Late Friday night, hundreds of protestors took to the streets in Cairo, decrying alleged corruption in President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi’s regime. This was spurred on by a series of viral videos made by former military building contractor and actor Mohamed Ali, which detailed various contracts he had completed while in service of the military. He worked for the military for 15 years, and built for Sisi a luxury “palace”, as well as five villas for military aides using public funds. This comes as a great frustration for many Egyptians, with 1 in 3 living below the poverty line, reports Al-Jazeera. Ali is currently in Spain in self-imposed exile, and is encouraging people to stay strong, saying “May God strengthen your resolve”. President Sisi has called this “lies and slander”. It is uncharacteristic of him to respond to accusations, as he typically has not done so in the past.
In Cairo, the protests were centred around Tahrir Square, a symbolic area for the 2011 revolutions that ousted the previous President, Hosni Mubarak. Videos of protests in Damietta, Suez and Damanhur also appeared on social media under #Tahrir_square. The hashtag trended worldwide on Friday. In Damietta, protestors ripped down a large poster of the president, and videos showed protestors stomping on el-Sisi banners. Security forces responded with teargas in Cairo, however, many young people stayed out into the early hours of Saturday, the Guardian reports. Protestors chanted slogans like “Sisi get out” and “Rise up, fear not, Sisi must go”.
These protests are a rare sight in Egypt under the el-Sisi regime, as any political dissidents are met with immediate arrest, torture and violence. Human Rights Watch has criticised the regime for this in the past and is calling for the government to release those arrested in the protests. The United Nations has expressed “grave concern” over the “assault on freedom of expression” that this kind of crackdown creates. Yehia Ghanen, an analyst at Al-Jazeera, says that these protests are “long overdue” in Egypt, given the growing dissatisfaction with the government. This includes frustration with the heavy economic austerity measures, including rising fuel prices, as well as the extreme limitations on free speech in the country. It is heartening that people are going to the streets to protest peacefully, despite the possible extreme consequences. According to the AFP news agency, 74 people have been arrested. There have been no confirmed reports of any casualties.
President Sisi has been in power in Egypt since 2014, after a military coup following protests against the government. He was re-elected in 2018, with no real opposition. Egyptians voted to approve constitutional changes to allow him to remain in power until 2030, with a 44% voter turnout, the BBC reports. This comes amidst many comparing him to Egypt’s past dictators, with the extreme economic measures being implemented, and the ruthless crushing of any public disapproval of his regime.
Hopefully, these protests will not devolve into riots and further violence, however, there is a risk that the government respond with a brutal crackdown, given its past intolerance of opposition. This suppression of free speech is extremely concerning, but the Sisi government should take note that the “world is watching”, as said by Michael Page, deputy Middle East and North Africa Director at Human Rights Watch.