Al-Sisi’s Shield of Public Support is Cracking
In late June 2013, Egyptians across the country used their voice in the streets against then president, Mohamed Morsi, just one year into his term and two years after the 2011 revolution. The Egyptians were navigating a familiar path with protesting, and they knew the shortcuts that could expedite their cause. “Come on Sisi!” they chanted, hoping to involve the military.
Sisi answered their call, giving Morsi an ultimatum to compromise with the protesters, or face military intervention. After 48 hours, without an agreement the military arrested Morsi and instituted the Chief Justice of the Supreme Constitutional Court as interim president until an election. Once this was announced, the protests transformed into a festival. According to the military, what happened was not a coup, but a response to the “pulse of the Egyptian street”, and the celebrations were their proof.
After answering the Egyptians’ call for a hero, Sisi sat above reproach through his election in 2014. Comedian Bassem Youssef, aka “the Egyptian Jon Stewart,” was one of the first and most notable people to provoke Sisi-supporters. He poked fun at Sisi and was accused of being a traitor despite incessantly mocking Morsi for his entire term. This led Youssef’s broadcasting company to fine him for “smearing the country’s political direction.” Eventually a lawsuit ensued and Youssef had to leave Egypt for his safety.
Egyptians with influence who ignore the stigma of criticizing Sisi face possible military retaliation. Potential presidential opponents have been arrested along with lawyers, activists and satirists. Human Rights Watch maintains that Egypt has arrested approximately 60,000 political prisoners since the coup. Freedom of expression has gravely deteriorated under Sisi, but he cannot stop those outside of Egypt from igniting controversy within it.
On Aug. 26, President Trump asked a room full of U.S. and Egyptian officials “where’s my favorite dictator?” Although clearly a joke, it stunned them silent. Although Sisi denies authoritarian practices in Egypt, President Trump does not seem to care either way.
Any humor of being Trump’s “favorite dictator” quickly soured when Mohamed Ali, a successful businessman and expat in Spain, started uploading Facebook videos chronicling his dealings with the Egyptian army. Ali claimed the government owes him 220,000,000 Egyptian pounds ($13,500,000 USD) and that the First Lady ordered luxurious renovations in the presidential palaces. He told stories of other wasted funds, too.
Ali’s accusations and working-class parlance roused many of the Egyptians suffering from the failing economy, especially after Sisi confirmed some of Ali’s accusations, saying the palaces are not for him, but for Egypt. Sisi’s shamelessness during a time of severe austerity and when approximately one in three Egyptians live in poverty was enough for people to return to the streets in protest.
On Sep. 20, a few hundred people gathered in a few cities, chanting against Sisi. Although videos were shared, state media still tried to deny they were political. Compared to the last two revolutions, turnout was meager, yet more than expected.
A week later, on Sep 27, protesters returned to the streets with less success. The Ministry of the Interior promised “that it will confront any attempt to destabilise the country with decisiveness” this was accomplished by dispersing crowds, blocking roads, and searching cars. One new measure has been stopping suspicious individuals and performing crude searches of their phones for anything rebellious. Approximately 1,900 individuals have been arrested since the first protest. Some of those arrested were activists of the past revolutions, and had no impact over this recent one.
While protests were being prevented on the 27th, a counter-rally welcoming Sisi back to Cairo from the US went uninhibited. It was made accessible and incentivized for those in Cairo’s poor suburbs. Busses with free meals picked up residents of poor neighborhoods and drove them to the pro-Sisi rally, which was broadcasted on TV. Following this event, Sisi acknowledged the exasperation of poor Egyptians and promised the government would reconsider the distribution of subsidy cards.
Sisi approaches his obstacles by reaffirming his public support, and using it to justify his authoritarian solutions. The dubious welcome rally is his newest claim of public support which he will likely use to justify more arrests and security measures, even if protests fizzle out. It is unclear if Sisi will truly recognize economic anxiety in future policies. But if Sisi does not alter course soon, Egyptians could remind themselves that revolution has been their most successful form of expression in years past.