Egypt’s future uncertain as El-Sisi attempts to suppress public unrest with carrot-and-stick approach

By Olivia Northrop

October 6, 2019

BOLOGNA, Italy — For the third time in the last 10 years, thousands of Egyptians crowded Tahrir Square in Cairo demanding regime change. Over the past two weeks, protesters gathered in the famous square echoing the chants of the 2011 and 2013 protests calling for the removal of Egyptian President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi. The government’s response to the protests, though seemingly successful, may only strengthen Egyptians’ discontent with the regime and could prove detrimental to its cause.

A series of videos posted on Facebook and Twitter by self-exiled businessman, Mohamed Ali, spurred the mass demonstrations in at least eight Egyptian cities. The videos accused el-Sisi and his aides of using public funds to source personal projects while poverty levels increased across the country. Ali, who worked as an army building contractor for 15 years, told Al Jazeera that he witnessed government corruption firsthand and directly worked on personal projects for el-Sisi and his aides.

Beginning on September 26th, protesters carried signs and shouted anthems denouncing corruption and poor economic conditions in Egypt. Corruption of government officials has long been the norm in Egypt. However, the image of el-Sisi abusing his power for economic gain while everyday Egyptians suffer under a slow and repressive economy has engendered popular outrage.

The economic restrictions under the regime’s strict austerity measures, which took effect in 2016, greatly limit the purchasing power and economic welfare of all Egyptians. The program raised prices of basic goods and services, devalued the Egyptian pound, and cut subsidies to fuel, electricity and agriculture. Higher prices under these measures increased poverty rates from 29% in 2014 to 61% from 2016 onward according to the World Bank. It also increased the poverty rate of the upper-middle class, a subset of the population that had typically been protected under previous regimes like Mubarak’s.

In response to the protests, el-Sisi declared that he would improve living conditions for lower-class Egyptians. These improvements, if implemented, would still fail to address the problem of growing poverty among the middle and upper-middle classes. 

The announcements came as an attempt to appeal to the masses while simultaneously brutally repressing democratic expression. The government responded to the demonstrations with large-scale deployment of tear gas, random searches on the street, and wide-scale arrests that are crowding Egyptian prisons. When el-Sisi took power in a popularly supported coup in 2013, he declared “unsupported mass gatherings” illegal in Egypt. Citing this law, the regime arrested over 2,300 people on suspicion of involvement in the current protests, including many people who neither attended nor participated in the demonstrations. The government used the protests as an excuse to round up journalists, lawyers and well-known opposition politicians.

Human rights lawyers from organizations including the Egyptian Center for Economic and Social Rights and the Egyptian Commission for Rights and Freedoms are working to release detainees. According to the lawyers, most of the people arrested were taken not from the rallies, but off the street. The regime arrested others at their homes simply because they were involved with past uprisings. None of the prisoners were allowed to contact their families. Many have gone without food and water, and some have not been permitted lawyers during interrogation. 

Though some detainees were released, most remain crammed in jails and prisons that have already exceeded capacity. General safety concerns resulted in low turnout at protests scheduled for last Tuesday, suggesting the government crackdowns were successful. Scholars, however, remain unconvinced that the government’s small concessions will quell growing public dissatisfaction. Most agree that Egypt’s future is uncertain now that the veil of silence has been lifted.

The coming months will show whether el-Sisi’s response was enough to smother dissent in Egypt — or if it only added fuel to the fire. The violent crackdowns may create the potential for protests as large as the 2011 Arab Spring uprisings. As more detainees are released, there may be an increase in contempt for the regime, potentially resulting in more protests.