Egyptian Protests: Remnants of Revolution

Egypt’s President, Abdel Fattah el-Sisi, came into power in 2013 following a military coup that removed the first post-Arab Spring and first democratically elected president, Mohamed Morsi. El-Sisi was elected president in 2014, and then to a second term in 2018. While el-Sisi was expected to stand down in 2022, in April 2019 the Egyptian parliament approved constitutional amendments that would extend the president’s term from four to six years, supposedly allowing for two six-year terms. However, the constitutional changes also included a special article that very conveniently permits el-Sisi to extend his current term by two years and then serve another term until 2030. 

The bill garnered overwhelming support in parliament. Of the 554 parliamentarians that attended the session, only 22 voted “No,” and 1 abstained. Four days later, turnout for a referendum implementing the proposed amendments equaled roughly 44% of 61 million eligible voters according to official statistics. President el-Sisi’s government left no room for low turnout, and Cairo was buzzing with activity as a result: street vendors were urged to put up banners demonstrating support for el-Sisi. Free rides were offered to and from polling stations, and free subsidy boxes of groceries were handed out to voters in poorer neighborhoods.

Any hint of opposition was prohibited; only support for the amendments was tolerated. The opposition ––which appeared to be virtually nonexistent–– was banned from participating in debates regarding the amendments. No demonstrations were authorized, and no media outlets were allowed to cover unauthorized demonstrations. Tahrir Square, the emblem of Egyptian revolution and the site of mass protests less than a decade ago, was blanketed with posters endorsing the constitutional amendment. 

The lingering echoes of the popular 2011 chant demanding “bread, freedom, and social justice” had apparently been silenced. That is, until September, when mass anti-government protests broke out –– reminiscent of a not-so-distant past.

Beginning on September 20th, Egyptian demonstrators in different cities took to the streets to demand el-Sisi’s resignation, frustrated with his authoritarian rule. These mass protests were met with mass arrests. More than 2,000 protesters were detained and many others were tear-gassed. The crackdown was coupled with a series of cyberattacks on Egyptian activists, journalists, academics, and members of civil society. In an effort to suppress anti-government sentiment, authorities also concocted pro-government pseudo-protests of their own. This involved recruiting sympathizers of the regime, including civil servants and government employees, who were enticed with free meals and days off work––much like the free rides and subsidized groceries offered during the referendum in April. The counter-protests had a celebratory nature, characterized by cheering, dancing, and flag-waving.

Clampdowns on peaceful protest are commonplace in Egypt (protesting has been formally illegal since the military coup of 2013) and are largely propelled by an iron-fisted ruler’s fear of dissent in any form. This suppression has been deeply ingrained in the Egyptian political sphere. One article in The New York Times titled “Rethinking Trump’s Favorite Dictator” proposes “Mubarakism” as a term for el-Sisi’s rule (Hosni Mubarak ruled for almost thirty years with no end in sight before being overthrown in 2011). President el-Sisi’s extensive crackdown comes out of fear that the events of 2011 will repeat themselves, interfering with his plans to rule for life like Mubarak before him.

While some of the primary demands of the 2011 revolution were, without a doubt, the establishment of the rule of law, freedom of speech, and an end to corruption, it was enduring poverty that first brought Egyptians to the streets–– specifically due to soaring bread prices coupled with an equally burgeoning unemployment rate. Today, nearly 30% of the Egyptian population lives in poverty. The government has adopted severe austerity measures since its $12 billion dollar loan from the IMF in 2016. And the 2019 protests are a testament to the declining standard of living after three years of austerity.

President el-Sisi’s government has used both the carrot and the stick in dealing with the protests: despite the severe crackdown on dissent, el-Sisi has vowed to reintroduce subsidies for around two million Egyptians. While this is an attempt to alleviate the frustrations of the Egyptian people, it is worth asking whether such small gestures will suffice in a country plagued by corruption, poverty, and youth unemployment. In addition to subsidies, government officials have made vague promises of political and social reform, yet it is hard to imagine that such desultory remarks will hold any value, especially in light of recent events.

How many more broken promises can the Egyptian people endure? How many more contradictions will Tahrir Square witness?

Raya Tarawneh