also be exploited by terrorist groups.

In conclusion, if Egyptian authorities fear instability, the solution cannot be the chronic use of repression and symbolic acts of liberalization in the economy to manipulate the protesters. It is time for El-Sisi to face these great challenges and define a new path of development for the country, based on a new social compact between the rulers and the ruled.

 

 

 

Sources/Footnotes:

[1] T. Haddad, “Exclusive: Over 3,000 arrested in Egypt’s latest uprising as President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi launches ‘biggest crackdown’ yet, Newsweek, October 3, 2019, .

[2] E. Crane Linn, “The Army And Its President, Foreign Policy, January 28, 2016.

[3] J. Noll, Egypt’s Armed Forces Cement Economic Power, German Institute for International and Security Affairs (SWP), February 5, 2017, .