'Sisi shows no mercy': Nine years on, Egypt awaits the rest of its revolution

'Sisi shows no mercy': Nine years on, Egypt awaits the rest of its revolution
Mohamed Ali, diaspora activism and social media: As Cairo goes into lockdown for the ninth anniversary of its revolution, what are the chances of a follow-up to September's protest spurt?
5 min read
24 January, 2020
Sisi supporters in Tahrir Square on 25 January 2018 [Getty]
Downtown Cairo is put on lockdown every January as the anniversary of the 2011 revolution approaches.

The usually bustling city centre goes silent as the heavy presence of tanks and checkpoints makes itself felt, with people stopped, searched and often arrested arbitrarily. Even those who stay home are still in danger of their apartments being raided.

However, for a short-lived period in September 2019, many of Egypt's cities were set alight with anti-government marches, drawing thousands to relive, albeit on a smaller scale, the jubilant scenes of protest that broke out nine years previously.

The match which set Egypt's grievances aflame once again, culminating in what became known as September's "Palacegate" protests was an unsuspecting figure.

Mohammed Ali, dubbed the "accidental revolutionary", began posting YouTube videos detailing how billions of Egyptian pounds were being squandered on luxury palaces and residences for President Sisi and senior military figures.

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

His message resonated with the Egyptian population, 32.5% of whom live below the poverty line, at mercy to the government’s harsh austerity measures.

Thousands came out onto the streets over the following weeks, chanting "down with Sisi".

As Egyptian analyst and commentator Amr Khalifa remarks, the uprisings were "passionate and small", but nonetheless, "remarkable under such Draconian impediments".

"There were no demands [except for] the removal of Mr. Abdel-Fattah al-Sisi. Such a demand would reverberate in multiple governorates [and] shook the regime to the core," adds Khalifa.

But the Sisi regime is a different beast to that of Mubarak in 2011. Over the previous 8 and a half years, the former general consolidated an unprecedented amount of control over the military and security forces, with more brutal surveillance and repression measures than ever before. The ensuing crackdown was ruthless.

"In 2011, the Mubarak government wasn't able to handle the shock of a sustained protest movement," explains Mohamad Elmasry, Associate Professor of Media and Cultural Studies at the Doha Institute for Graduate Studies.

"The Sisi government is considerably more brutal than the Mubarak government ever was. In particular, the Sisi regime shows no mercy to protesters. Thousands have been killed in the streets and tens of thousands have been arrested, with many of those tortured in prison and given draconian sentences," adds Elmasry.

The Sisi government is considerably more brutal than the Mubarak government ever was. In particular, the Sisi regime shows no mercy to protesters

What is more, previous regimes at least allowed a small but contained bout of protesting to vent their grievances, known as a "safety valve", points out Sahar Khamis, Associate Professor in the Department of Communication at the University of Maryland and an expert on Arab and Muslim media.

"The current Egyptian regime with its total control of both the political and media landscapes, [the] harsh crackdown on opposition, and absolute stifling of all freedoms," has completely shut this down, she adds.

Indeed, swathes of activists, lawyers and journalists were swept up in the mass arrest campaign that has continued until now. Figures such as human rights lawyer Mahinour El-Massry, and activists Alaa and Esraa Abdel-Fattah.

Alaa and Esraa alleged they were tortured in custody after their arrests in October, indicating the authorities were waging a steadily expanding campaign of "terrorising" critics and opponents of the regime, according to Amnesty.

Many of those arrested are subject to a cruel pattern of 15-day sentences being renewed on repeat, for months or even years at a time.

The crackdown touched nearly every aspect of civil society in Egypt. In November, the offices of Mada Masr, perhaps the last remaining independent media outlet in the country, was raided and their journalists detained.

With the level of fear and intimidation at its most palpable level, will Egypt ever be able to finish the revolution it started in 2011? Perhaps.

"There is a great deal of discontent, but Egyptians are also rightfully terrified of being shot or arrested if they go out into the streets to protest," says Elmasry.

"I think another mass uprising is possible, but Egyptians will first need more of an indication that there is a serious split inside the power apparatus, something which might dictate greater leniency on the part of security forces," he adds.

Khamis points out that chants against Sisi were voiced in recent uprisings in neighbouring countries.

"The amplification of Egyptian opposition voices in exile, including not only activists but also whistleblowers in the diaspora," who have active social media platforms, "are most likely to pave the way for Egypt’s new wave of uprisings", she says.

"Completely closing the safety valve always leads to an explosion," Khamis adds.

And what about Mohammed Ali?

For the meantime he has paused his video campaign from his self-exile in Spain, but says he fears for his life.

He says he has a new plan to topple Sisi, involving bringing opposition groups together, such as the liberals and the Muslim Brotherhood.

Although things are more or less quiet from Ali's end, he still garners respect from observers inside and out of Egypt.

"Mohamed Ali has become a legitimate threat to the regime," says Elmasry. "He is seen by Egypt's exiled opposition as a galvanising figure. He will likely continue to figure prominently in the Egyptian opposition movement."

Any opposition movement, however, is for the time being prevented from organising, making it "difficult to see how these grievances will ferment themselves and in the streets", says Khalifa.

"Anyone who says [they know] how this plays out in the short term or medium term should leave political analysis," he adds. "Political events in a country as unstable as Egypt are as unpredictable as London's weather."

Florence Dixon is a journalist at The New Arab.

Follow her on Twitter @flo_dix