In early 2011, Egypt, along with several other countries in the Middle East and North Africa, was rocked by enormous protests which eventually led to the resignation of the authoritarian President Hosni Mubarak. Some of the most important issues driving this revolutionary movement were poverty and corruption by government officials from cabinet ministers to traffic wardens. For decades, Mubarak’s government had used the imposition of emergency laws to justify arbitrary arrests and suppress its political opponents. After Mubarak’s departure, elections were held, but much of Egypt’s governance structures remained intact, with the army taking advantage of the political turmoil to build and secure its own power. Now, with Egypt’s economy in a rapid downward spiral, there are increasing calls for similar protests against the incumbent president, Abd al-Fatah al-Sisi, and his administration.
One of the principle reasons for this is that inflation linked to the decline in value of the Egyptian pound by about 70% over five years has pushed food prices and rents to unsustainable levels. Around 80% of Egyptians are poor enough to receive some form of financial assistance from central government, but many are now arguing that the money just isn’t going far enough. The economic crisis is a principle reason behind the number of Egyptians putting their lives into the hands of people traffickers in the hope of reaching a better life in Europe. On 13 October, a video of a Cairo tuk-tuk driver complaining that he cannot afford to feed his family went viral online, though the government was quick to suppress it. The man was directly critical of the Sisi government’s claims that Egypt is on the rise in the context of the difficulties many citizens face, especially given that sugar and rice are now in short supply. The Egyptian diet is extremely dependent on these staples, as well as bread and vegetables.
While these protests appear to have cooled for now, there is no guarantee that they will be the last
Two days later, an Alexandria man set fire to himself outside a government building, also complaining that he cannot afford to eat. While he was not killed and is now in hospital, his action created a storm online, with many drawing comparisons between this event and the self-immolation of Mohammed Bouazzizi in Tunisia in 2011. Bouazzizi’s suicide following his humiliation by the security services is often seen as the moment which triggered the Tunisian revolution, and the series of protests that spread across the region immediately afterwards. While many of these movements achieved the removal of much-maligned heads of state, the issues that motivated them have persisted or, arguably, got worse. This is the feeling of the protesters who gathered in the north-eastern Egyptian city of Port Said on 18 and 19 October, shouting slogans such as “house us or kill us”, and “revolution, revolution, revolution”. While these protests appear to have cooled for now, there is no guarantee that they will be the last, with many online suggesting 11 November as an opportunity to put real pressure on the government.
Indeed, it would seem that President Sisi is already feeling the pressure, with his government having secured a loan of $12 billion from the IMF, but on condition of an austerity program being implemented. Politicians are debating increases to food subsidies, as prices are expected to increase further, but this may be seen as too little too late, and is certainly not a long-term solution to Egypt’s difficulties. Besides, protesters could argue that no reforms would be satisfactory, and that their movement represents a total rejection of the current military-backed president. In addition to economic troubles, Egypt has seen increased political repression and state violence since Sisi came to power in 2013. Although he is nominally elected, Sisi took the presidency in a military coup against Muslim Brotherhood president Mohammad Morsi, who had been losing popularity after becoming the country’s first ever elected president in 2012. Morsi faced little serious competition during these elections, as alternative candidates lacked the organisational powers of the Brotherhood.
Since Morsi’s ousting, Brotherhood leaders and suspected members have been systematically persecuted, along with anyone who has criticised the president or the army. Most notably, in August 2013, police used live and rubber bullets, tear gas, bulldozers, and military helicopters. to break up peaceful protests in Cairo’s Raba’a Square. Human Rights Watch estimates that up to 1000 people were killed in Raba’a alone, in addition to many injured during violence which ensued in the rest of the country when news of the massacre got out. While this brutal repression is clearly appalling in and of itself, Sisi’s critics have also commented on the enormous costs of mobilising the security services on this scale. Some estimates put this figure in excess of $91 billion of Egyptian taxpayers’ money.
President Sisi has much international support, most notably from President Putin of Russia, and US Republican Presidential candidate Donald Trump. When he came to power, many in the international community welcomed him as a “secular” and “stabilising” alternative to the Islamist Mohammad Morsi, though he is socially conservative, and his anti-opposition policies affect Egypt’s religious minorities and LGBTQ community just as much as the Sunni Muslim majority. Sisi is not universally liked on the world stage, however. The Saudi Arabian government has begun to hint that it will support an “alternative” candidate in the next Egyptian elections in 2018. Egypt most recently angered the Gulf kingdom by backing Russia in a UN vote on ways to resolve the crisis in Syria. Saudi Arabia has stopped providing Egypt with discount oil, while President Sisi has emphasised that he will not be subjected to Saudi pressure on political and regional matters.
In all, it seems that Egypt is in for yet more instability and uncertainty. While more protests may emerge in the coming weeks and months, there is every chance that the state will once more unleash violence on its people, perhaps claiming that those who dare to speak against it are “Islamist terrorists” as it has in the past. However, if 2011 taught us anything, it’s that people in Egypt are capable of great strength in the face of oppression.