The regime has its back to the wall. Egypt’s president, reputed for his hyper-nationalism, has made concessions about what is viewed by many as Egyptian land. The transfer of the islands of Tiran and Sanafir, which control the straits of Tiran, has angered many Egyptians, particularly in light of what seems like a covertly negotiated deal.
The historical rights to the islands have been in contention for some time, but the idea of unilaterally giving up the islands without consultation or referendum has called the decision into question. Egypt’s decision to deny Israel access to the straits of Tiran was one of the primary motivations for the 1967 war.
The decision has sparked protests across the country, despite the tight security grip that has pervaded Al-Sisi’s rule. On 15 April, a large protest, dubbed the Friday of the Land, gathered several thousands who were allowed to protest for a few hours before autonomously dispersing and calling for new protests on 25 April, which marks Sinai Liberation Day.
It is important to note that both these protests were marked with a revolutionary fervour that indicated that the dissatisfaction of those willing to protest extended beyond the decision to hand over the islands. Under Al-Sisi, Egypt has experienced dire economic conditions and the largest violations of human rights in its recent history.
More and more, Egyptians are realising they are dealing with a government that cannot be swayed or petitioned. Parliament, marred by a low turnout, has exhibited signs that it will not do much to oppose the government of its own accord. Mainstream media have become nothing but puppets for security agencies.
While the 25 April protests did not manage to congregate freely, nor create the customary marches with chants and slogans to denounce the transfer of the islands and the Al-Sisi regime, the attempts themselves cannot be written off—they offer an insight into what to expect in Egypt’s future.
A few observations are in order. Numerous protests were being formed and dispersed across the capital after two of the three previously announced venues had been closed off, namely the Press Syndicate and the Doctors Syndicate. The third location, Behouth metro station, was filled with informants who went through the phones of people they suspected, in an attempt to clamp down on protests before they began.
When protests moved to Messaha Square in Dokki and people gathered outside the Al-Karama Party headquarters, the police continued to clamp down on these. Yet, even as police raided the headquarters and arrested several dozens, the young determined protesters did not just go home, but attempted to assemble again and remained within a stone’s throw of the police. As passersby questioned the commotion, officers falsely informed them that they were dealing with a Muslim Brotherhood situation.
Many were determined to join the protests, and would have, had they survived the dispersal by the police, informants and conscripts dressed in civilian clothes, transported using Central Security Forces (CSF) trucks. There were many new faces of young people determined to protest despite the dangers and the hundreds arrested on the day and prior.
These non-protests were more telling of the spirit of determination present in revolutionary youth, perhaps even more than if the protests were allowed to run their course. People who joined the protests were aware of the dangers of standing up to a regime that never shied away from expressing its lust for brutality.
But the islands transfer is not the only trouble Al-Sisi is facing. A Reuters news piece has emerged recently claiming that young Italian PhD candidate Giulio Regini was held in police custody prior to his murder. This contradicts Egypt’s official narrative and, if proven, it would implicate the Al-Sisi regime with a cover up, which adds to the mounting pressure worldwide to understand the truth about Regeni’s murder.
The United Kingdom has already been forced into providing a response after a petition to pressure the UK to take steps to ensure a full investigation of Regeni’s death. The response indicates awareness of the implication of Egypt’s security forces as suspects, even if not yet proven.
On the home front, there may be dissatisfaction within the ranks with regards to the islands transfer, due to the professed patriotic nature of the army. Al-Sisi was reported to have expressed a wish not to see a repeat of 15 April protests—something which presidency has denied—but the events of 25 April cast major doubts on such a denial. In effect, with the allowing of protests that supported the islands transfer and the raising of the Saudi flag in Tahrir and Talaat Harb squares, yet at the same time quelling any protests against it, the regime’s apparatus, including the police and the army, are being viewed as less nationalistic, which may affect morale.
The ailing economy is contributing to the disgruntlement and, to make matters worse, Al-Sisi must make some concessions to Saudi Arabia, which has helped bail out his regime by providing economic aid and energy subsidies. While Al-Sisi was not able to provide Saudi Arabia with the troops they requested for Yemen, the island seemed like an adequate way to make amends, yet that too is not an easy deal to sell on the home front.
President Abdel Fattah Al-Sisi has little choice but to continue his existential fight for power. He has already hedged his bets on his brutal police generals, along with some of the most disreputably corrupt officials, to run the government. How could Egypt’s generals deal with mounting dissatisfaction with the economy, the island transfers, and the mounting pressure from abroad to hold Regini’s murderers accountable?
The political arena in Egypt is in disarray, with an absence of balance in power merely camouflaged by the security apparatus’ iron grip. Egypt, and in particular its ruling class, must come to terms with that fact that some concessions must be made locally in order to achieve some stability. This would mean rolling back some of the hazardous policies enacted by Al-Sisi when he had free reign. Yet, the question remains, are those in power willing to concede to this reality, or will Egypt continue on its crash course?
First published in DNE on April 26, 2016