MON 24 - 2 - 2020
Date: Sep 30, 2019
Source: The Daily Star
Repression risks fueling Egypt instability
Agence France Presse
CAIRO: Egypt is reeling after a tense weekend of sparse anti-government protests for the second week in a row that analysts said could bring more repression under President Abdel-Fattah al-Sisi.

Despite a heavy security presence in the capital, small-scale protests erupted in Cairo’s Warraq Island district after Friday prayers and in southern Egypt.

But the crowds were much thinner than the week before, when viral videos by an exiled disgruntled businessman accusing Sisi and the military of deep-seated corruption tapped into simmering discontent at people’s economic woes.

“I doubt the Sisi administration is in any serious trouble, even if the protests show that high levels of repression have not been sufficient to deter open dissent,” Yezid Sayigh, a senior fellow at the Carnegie Middle East Center in Beirut, said.

Yet he cautioned that current uncertainty was riddled with challenges for Sisi. “The real problem for the administration ... is that it has emptied the political arena so completely of interlocutors [such as political parties or business groups] that it lacks social allies outside the state apparatus,” he told AFP.

“This makes it brittle. Its dependence on repression will produce diminishing returns over time, as Egypt’s social problems worsen,” he added.

Following the first wave of protests on Sept. 20, Sisi, who has already overseen a crackdown since the start of his rule in 2013, moved quickly to quash dissent.

Around 2,000 people were rounded up in just seven days.

“The unprecedented wave of arrests of activists, intellectuals, and also ordinary protesters ... made a lot of people rethink what might happen to them if they did participate,” said Youssef El-Chazli, a fellow at Brandeis University’s Crown Center for Middle East Studies.

Calls for a “million march” Friday from the businessman and actor Mohamed Aly failed to materialize on the ground.

Egyptian social media - an active virtual turf war between Sisi detractors and supporters, has gone back to focusing on football and other mundane topics.

Cairo’s Tahrir Square, the flashpoint of the 2011 revolution, has returned to its ordinary, hectic pace with traffic milling around.

But a police presence is visible throughout the capital.

As the crackdown continued, AFP journalists Friday saw police stopping and frisking citizens randomly, detaining some, searching phones and impounding vehicles.

The state has learned since 2011 that any group or protest can pose a threat and should be monitored, Chazli said. “Obviously, this doesn’t bode necessarily well for the future of democratic development and protection of civil and political rights in the country.”

In another show of force, pro-Sisi supporters were out in large numbers Friday.

Returning from the U.N. General Assembly in New York, Sisi greeted a crowd of enthusiastic supporters at Cairo’s airport telling them there was “no reason for concern.”

In eastern Cairo, more than 1,000 people were bused to a stage where a concert took place in support of Sisi, waving flags and carrying placards with nationalistic slogans near the tomb of the former President Anwar Sadat.

The site was pointedly just meters from the site of the largest massacre in modern Egyptian history at Rabaa Mosque in 2013 when Egyptian troops killed around 800 Muslim Brotherhood supporters in a single day.

“The post-2013 regime has been, since its inception, very reliant on ‘popular legitimacy’ and scenes of chanting and dancing crowds,” Chazli said. “It was important to have people in the street supporting the president, in bigger numbers than those protesting him.”

In state media such as the Al-Ahram newspaper Sunday, the message was about the government’s complete control, with one article featuring the headline, “Stability encourages investment.”

Across the dailies, plenty of ink was dedicated to lambasting the outlawed Muslim Brotherhood movement of Islamist former President Mohammad Morsi, who was ousted by the military in 2013.

Samir Ragheb, a retired brigadier general and head of the Arab Foundation for Development and Strategic Studies, told AFP the protests “were designed to foment chaos only for a few minutes.”

Authorities had been initially surprised, but they have learned from previous security lapses, when millions went out in 2011 to topple longtime autocrat Hosni Mubarak, he noted.

Ragheb dismissed the idea protests may break out again but highlighted there was a general sense of frustration among Egyptians mostly with the severe government-imposed austerity measures.

“There’s a difference between suffering economically and being angry about it. You can’t just protest outside the law,” he added.

If the most impoverished classes rise up then “no one will be able to stop them, even the military and police,” he said.

Daily life has slowly resumed with the start of the working week Sunday, although police forces were out on the streets in parts of the capital.

But with the continued political clampdown and the economic squeeze, “it’s hard to imagine protests will completely stop, unless maybe for a short while,” Chazli said.

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