While Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi was in New York addressing the United Nations General Assembly, back home his government, in response to demonstrations, began the largest wave of mass arrests since the former general came to power.
According to Amnesty International, Egyptian authorities rounded up more than 2,300 people—at least 111 of them children ages 11 to 17. The arrests also included hundreds of peaceful protestors and targeted arbitrary arrests of human rights lawyers, journalists, political activists and politicians.
President Sisi’s “government has orchestrated this crackdown to crush the slightest sign of dissent and silence every government critic. The wave of unprecedented mass arrests, which included many who were not even involved in the protests, sends a clear message—anyone perceived to pose a threat to Sisi’s government will be crushed,” said Najia Bounaim, North Africa Campaigns director for Amnesty International.
And even though these latest demonstrations, at least as of yet, haven’t reached the 2011 levels, conditions in Egypt are becoming more like those at the end of the Hosni Mubarak regime.
The apparent spontaneity of protests breaking out in three major cities across Egypt this past September, with demonstrators calling for the removal of President Sisi, according to NPR “was a big surprise.”
“We are going to protest because we are on the right side, the good side,” 19-year-old Mohamed Ali Shawky, a university student, told the Washington Post. “We are doing this because we believe in the justice of our cause. That is what is making us stronger even when we are scared to death. It gives us faith, when the regime has weapons and soldiers.”
The protests were reported to be in response to a series of viral videos from Mohammad Ali, an Egyptian businessman, military building contractor and actor who accused President Sisi of wasting public funds on vanity projects despite widespread poverty. The former contractor for the Egyptian government, who lives in self-imposed exile in Spain, wrote Wall Street Journal reporter Jared Malsin, blames “Mr. Sisi’s government (for) wasting public funds … specifically a series of lavish palaces for the president himself and his family. And this has really struck a nerve with ordinary Egyptians in a moment when living standards have really been declining.”
Ali has called for a “Million Man March” and a “peoples revolution” to topple Sisi.
To counteract the growing protest movement, the government reportedly deployed gangs of armed masked men and riot police. In addition, Egyptian security forces clamped down on central parts of Cairo, preventing anti-government protestors from mounting a second demonstration.
The Post reported, “security forces blocked more than a dozen roads leading to Tahir Square, the epicenter of Egypt’s 2011 Arab Spring revolts that toppled autocrat Hosni Mubarak.”
In addition, the government brought in pro-government demonstrators. The reputed government-sponsored, with compensation, demonstration was held just a few minutes’ walk from Rabaa Square, where in 2013 Egyptian security forces massacred hundreds of anti-government protesters.
Responding favorably to the crackdown, Egypt’s parliament speaker Ali Abdel Aal, in a kind of Freudian slip, compared Sisi to Adolf Hitler, saying the Nazi leader “made mistakes” but “built a strong infrastructure” for his country.
The Middle East Eye reported that the parliament speaker called on parliamentarians to stand for one minute of silence in a show of support for Sisi’s “project to build the modern Egyptian state.”
To add insult to injury, Parliament’s Industry Committee proposed that anyone who harms Egypt, its people or its president be punished with loss of citizenship and life imprisonment.
“Anyone who undermines the country or the president’s status cannot be considered a member of this nation,” said Suzy Nashed, a member of parliament’s Legislative and Constitutional Affairs Committee. “These people surely won’t get excited about losing their citizenship”—presumably since they’re disloyal in any case—“but we must not allow them to keep their citizenship.”
According to Amnesty International, several children that were arrested were subjected to enforced disappearances for periods ranging from two to 10 days. At least 69 are currently facing charges including “membership in a terrorist group” and “misusing social media,” though many didn’t have mobile phones.
In a blow to defendants’ rights to provide much needed legal defense, 16 attorneys have been arrested with at least four targeted while trying to represent clients.
On the 29th of September, human rights lawyer and director of the Adalah Center for Rights and Freedoms Mohamed el-Baqer entered the Supreme State Security Prosecution building to represent detained activist Alaa Abdel Fattah only to be arrested on the same charges as his client. These include “membership in a banned group” and “spreading false information.” The prosecutor questioned him about his organization’s work and did not present any evidence against him except a National Security Agency investigation report, which neither he nor his lawyer have been allowed to examine.
Despite the crackdowns, there remains a sense of defiance among many Egyptians.
Shawky, the demonstrator who insisted his real name be used, said many of his friends had been arrested. He said he was “fed up” with the “corruption, sickness, repression and murder.” And with all his rights “unjustly taking away … on all levels.”
Ali’s calls for protest and for the removal of Sisi wouldn’t bear fruit without already existing social discontent and one third of Egyptians now living in abject poverty.
With video clips about corruption among senior army officials being posted with impunity by someone who was an active participant, and the government dependent on repression, its only answer to discontent, an eruption appears inevitable.