Even before Egyptian authorities warned that they would “decisively confront” any protests that take place on Friday, it was evident that it would require extraordinary courage to answer the call to the streets. Abdel Fatah al-Sisi’s regime has repeatedly shown its utter ruthlessness since seizing power six years ago in a coup. Security forces killed thousands of people protesting against the takeover. The country has locked up 60,000 political prisoners. Executions have soared this year.
Yet hundreds of people did demonstrate in cities including Cairo, Suez and Alexandria last week. The authorities responded with teargas, rubber bullets, beatings and live ammunition. Almost 2,000 people have since been arrested – more than are thought to have taken part. They include several prominent figures who do not appear to have been involved in any way, including the internationally recognised rights lawyer Mahienour el-Massry, who was defending protesters; the journalist and opposition politician Khaled Dawoud; and Hazem Hosny, a former spokesperson for Sami Anan, the former military chief of staff detained since he tried to challenge Mr Sisi for the presidency last year.
The demonstrations were triggered by videos posted on social media by an exiled Egyptian called Mohamed Ali, claiming to expose the corruption of top military figures which he says he witnessed as a builder working on their properties. They resonated with a population ground down by relentless repression and the struggle to get by. Egypt may be an emerging-market darling, but the macroeconomic picture does not align with people’s experiences. Austerity measures imposed under an IMF loan programme have been punishing. Real incomes have fallen and the poverty rate has risen again, to just under a third of the population. While the regime has persuaded a sizable chunk of the public that it is a bulwark against further turmoil as well as political Islam, others have had enough.
At the UN general assembly in New York, Donald Trump lauded Mr Sisi as “a great leader” when asked about the protests; not a great surprise since he had previously reportedly hailed him as “my favourite dictator”. European leaders have been more tasteful in their remarks on the Egyptian leader, but they too have made their peace with him, seeing him as essential to limiting migration and as a bulwark against terrorism, and – in France’s case – an enthusiastic purchaser of arms and security equipment. There is no sign that the British prime minister, Boris Johnson, even mentioned the demonstrations when they met.
They should pay more heed. It is still unclear why the protest sites had not been put under tight security last Friday, as they had been after previous calls for protests, and why it was a little while before authorities cracked down. Some wonder if parts of the system are unhappy and wanted to send a message to their boss. (If so, his trip to the US suggests it went unheard.) Another explanation, perhaps more plausible, is that they were taken by surprise: when repression is harsh and wholesale, who expects people to object?
Most of those detained appear to be young; too young, in most cases, to have been involved in the 2011 revolution. That is a reminder that an increasingly youthful population sees little hope of any improvement in its circumstances. Mr Sisi’s many friends overseas have made a bad call. They should make it clear to him that a bloody crackdown will not be tolerated. They should do so to protect the basic rights of Egypt’s people. Closing the safety valve only means the pressure builds.