In Depth

Why Egyptians are protesting

Demonstrators defy ban on large public gatherings to take to streets in Cairo and other cities

Egyptian authorities were on high alert over the weekend as protesters joined forces in cities nationwide to call for the removal of President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi.

On Friday night, demonstrations gathered in Cairo’s Tahrir Square, the epicentre of the 2011 pro-democracy uprising that toppled dictator Hosni Mubarak. Unrest was also reported in cities including Alexandria and Suez the following evening.

The authorities have not yet released an official number of arrests, but human rights activists allege that “almost 500 people have been detained”, the BBC reports. Since 2013, public gatherings of more than ten people without government approval have been banned.

The demonstrations are the first public protests against Sisi’s rule since he took power in 2014, and while relatively small in scale, they have raised eyebrows among the international community. Indeed, The New York Times describes the unrest as “a total shock”.

That sentiment was echoed by some of the protesters. Hafsa, a 32-year-old teacher who took part in the Cairo demonstration, told The Guardian: “The Friday protest was such a shock to me because people were not able to voice any of their anger. So this was a sign of hope that people still have a voice, they’re not dead. I feel encouraged to protest next Friday, the same as many others.”

So why are Egyptians angry and could there be another revolution in Cairo?

What happened over the weekend?

According to Al Jazeera, hundreds of Egyptians chanting “Leave, Sisi!” and demanding the “fall of the regime” joined the protest in Cairo on Friday. Police responded by firing tear gas at the protesters and arresting at least 74 people, according to reports.

The following evening, about 200 protesters convened in the Red Sea city of Suez. Again, police officers are reported to have fired rubber bullets.

Thousands of people have shared shared footage on social media showing the demonstrations in Cairo, Suez and in several other cities including Alexandria, Al-Mahalla, Damietta and Mansoura, where sizeable crowds blocked traffic.

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Urging the Egyptian authorities to protect the right to peaceful protest, Michael Page, deputy Middle East and North Africa director at Human Rights Watch, said: “President el-Sisi’s security agencies have time and again used brutal force to crush peaceful protests.

“The authorities should recognise that the world is watching and take all necessary steps to avoid a repetition of past atrocities.”

Why are they protesting?

News outlets are reporting that the protests may have been sparked by a call from online activist Mohamed Ali, whom The Guardian describes as a former military contractor and actor.

Having placed himself in “exile” in Spain, he has been a vocal critic of the Sisi government, releasing a string of videos accusing the president and the military of high-level corruption. 

In one video, Ali alleges that through his contracting business, he witnessed the large-scale misuse of public funds in the building of luxurious hotels, presidential palaces and a tomb for Sisi’s late mother.

“The system has made us all corrupt,” Ali says. “We are going to change that system and install a proper one.”

The New York Times adds that Ali’s “gravel-voiced exposes” have “resonated with many Egyptians, who have watched el-Sisi erect enormous building projects while their own finances collapse”. According to recent statistics, up to a third of all Egyptians live in poverty on less than $1.40 (£1.12) a day.

Jamal Elshayyal of Al Jazeera, which is banned from reporting in Egypt, says that Friday’s protests were “reminiscent of the Arab Spring”.

“This is borne out of frustration and anger at misgovernance and oppression at the lack of a future for a large section of Egyptian society of which a vast majority is young,” Elshayyal said.

Hassan Nafaa, a political scientist at Cairo University, told Paris-based news agency AFP that Egyptians “have been shouldering the burdens of el-Sisi’s policies”, in particular harsh austerity measures imposed since the Egyptian pound was floated in 2016.

What will this mean for Sisi?

In the wake of the unrest, Sisi has dismissed Ali’s allegations as “lies and slander”.

And high-profile Egyptian lawyer Leila Maklad has filed a request to the Egyptian Attorney General to revoke Ali’s Egyptian nationality, reports Middle East Monitor.  She claims he has “published false and misleading news in order to create chaos in the country” and that he “threatens the unity, security and stability of Egypt and destabilises security and public peace”.

But Ali is refusing to back down and has called for a “million-strong protest” this Friday. Mohamad Elmasry, chair of the media and journalism programme at the Doha Institute for Graduate Studies, told Al Jazeera that Ali and the protests he appears to have triggered pose a “legitimate threat” to the president.

“Millions of people have watched his videos, while his anti-el-Sisi hashtags have gone viral,” said Elmasry, who added that it was “unprecedented” for the president “to be put on the defensive like that inside Egypt by an Egyptian”.

Meanwhile, witnesses to the demonstrations say the mood is similar to that during the Arab Spring. A lawyer who took part in the protest in Alexandria told The Guardian: “This movement is not run by high-ranking politicians or activists. It’s normal people protesting.”

But others say that the timing and manner of the demonstrations is suspicious. The New York Times reports that some analysts believe Ali “may be a puppet controlled... by another entity, possibly people in Mr el-Sisi’s government who are seeking to undermine or even overthrow the president”.

Khaled Dawoud, a journalist and former leader of Egypt’s opposition Constitution Party, told the paper that “beyond the fact that the protests erupted when Ali called for them”, the “entire thing is a little bit fishy”.

“He didn’t introduce himself as a politician,” Dawoud said. “He’s more like a whistle-blower, and suddenly he decided to turn into a revolutionary leader.”

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