How the world saw the Egyptian demonstrations against al-Sisi

September 24, 2019

On Friday 20 September 2019, hundreds of Egyptians took to the streets demanding that the president leave. Egypt has not witnessed demonstrations for several years. The current demonstrations came in response to a call made by Egyptian contractor and businessman Mohamed Ali.

The last demonstrations against al-Sisi’s regime broke out in 2016 condemning the handing over of the two Egyptian islands to Saudi Arabia by al-Sisi’s regime.  They were limited and were oppressed from the beginning.

A few weeks after he escaped to Spain, Mohamed Ali started publishing his videos, in which he criticised El-Sisi, alleging that he is wasting billions of pounds building presidential palaces and hotels in several cities, while he implements austerity and removes subsides gradually. 

He spared no effort in responding to these accusations. In front of several officials and young people at the eighth youth forum, he confirmed that he built palaces and motels, but he alleged that he built them for the Egyptian state, not for himself. 

Mohamed’s accusations haven’t stopped here. He criticised the army’s penetration into civil life and says that it has taken control of the majority of the state’s commercial and construction projects as the army ordered them directly for junior traders and contractors (Mohamed Ali was among this segment for 15 years). Ali alleged that the direct orders issued by senior officers to the implementers has promoted bribery and widespread corruption at a senior military level and promoting patronage instead of competitiveness.

The case of Mohamed Ali has encouraged several opponents to release their own videos criticising the head of the political regime. The most prominent among them was Massaad Abu Fager, an activist from Sinai, who accused the president and his son, Mahmoud, of supporting terrorism in Sinai and benefiting from commercial business in Sinai. Mohamed Ali invited Egyptians to protest and demanded al-Sisi leave. No one knew how serious this invitation was until Friday night.

Rare demonstrations

The international press that followed up the people’s movement agreed that the demonstrations against al-Sisi are rare, as mentioned by a number of newspapers including The New York Times, The Washington Post, The Guardian, Reuters and The Wall Street Journal.

The New York Times said in an editorial that: “Rare protests against President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi erupted in central Cairo and several smaller Egyptian cities on Friday night … responding to online calls for demonstrations against government corruption, chanted “Down with Sisi” and “Leave now.”

The Guardian said:  “Demonstrations are all but illegal in Egypt after the current president, who seized power following the overthrow of former president Mohamed Morsi and Muslim Brotherhood. Al-Sisi’s rule has been marked by the repression of political opposition, civil society and any perceived criticism. Those taking to the streets risked arrest as well as the lingering threat of force by the Egyptian authorities.”

Newspapers stated that the security forces weren’t as violent as they have been under the current president. There was no blood, instead the police used tear gas to disperse the protesters and arrested them. Demonstrations were distributed among the capital and other cities including Alexandria, Suez and el-Mahalla el-Kubra

A spark of hope or a fleeting shot

This is the question that dominated followers inside and outside the country. It was clearly expressed by the BBC, which asked in an editorial published yesterday: “Is it a spark of a new revolution or a storm in a teacup?

The Guardian says that “in a country with an estimated 60,000 political prisoners and where protests are expected to be met with force, observers marveled at the demonstrators’ willingness to turn out even for a limited time.  The British writer and analyst HA Hellyer said to The Guardian that “Protests are simply not possible in Egypt without permission from the authorities. We’ve seen many attempts in recent years that were broken up immediately.” 

The report then refuted this:

“All the grievances that led to people coming out on to the streets in substantial numbers in Egypt still exist and have done so for a while … The question is whether or not the authorities will allow them to do so … We simply don’t know yet what the calculus within the government will produce.”

The same question was asked by The Wall Street Journal, which described how Egyptians taking to the street again was the most significant political challenge to al-Sisi’s administration. 

The Guardian mentioned a poll  conducted in 2016 showing a drop in al-Sisi’s approval rating from 82 per cent to 68 per cent. No similar poll has been conducted since. The New York Times said that the protests were not centrally organised, appearing instead to come from spontaneous gatherings led by anger and no more.

Rabab al-Mahdy, a political scientist at the American University in Cairo, commented to The New York Times about the security treatment being less heavy handed than before.  Al-Mahdy said that “could be a decision to let off steam , that was typical of the Mubarak regime. But it is not typical of al-Sisi.”

Tahrir selfies 

The international media paid attention to the reactions of the national and private media in Egypt, which is managed by security bodies of the state. It concluded that the Egyptian media intended to ignore and undermine the demonstrations. 

The New York Times, Reuters and BBC cited the narrative of the regime’s loyal presenter Amr Adeeb who said that: “a small group of protesters gathered in central Cairo to capture some videos and selfies by mobile phones before leaving the site.”  Another regime supporter network said that the situation around Tahrir Square is calm, according to Reuters. 

It should be mentioned that all the outside media coverage depended on what is broadcast by smart phone cameras and what’s published on social media, because of censorship imposed on media by the al-Sisi administration, as well as the targeting of media personnel and journalists systematically. The BBC said: “The BBC team witnessed an intense presence of police and military police affiliated to the armed forces to prevent the demonstration that begun small and increased.” 

Friday ended with some hope. Nobody has the ability to predict what will happen with the demonstrations against the al-Sisi regime, and nobody knows whether they will continue or be oppressed.