The Egyptian government easily silences or dismisses critics but even President Sisi is having a hard time ignoring one wealthy exile sparking protests in Egypt.
Egypt may very well have reached its breaking point.
It’s perfectly true that the videos of the dissident exile Mohammed Ali have served as the primary motivation for the recent eruption of protests across the country calling for the downfall of the Sisi regime.
But Egyptians find themselves squeezed in a vice-like grip – caught between the interrelated dynamic of the endemic corruption of the ruling establishment and the expanding, unprecedented repression of the counterrevolutionary regime of Abdel Fattah el Sisi.
In the wake of the coup, the primary target for repression was the Muslim Brotherhood and general supporters of democracy. The brutal destruction of this diverse social milieu was essentially underlined by the ruthless massacres carried out by the regime at pro-democracy sit-ins at Rabaa and Nadha.
But the repression could not simply end with the destruction of the Muslim Brotherhood and the democratic opposition. The kleptocratic order of Egypt’s elties had come perilously close to coming undone during the revolution that ousted Mubarak.
The natural question that accompanied the brief democratic period in Egypt was exactly why their country had been so devastatingly degraded over 30 years?
Why were Egyptians constantly victimised, whether through the tyrannical restriction of their liberties or through an economic status quo that left most Egyptians in a growing state of precarious stagnation or outright poverty?
Morsi was far from radical on this question, and bearing in mind the ruling elites were working hard to subvert and undermine him and his mandate, Egypt was witnessing progressive changes at the expense of the kleptocrats.
As mentioned before, there was an explosion in ‘new media’ that wasn’t controlled by the state or supporters of the state. Morsi’s gradualist approach saw him attack the kleptocracy in small but significant ways – getting the feloul (members or allies of the Mubarak regime) to pay taxes, or ending the stifling monopoly on land ownership by regime figures and foreign corporations.
Sisi came to power claiming that he would usher in a new era of economic and social prosperity contrasted with the apparent ‘chaos’ of democracy, which, according to his absurd narrative, had led Egypt to the brink of an Iranian-style theocracy.
But the coup was about ensuring not simply a reversal of all of the gains of the January 25 revolution, but in reshaping society to ensure that another revolution could never happen again.
This is why in recent years since the coup you’ve seen Sisi introduce a raft of laws that reach far beyond the devastated pro-Morsi opposition – universities, school curriculums, civil society groups, the media and social media have all been targeted.
In Egypt today, anyone on social media with more than 5000 followers is considered a media outlet and treated like one. If any of these people criticise not even Sisi directly, but simply aspects of life in Egypt, they can and have been arrested and treated like a ‘terrorist organisation’, making them subject to indefinite detention in hellholes like Scorpion prison, or being subject to entirely unfair military trials.
This was also the primary reason why even old feloul figures like Ahmed Shafik and Sami Anan, who were thought to be ‘untouchable’ after the coup, were arrested and threatened when they dared to criticise or campaign against Sisi.
They demonstrate, in fact, a perfect representation of where Egypt finds itself – even old Mubarak-era figures understand that the kleptocracy that Sisi represents is unsustainable. That’s why they had to be silenced.
In combination with all this social repression, which has seen Egypt transition from authoritarianism to a new era of totalitarianism, the kleptocracy has gone from strength-to-strength. Sisi has, in this sense, done his job well – he’s managed to grow the kleptocracy at the expense of Egyptians.
This is hardly covert as the poorest Egyptians have had subsidies on fuel cut and as wages remain crushingly low, the ruling military caste reward themselves by repeatedly increasing their own pensions.
Around 33 percent of Egyptians live in extreme poverty, while 60 percent are either poor or vulnerable, all against the backdrop of a endemically decaying, polluted and ‘slumified’ Cairo and an economy on the verge of bankruptcy.
All the while Sisi, along with his Emirati and Saudi patrons, plans a new capital for the super-rich. As Morsi died under questionable circumstances in prison, Sisi was amending the constitution to expand his term limits and ingrain the existing form of tyranny. The regime treats Egyptians with overt contempt.
Enter Mohamed Ali.
One of the key points about Ali is less about what he says but more about the person who is saying it.
Ali doesn’t belong to what you might call Egypt’s ‘traditional opposition’, namely the Muslim Brotherhood, Nasserists or the liberal activists who played a role in the January 25 revolution.
Ali openly admits that he supported the counterrevolutionary protests that ousted Morsi in the summer of 2013, while he has worked as a high-level military contractor with the Sisi regime.
Ali is essentially an insider – a defected former supporter of Sisi. His videos expose, in detail, the extent of corruption that has occurred under Sisi, including the personal corruption of Sisi’s family.
Ali’s videos have tied everything together – the economic hardship of already poor, over-worked, low-paid Egyptians with the massive attack on the already flimsy liberties of Egyptians of all social classes.
Sisi, in his determination to control all aspects of the lives of Egyptians, including how they think, has overreached – he’s targeted those who used to comprise the spectrum of his support base.
Ali’s videos exposing corruption is hardly surprising to the opponents of Sisi, but the fact that someone of his social background is now vociferously calling for the end of the Sisi era, demonstrates that there has been a definitive shift among popular political consciousness in Egypt.
And Sisi knows it.
Usually Sisi wouldn’t even acknowledge the existence of a critic, but when he took the step of mentioning Ali and denying the accusations in public, you knew that the regime was shook. Its attack dogs have rolled out the old absurd propaganda to discredit Ali as a supporter of the Brotherhood, but this tactic simply won’t work on someone like Ali; hence why his videos have had such a huge impact in the cyber-world and, as we’ve witnessed, the streets.
The regime has reacted to these protests in the same old manner as Mubarak first did in 2011, with hundreds of people arrested. This tactic only fuelled the protests.
It’s far too early to tell if we’re witnessing the final days of Sisi, and it’s impossible to say what the outcome of that would be, but Ali has called for a ‘million man march’ this Friday and if anything close to this occurs, we will be able to better gauge the depth of this movement.
But the genie is out of the bottle.
To see protesters in places like Mansoura, Mahalla, Suez, Alexandria and Cairo rip down the propaganda banners and stomp on the image of Sisi’s face, speaks not just of unbelievable bravery and desperation on the part of the protesters, but in the vulnerability of the regime.
To hear the slogan, essentially illegal now in Egypt, of ash-shab yurid isqat an-nizam (the people demand the fall of the regime), is evidence that a significant number of Egyptians understand that Sisi is the immediate problem.
And that’s a huge problem for Sisi.
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