In late September, protests erupted throughout Egypt in response to the widespread and systemic corruption of the regime of Abdel Fattah al-Sisi. Predictably, the Egyptian security forces responded with a heavy hand, arresting thousands of civilians, most without charges. More than 2,000 Egyptians remain in custody, held in crowded detention centers and jails where the conditions are deplorable.
The latest crackdown comes as Sisi moves to consolidate power and remove even the slightest hint of dissent among the population. But the go-to strategy for repressive regimes throughout the region—quelling demonstrations through force while offering vague promises to assuage a litany of legitimate grievances—could prove myopic in Egypt. The demands of the protestors, many tied to limited economic opportunities, will not simply disappear and may indeed grow louder.
The current protests are the most sizable public demonstrations against al-Sisi since he seized power, and have mostly been focused on government corruption. Self-exiled businessman and actor Muhammad Ali released videos detailing instances of graft and corruption by government officials involved with the construction of luxury hotels.
When these high-end projects were juxtaposed against the lagging economic prospects of ordinary Egyptians, people took to the streets demanding reforms. Egypt has also suffered from a rise in the price of basic goods and necessities and cuts to subsidies that had long helped ease the economic burden on Egypt’s working class.
The first protests in Cairo, Alexandria, and Suez had a cascading effect that in turn gave way to more protests. The protesters numbered in the hundreds and thousands, not quite the size of the demonstrations that pushed out Egypt’s longtime dictator Hosni Mubarak, but significant enough to provoke a draconian response from Sisi. Most of those detained were not actively protesting; rather, the regime has used the unrest to simply sweep up anyone deemed part of the opposition, in an attempt to intimidate broader political challenges to the regime.
From its earliest days, the Sisi government has targeted political opponents, jailing hundreds of journalists, shuttering publications and non-governmental organizations alike. Academics, lawyers, and activists have also been rounded up. The government has attempted to frame the crackdown in terms of protecting the Egyptian people from subversive foreign meddling and external influence.
The Muslim Brotherhood, Egypt’s largest political opposition group for decades, is considered a terrorist organization by the regime. To further cement his power, Sisi has pushed through changes to the constitution, extended his term limits, and relies on a close cadre of allies in the military and security forces to rule the country.
Sisi has offered a bevy of half-hearted gestures to appease the outrage generated by accusations of corruption, blaming low-level government officials and promising to increase food subsidies.
Throughout the protests, the United States has remained steadfast in its support for Sisi, who President Trump recently referred to as his ‘favorite dictator.’ This would be consistent with President Trump’s oft-stated public admiration for authoritarian leaders, from Russia’s Vladimir Putin to North Korea’s Kim Jong Un.
While the United States has historically supported anti-democratic leadership in the Middle East in a Faustian bargain intended to favor stability at all costs, the Trump administration has essentially lent its support to dictators and the suppression of a free press.
By consistently labeling critical reporting as ‘the enemy of the people,’ President Trump has indirectly encouraged the stifling of dissent and given a green light to dictators like Sisi who imprison journalists and reporters with impunity.
It is still too early to tell if Sisi’s iron-fisted response to the protests will deter the opposition, but unless Egypt is able to undertake serious and deep-rooted economic reforms, the structural factors leading to the demonstrations will continue to linger.