Egypt awaits: Will Friday see a million Egyptians march against Sisi?

Egypt awaits: Will Friday see a million Egyptians march against Sisi?
In-depth: Egyptian contractor Mohammed Ali has exposed huge government waste and corruption angering Egyptians. This week he has called for a 'million man march' against President Sisi.
8 min read
26 September, 2019
Marches against Sisi's rule are expected on Friday [Getty]
In the weeks leading up to 2011 Revolution in Egypt, Fridays – the first day of the weekend in most Arab countries – became a critical milestone in the week that shaped events to come.

Fridays were the day Egyptians took to the streets and voiced their anger at the government and hopes for a democratic, post-Hosni Mubarak future.

Activists mobilised hundreds of thousands of people through social media friendly names for the Friday events – "Day of Anger", "Day of Love", and "Day of Departure".

The protests continued through Egypt's fleeting year of democracy, before President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi – then defence minister – put them to an end with a coup.

Months later, a bloody crackdown on pro-democracy, Muslim Brotherhood protest camps at Rabaa and Nahda in Cairo ended Egypt's "Days of Love"… that was until now.


Last Friday, rare anti-government protests erupted in Cairo after a crunch derby march between two of the Egypt's biggest teams – Zamalak and Al-Ahly – whose ultras played a key role in the 2011 revolution. Other acts of defiance spreading across the country with demonstrations against the regime held in Alexandria.

The Egyptians who took to the streets were in part inspired by the daily videos of exiled contractor-turned-actor Mohamed Ali, a businessman who worked on huge government projects before going rogue.

His short films, shared on his Facebook page, highlighted titanic cases of alleged government corruption and waste. The effect was triggered anger in many of Egyptians who have grown weary of austerity, dropping living standards, and with no outlet to vent their frustrations due to government repression.

This week, Ali called for a million man march in Cairo. Although a few expect that number of Egyptians to take to the streets, the regime is evidently alarmed by the prospect of further unrest sweeping the country.

Now self-exiled in Spain, Ali has continued to expose examples of government ineptitude, which he said goes right to the top with President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi himself.

Revelations of Sisi's vast palace building programme comes amid tough economic times for Egypt.

Sisi appeared to confirm the allegations by publicly defending the construction of new palaces, saying they were "for the nation" and not for his pleasure alone. Few believe that anyone but Sisi will enjoy these luxuries.


"Palacegate" has struck at the heart of what many Egyptians feel is wrong with the country and Sisi's response to the rumours was a remarkable achievement for Ali given that the president is above scrutiny in Egypt.

"It is not the issue of corruption that matters as much as the revelations of excess and lavish spending on a luxury lifestyle for the president that has been revealed," Dalia Fahmy, Associate Professor of Political Science at Long Island University and Senior Fellow at the Center for Global Policy Change, told The New Arab.

"It comes at a time of extreme austerity, when President Sisi has been asking Egyptians to make sacrifices. The revelation that he is living in luxury and building palaces at their expense is the critical issue."

The World Bank believes that 60% of Egyptians either live in poverty or are close to the poverty line

The World Bank believes that 60 percent of Egyptians either live in poverty or are close to the poverty line, Fahmy said.

Financial mismanagement has seen government debt skyrocket. Economic growth is returning, but civilians are not seeing any of the benefits with inflation and subsidy cuts hitting living standards, and it is not just the poor who are affected.

"The cost of basic goods in Egypt has virtually eliminated the middle class," Fahmy added. "Yet videos depict a leader living a lavish lifestyle at the expense of the people. That is what is critical here."

Since coming to power, Sisi has consolidated power around himself, choking any voices of dissent

Sisi's early appeal, for some Egyptians at least, was his self-portrayal as an apolitical, rather bland, general who wanted to stamp out instability and put the country back on the path of economic growth.

The myth that a technocratic military authority could be more efficient that a civilian government has quickly vanished under Sisi's rule with many Egyptians seeing the former general as the root of the problem.

An IMF loan has forced Egypt to accept a punishing austerity programme, while the handover of Tiran and Sanafir islands highlighted Egypt's now subservient position to Saudi Arabia, with Sisi himself having allegedly received political and financial support from Riyadh and Abu Dhabi before the 2013 coup.

Sisi has also not made a breakthrough in negotiations with Addis Ababa on Ethiopia's construction of the Renaissance Dam, which Cairo says will dramatically reduce Egypt's share of the River Nile's waters. Meanwhile, large parts of Egypt remain unstable, with Islamic State group-linked militants continuing their attacks in the Sinai.

Egypt has returned to pre-revolution days of political prisoners, torture and mass surveillance, a level of repression that is said to have exceeded the intensity experienced during the Mubarak-era.

Fear is one of the few things preventing the country from erupting into full-scale revolt against Sisi, Fahmy said.

"Since coming to power, Sisi has consolidated power around himself, choking any voices of dissent. He has eliminated political parties… independent media but moreover has arrested many activists. The 2011-era 'Generation Protest' now known as 'Generation Jail' according to Amnesty International," Fahmy added.

"Sisi has [detained] 60,000 political prisoners, there have been mass arrests, forced disappearances, extra-judicial killings. Sisi has created such a culture of fear. The average Egyptian cannot risk the high cost of attending a protest."

Sisi has created such a culture of fear. The average Egyptian cannot risk the high cost of attending a protest

Mass arrests

Reports this week of a "shootout" between the police and "militants" led to the deaths of six alleged members of the Muslim Brotherhood.

This incident led many to believe that Cairo is ramping up a campaign of extra-judicial killings against government opponents, framing their murder as being the result of clashes with security services.

At least 1,400 Egyptians have been detained over the past week in connection to the protests, including the Constitution Party's former president Khalid Daoud and members of the Istiqlal Party.

This indicates that the regime believes last weekend's protest have nationwide implications rather than being an isolated event.

Read also: Mohamed Ali – The businessman-turned-actor who called for Egypt protests

Fahmy said that what happens next in Egypt hinges on Friday.

"It depends on how the regime responds on Friday," Fahmy said. "To a certain extent the fear barrier has been broken and Egyptians came into the [Tahrir] square last week… Mohamed Ali has called on Egyptians to return to the streets this Friday. If they heed his call, it will be critical to watch how the state responds."

The regime has managed to effectively dismantle the powerful Muslim Brotherhood movement inside Egypt and stifle the country's activist movement. Yet a series of missteps – some already outlined – are costing Sisi dearly with serious implications for his regime.

Sam Hamad, a Scottish-Egyptian independent writer, said that there are signs the regime has overstepped the mark with its stifling level of oppression and arrogant handling of the economy. He draws parallels to the recent protests and events leading up to the 2011 revolution.

"One of the moments I realised that this was potentially serious was when Sisi actually commented on Ali's videos. Sisi doesn’t comment on this stuff, he lets his attack dogs do it, or ignores it, but he actually commented on Ali's claims and called them lies – the ultimate proof, in Egyptian terms, that the allegations are true," Hamad told The New Arab.

"Now in a bizarre, almost re-run of 2011, [activist] Wael Ghonim’s brother has been arrested because Ghonim refused the Egyptian Embassy Washington's request to stop criticising the regime."

Another sign that things are descending out of control for the regime is that the president's son – Mahmoud Sisi – has met with intelligence and business chiefs in a bid to mobilise thousands of Egyptians for rallies supporting Sisi on Friday, according to The New Arab's Arabic language service.

For many in the regime, Ali represents an undefined threat, not seen since the 2013 coup. He has offered specific examples of graft, rather than vague references to corruption. His "insider" status makes his claims of a unique form of corruption in Egypt all the more credible, Hamad said.

These stories of government ineptness and graft such as the president ordering a new palace to be constructed in Alexandria where another already existed and costing around $25 million in public funds, while Egyptians are patronisingly told to tighten their belts for the good of the country, makes for explosive mix with the potential to ignite at any time.

"Egypt is a Praetorian Kleptocracy. This isn't 'normal' corruption that you get in many Third World countries, but is actually a system that thrives and maintains itself through corruption – a genuine kleptocracy led by the military caste," he said.

"That is what Ali is detailing and everyone knows he has no reason to lie. He's not a member of the Ikhwan (Muslim Brotherhood) and he's not someone you might call the 'traditional opposition'. He is a guy who could stay quiet and keep things sweet for himself."

Ali has painted the picture of a regime that feeds itself at the expense of the masses. The "rebuilding" of Egypt is one that will only benefit the generals and its clique.

"He's pointing out that Egypt is actually in the hands of people who are destroying the country to maintain themselves."