Something no one had predicted took place in Egypt. On the night between Friday and Saturday (just hours after al-Sisi had left for the UN General Assembly in New York), several thousand people took to the streets in cities across the country to protest against the president.
This had not happened for years, ever since the army began to rule again with an iron fist after the coup of July 2013, effectively banning any type of public protest. “The wall of fear has been broken down again,” was the prevailing popular sentiment.
“Sisi, go away!” and “We’re not leaving, al-Sisi must go,” were some of the slogans that can be heard in the many videos shared on social media. One can also hear the classic, “The people want to overthrow the regime,” the slogan that stood as a symbol of the uprising in January 2011 and the era of the Arab Spring uprisings, echoing again in the streets of the country.
The protests involved a number of areas in Cairo, including the iconic Tahrir Square, but also Alexandria and working class cities such as Mahalla al-Kubra (an epicenter of social struggles since 2007), Suez and Damietta, where protesters tore down a billboard that showed al-Sisi’s face. In Port Said, the protests had already started on Friday afternoon.
The inhabitants of the island of al-Warraq in Cairo have also taken to the streets in large numbers. Their battle against eviction in recent years (for an enormous real estate investment project wanted by the army) has been one of the few forms of popular mobilization that have stood up to the regime and challenged it, including with street protests.
According to reports from Friday night, the spontaneous gatherings were suddenly attacked with tear gas by the security forces as soon as the numbers began to grow. Several detachments of the security forces have been patrolling the streets and squares in Cairo and other cities, firing tear gas and making dozens, perhaps hundreds, of arrests.
According to data collected by a number of lawyers and centers for human rights and disseminated by the MadaMasr independent portal Saturday evening, hundreds of people have been arrested so far: between 200 and 300 in Cairo, 50-100 in Alexandria and around a hundred in Suez, while there is no news from the province of Gharbeya, where Mahalla is located.
The spark that set off the protests was a series of enigmatic videos posted online in recent weeks by Mohammed Ali, a charismatic “Deep Throat” figure, which brought the simmering popular indignation to the boiling point by unveiling scandals involving al-Sisi directly and his circle of military higher-ups.
The scandals concern millions of dollars in public funds spent to build presidential palaces in order to satisfy the whims of the first lady and a general who is a friend of al-Sisi. Mohammed Ali, a 43-year old construction company owner and aspiring actor, had been the beneficiary of orders and contracts from the army for over 15 years. Then, at some point, they stopped paying him, so he decided to go into voluntary exile in Barcelona. Now, he has chosen to speak out.
“Mohammed Ali’s videos have spread extremely fast, reflecting the extent of popular anger against al-Sisi and his policies, especially in connection with poverty,” Bahey el-Din Hassan, the Director of the Cairo Institute for Human Rights Studies, told il manifesto. “Everyone knows that corruption is rampant, but now the president and his family have been directly accused.”
The privileges enjoyed by al-Sisi and the military are a slap in the face to the 60% of Egyptians who are living in poverty, and who have been asked to bear more and more hardships over the years. With an almost complete absence of free media, the videos spread virally via Facebook and WhatsApp, arousing a powerful outcry.
This began to worry the regime, to the point that the president felt the need to respond publicly: “It’s true, I have built presidential palaces and I will continue to build them. But they are not for me, they are for the country,” he said before a regime-organized “youth conference.”
In his latest videos, Ali raised the stakes, calling on al-Sisi to resign the presidency by Thursday. A hashtag meaning “Resign or we’ll go into the streets” was launched (and became top trending in Egypt within a few hours), calling on Egyptians to take part in mass demonstrations on Saturday.
“They can’t arrest an entire people,” Ali said, also calling for the release of political prisoners and of all the soldiers and officers of the security forces arrested in recent years because of their opposition to al-Sisi. Few thought that the call for protests would be successful—yet, in a surprising turn, after the cup final between the two main Egyptian soccer teams, small groups began to take to the streets and chant slogans.
But this time, instead of just activists, it was ordinary people who decided to mobilize. Now, there is enthusiasm among the opposition, but also wariness. Public demonstrations are too big a risk, which can lead to pointless loss of life in the absence of a real movement and a clear political project.
“We don’t know exactly what’s going on,” the Revolutionary Socialists wrote on Friday before the outbreak of the protests, but “the pressure in society is at its highest level,” and the task of the activists now is “to take advantage of the moment and create a space from which we can start to wage a political fight once again,” while keeping in mind the mistakes of the past. “The actual size of the public anger is much larger even than the events of yesterday,” wrote Mostafa Bassiouny, a journalist and left-wing militant.
According to government sources quoted by Mada Masr on Friday, al-Sisi had considered cancelling his trip to New York, concerned about the ongoing “destabilization campaign.” In recent days, the president held a series of meetings with the military leadership and the various intelligence institutions to ensure that “no one would go into the streets” and plan out what to do. The regime is on high alert, but it’s possible that some within it are considering taking advantage of the situation to oust a president which has become too big of a liability.
“It’s likely that Mohammed Ali is in contact with the opposition against al-Sisi within the ranks of the army and the security apparatus,” Bahey el-Din Hassan explains. “Going beyond what will happen in the coming days, one thing is clear: the regime’s internal conflict is ongoing, and al-Sisi has never guaranteed, and will never be able to guarantee, stability. The implications of what is happening will not be limited to Egypt, but will have repercussions on Europe and the rest of the Middle East and North Africa.”
It’s likely that there will be more “Fridays of rage” in the coming weeks, but political maneuvering behind the scenes cannot be excluded either. The street movement is a genuine popular mobilization (although, for now, the numbers are modest), but there is also an ongoing clash between factions within the regime.
A revolution on social media
The protests in Egypt are being organized on social media, featuring the continuous interplay between the virtual and real-world public spaces that have characterized uprisings ever since 2011. Again, the call to protest against the regime came online, and met the fertile ground of a widespread malaise and desire for rebellion.
On Sept. 16, the hashtag “Sisi, enough now” became the most popular in Egypt and the sixth worldwide within in a few hours, indicating that the movement had reached a critical mass, going far beyond the activist circles. Saturday, “Sisi go away” and “Tahrir Square” flooded Twitter, together with images of Egyptians who had taken to the streets.
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