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Egypt’s Al-Sisi Under Pressure

Egypt’s president promises change, but does he really mean it?

Credit: Utenriksdepartementet UD www.flickr.com

Takeaways


  • It is not only Egypt’s youth that Mr. Al-Sisi appears to have difficulty convincing. Egyptian businessmen are another group.
  • One of the peculiar aspects of political repression in Egypt have been soccer games in large stadiums.
  • No matter how much Mr. Al-Sisi tries to tack, anger and frustration in Egypt is boiling at the surface.

Faced with a drop in popularity, intermittent protests against rising prices and calls for a mass anti-government demonstration, Egyptian general-turned-president Abdel Fattah Al-Sisi, is changing his tune.

He is seeking to appease the country’s youth, soccer fans and activists with promises of change.

Sweeter sounds from the strongman leader

Mr. Al-Sisi’s promises of revisions of Egypt’s draconic anti-protest law. He also wants to review of the cases of youth detained without trial.

Next, he offers to hold monthly meetings with young people to follow up on resolutions of a national youth conference held earlier this month.

However, his announcements – designed to be conciliatory – have provoked sharp criticism even before they got off the ground. An Egyptian poll reported this month that Mr. Al-Sisi’s popularity had dropped 14%.

Writing in Al Masry Al Youm newspaper, journalist Omar Hadi rejected Mr. Al-Sisi’s addressing youth as his “sons and daughters,” pointing out instead that the country’s youth were citizens, with duties and rights.

Evidently, Mr. Al-Sisi’s brutal repression of dissent as well as widespread disillusion with the president’s promise of a bright future of social and economic opportunity translate into dim prospects for his overtures meeting with success.

Patriarchal thinking

Neo-patriarchism, a phrase coined by American-Palestinian scholar Hisham Sharabi, involves projection of the autocratic leader as a father figure.

Autocratic Arab society, according to Mr. Sharabi, was built on the dominance of the father, a patriarch around which the national as well as the nuclear family were organized.

In the relationship between ruler and ruled, as in that between father and child, the paternal will is absolute.

It is a forced pseudo-consensus, based on ritual and coercion. At the top of the pyramid, resides the country’s leader as the father of all fathers.

Sounding like a late-stage Communist leader

To follow up on his promises, Mr. Al-Sisi told an official conference convened for the purpose that “the government, in coordination with the relevant state parties, will study the suggestions and proposals to amend the protest law … and include them in the set of proposed legislation to be presented to parliament during the current session.”

That is the formulaic, dead-head talk of a man who either hasn’t seen the writing on the wall – or steadfastly refuses to see it.

Which allies does Al-Sisi have?

It is not only Egypt’s youth that Mr. Al-Sisi appears to have difficulty convincing. Egyptian businessmen are another group.

They are typically closely aligned with whoever serves as the country’s president, at least when he comes from the ranks of the military.

But now Egypt’s business leaders warn that raids on sugar factories and traders, who are both accused of hoarding the commodity amid a severe shortage, would only further undermine the confidence of foreign investors.

That is something Egypt cannot afford, they argue, since their help is crucial in helping Egypt dig itself out of its economic hole.

The military as economic middleman

Under these circumstances, the Egyptian armed forces have chosen to take their traditional, highly profitable backstage role in the economy one step further. They are opening outlets and military trucks roaming the entire country.

Their purpose is to sell cheap groceries in order to compensate for shortages and rising prices. It is a desperate move to stave off a serious bout of public unrest.

Just how desperate Al-Sisi is at this stage becomes apparent when one recalls that this entire effort of the military operating even more actively in the national economy flies in the face of Al-Sisi’s earlier promise to reduce the enormous stake of the armed forces in the economy in the next three years.

The Saudi factor

Al-Sisi suffered a further setback when Saudi Arabia announced it was stopping oil shipments to Egypt. This is a response to the president’s refusal to support Saudi Arabian policy towards Iran, Syria and Yemen.

This has irritated the kingdom, especially since it has provided Al-Sisi with massive financial support.

Soccer stadiums as a pressure valve

One of the peculiar aspects of political repression in Egypt have been soccer games in large stadiums. In the past, various governments have undertaken failed attempts to either repress or co-opt soccer fans.

The closures were designed to prevent stadiums from again emerging as platforms for the venting of pent-up anger and frustration against the government.

As a result, football pitches have been closed to the public for much of the past five years for all domestic premier league games.

As part of Mr. Al-Sisi’s fledgling efforts to act in a more conciliatory manner, the government has announced that 75,000 spectators would be allowed to attend a 2018 World Cup qualifier on November 13 in Alexandria’s Borg El-Arab Stadium.

This announcement followed the admission of 70,000 people to a match between storied Cairo club Al Zamalek SC, whose militant Ultras White Knights (UWK) fans, have a long history of anti-government protest, and South Africa’s Mamelodi Sundowns FC.

All to no avail?

No matter how much – and how desperately Mr. Al-Sisi tries to tack, anger and frustration is boiling at the surface.

In recent weeks, a new group, the Ghalaba Movement (or Movement of the Marginalised), has been calling for mass protests on November 11. It wants to protest against subsidy cuts, rising prices and increasing shortages of basic goods.

Predictably enough, Interior Minister Magdy Abdel Ghaffar has warned that Egypt’s widely despised security forces would not permit “a repeat of previous attempts at sabotage and social unrest in Egypt.”

In a statement on Facebook, Mr. Abdel Ghaffar said that security measures were being tightened to “protect citizens and establishments.”

Cracks in the façade?

Never mind that this flies in the face of Mr. Al-Sisi’s promises of a more conciliatory approach to his rule.

Nevertheless, the publication in Egypt’s tightly controlled media of several incidents of individual protest has prompted speculation that some within the military were sending their former top commander a message that he needs to get a grip on discontent that could spiral out of hand.

The incidents included an Egyptian taxi driver, in an act like the one that sparked the popular revolt in Tunisia almost six years ago and the subsequent uprising elsewhere in the Middle East and North Africa, set himself alight earlier this month to protest rising prices and deteriorating living conditions.

A tuk-tuk driver vents

An Egyptian television station broadcast an outburst by a tuk tuk driver who vented his fury at Egypt’s economic plight.

The video clip garnered some 10 million hits on the television station’s website before it was taken down as well as on social media where it remains accessible.

Large numbers in the Suez Canal city of Port Said — the scene in 2012 of the worst, politically-loaded incident in Egyptian sporting history in which 72 militant fans were killed — took to the streets earlier this month to protest the rising cost of housing.

It remains an open question whether mushrooming discontent that is spilling into the open amounts to the makings of renewed mass protests.

Neighboring countries’ fate as a disincentive

Many Egyptians look at the horrendous state of post-2011 popular revolt countries wracked by wars and violence such as Libya, Yemen and Syria. They don’t want to see their country travel that road.

Nonetheless, economic hardship and repression appear to be reaching a point at which an increasing number of Egyptians are no longer willing to remain silent.

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About James M. Dorsey

James M. Dorsey is a senior fellow at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies and an award-winning journalist. [Singapore]

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