The golden moment of solidarity which ended long-time dictator Hosni Mubarak‘s rule was replaced by deep division and fragmentation. The overthrow of Egypt’s first democratically elected president, Mohamed Morsi by the military in 2013 ushered in a new era of police crackdowns and polarisation.
Since that military takeover which brought General Sisi to power, Egypt’s human rights record has deteriorated significantly, with an estimated 60,000 political prisoners behind bars, including activists, opposition figures, journalists, bloggers, and ordinary citizens, in addition to those who have been forcibly disappeared or executed.
If we add to this the skyrocketing cost of living, coupled with growing poverty, high unemployment rates, government corruption, the re-imposition of the state of emergency, and re-amending the constitution to grant the president an unlimited term, it becomes clear that all the grievances which ignited the 2011 revolution are not only alive and well, but even more severe than before.
How an Egyptian whistleblower broke the barrier of fear
Until recently, this gloomy picture made the possibility of a new wave of protests in Egypt seem impossible. But last month, a whistleblower emerged.
Forty-five year-old Mohamed Ali, an Egyptian actor and a contractor who has been doing business with the Egyptian military for 15 years, started posting his daring anti-regime videos online from his self-imposed exile in Spain. Suddenly the impossible became possible again.
His tweets and videos revealed shocking facts and figures about new presidential palaces which have been built over the last few years, each costing millions of dollars, and all at a time when Egyptians were being told by their president that they were “very poor”.
Ali’s focus on the theme of government corruption, backed by his insider’s knowledge and close relationship with the establishment, worked well with his with his casual style and plain, colloquial Arabic, to make his videos go viral in no time. His genuine appeal and down to earth approach resonated well with lay Egyptians, many of whom are living under the international poverty line.
This triggered an unprecedented wave of mockery and sarcasm among many Egyptians, who used social media platforms to vent their frustrations at the regime. Known for their witty political humour, which was effectively deployed to help oust dictator Hosni Mubarak in 2011. Egyptians took to Facebook, Twitter, blogs and other social media to express their anger, bitterness and frustration through jokes.
Most importantly, some of them responded to Mohamed Ali’s calls to go out on the streets to protest. On September 20 2019, sporadic protests erupted in different parts of Egypt. These protests were described by some western media outlets as rare and shocking. And although the numbers were not as significant as in 2011, the message they sent rang out loud and clear: “Egyptians are breaking the barrier of fear again!”
The regime’s learning curve
Energized and inspired by the initial response to his calls, Mohamed Ali used social media to mobilize the Egyptian people again, calling upon them to go out on the streets to protest in even larger numbers on Friday, September 27. This time, protests erupted in different parts of Egypt, and online mockery and sarcasm directed at the regime grew.
But Sisi’s regime had undergone a learning curve, and was not taken by surprise this time. Instead, anticipating Egyptian discontent, it was very well prepared and did everything it could to halt or intimidate them.
This included deploying a high level security crackdown on the streets, with police cars, armoured vehicles and soldiers placed in many key locations, such as close to Tahrir Square in Cairo. This perhaps partially explains why some protests erupted in marginalized and rural areas, where the security presence on the streets was lower, and where economic grievances are even higher.
Security forces even searched people individually on the streets, demanding to see their cell phones, an unprecedented tactic aiming to halt social media activism.
Most importantly, the government launched a huge wave of massive arrests, before, during and after the proposed protest date. Among the over 3,000 people arrested were key political figures, opposition leaders, activists, journalists, and bloggers, in addition to ordinary citizens.
This resulted in a chilling absence of public opinion leaders and public intellectuals, who in the past have been able to successfully mobilise the masses, through online calls for reform in the virtual world, and on the ground organisation and mobilisation.
Today, many of these activists and opposition leaders are killed, forcibly disappeared, in jail, or in exile, while others have simply abandoned political activism altogether, out of fear, or despair, or both.
Closing the safety valve: Another explosion looms
Not all the tactics used by the Egyptian regime, however, were successful. Launching orchestrated pro-government propaganda campaigns, through state-owned, government-controlled media, as well as staging pro-Sisi rallies, featuring actors, and athletes, in addition to government employees and military academy students, resembled some of the failed strategies of Mubarak’s regime in its final days.
Regime panic was also manifest in deploying many of the tactics used by fallen dictators, like Mubarak and Ben Ali in their last minutes, such as providing monetary incentives to the people, either through limited salary raises or limited price reductions, in addition to assuring the people that they are “understood”.
Previous Egyptian rulers, notably Sadat and Mubarak, deployed the “safety valve” mechanism, through leaving a small margin of tame opposition to provide an outlet for the Egyptian people to vent their grievances. This helped to avoid, or at least postpone, an explosion of public anger, while prolonging their autocratic rule.
The current Egyptian regime, with its iron-fisted policies, harsh crackdown on opposition, and total control of both the political and media landscapes, doesn’t allow for this small margin.
The complete stifling of both political and media freedoms to such a degree cannot prolong dictatorship for a very long time. Instead, more whistleblowers will be emboldened, and their social media activism intensified, paving the way for a new wave of popular uprisings in Egypt.
When and how these uprisings will materialise, as well as their intensity, scale, and impact, all remain to be seen. One thing is certain, however: sealing the safety valve shut, always leads to an explosion.