A year after Egypt's 'Palacegate' protests, resentment lives on as the bulldozers move in

A year after Egypt's 'Palacegate' protests, resentment lives on as the bulldozers move in
Comment: A year after the 'Palacegate' protests that saw so many incarcerated, Egypt's streets are a grim mix of apathy, fear and resentment towards the regime, writes Sam Hamad.
6 min read
18 Sep, 2020
Backlash against the demolitions has coincided with the first anniversary of 'Palacegate' protests [Getty]
It has been heartening to see the hashtag "We Don't Want You", referring to Egyptian president Abdel Fattah el-Sisi, trending recently on Egypt's twittersphere. 

The dictator had threatened to resign following growing backlash against his regime's vindictive destruction of slums, or "illegal buildings".

The tyrant also threatened to deploy the armed forces "in every village" to stop the ongoing phenomenon of homeless Egyptians building shelter in any available space.

Characteristic of a paranoid regime that deems a critical tweeter to be akin to a suicide bomber, Sisi then equated this practice, especially in the farmland that keeps the kleptocracy ticking over, to terrorism. He even claimed it posed a threat to the national security of Egypt similar to the potentially deleterious effects of Ethiopia's Grand Renaissance Dam on the Egyptian portion of the Nile. 

In a live address to the nation from Alexandria, a visibly enraged Sisi warned "I have enough engineering machinery to obliterate and remove [the illegal buildings] and if people don't like that, then they can have a referendum… and I just leave."

Read more: 
Egyptian security forces detain hundreds during anti-corruption 'Palacegate' protests

Of course, the threat wasn't real - in reality Sisi has accrued more power than any Egyptian leader in modern history and isn't about to give it up, but that didn't stop anti-regime Egyptians seizing upon his threat and making it clear on twitter that by leaving he would be doing Egypt a favour. 

The main reason that Egyptians are forced into building slums is because they face unemployment, poverty and stagnating wages, and can't afford to pay rising rents. Many of them are victims of the austerity that Sisi, as per his obligations to the IMF, has imposed on the poorest Egyptians for years.

The people don't have anywhere else to live, and what's more, the regime doesn't care about them or their fate

The people don't have anywhere else to live, and what's more, the regime doesn't care about them or their fate. Sisi might attempt to appeal to Egyptian patriotism with claims that Egypt's agricultural lands are being eroded by the slums, but all he truly cares about is ensuring that his pockets, and those of his kleptocratic cronies remain lined. 

Proclamations of "loving Egypt" are meaningless if you clearly have only the most brutal contempt for the Egyptian people and the quality of their lives.

If Sisi was demolishing the slums with concrete plans to rehouse Egyptians in new and affordable flats, nobody would oppose it. But instead, as ever with Egypt, there is only the destruction. 

Bulldozers began to demolish 'illegal buildings' in the Nile Delta
governorate of Daqahliyah earlier this month [Facebook/Daqahliyah]

As fate would have it, the backlash against the demolitions has coincided with the first anniversary of the 'Palacegate' protests, initiated by Mohamed Ali, a former regime insider now exiled in Spain who documented the extent of the regime's corruption. 

Ali's revelations showed that Sisi, his wife and regime patrons had squandered millions of dollars on building palaces for themselves. A year later, and the tyrant bullishly destroys the austere, makeshift slum housing of hundreds of thousands of Egyptians struggling to survive. 

It's of little surprise then that the "We Don't Want You" hashtag has recently morphed into "Go Down Sept. 20" (September 20 is the date of the first 'Palacegate' protest), with activists calling on people to come out of the streets on Sunday, with slogans such as "break your fear" and "reclaim Egypt for the people", while referring to the regime as "a gang of criminals" that must be overthrown.

This kind of activity proves one thing beyond doubt: 'Sisimania', referring to the zealous outpouring of support for the dictator shortly after his brutal rise to power, is well and truly over. A litany of incidents has broken the spell, so to speak, that Sisi once held over a majority of Egyptians. 

In Egypt, where fear ends, apathy - fuelled by years of social, political and, most vitally, economic stagnation and decay - begins

Perhaps the turning point was the manner in which he gave away Egyptian islands to Saudi Arabia in 2016, something that even loyalist feloul saw, including Ahmad Shafik who was targeted by the regime for protesting against it.   

In addition to this, Sisi has built Egypt into a totalitarian fortress, brutally stifling the media and smothering freedom of speech and thought. Critically, this reign of terror that Sisi pursues ceaselessly encompasses not just the "natural enemies" of his regime, but former loyalists, mild critics and any institution that isn't directly under the control of the state - this includes everything from pro-regime celebrities and social media influencers to Al Azhar.

In the post-Rabaa era, perhaps the culmination of this bubbling resentment was the 'Palacegate' protests, with a new demographic of Egyptians opposing Sisi for the first time. But if that's the case, any idea of a new wave of protests having any meaningful impact is, I fear, sadly incorrect.

The mechanics of the resentment that led to the protests are the main reason why such protests in the current political landscape in Egypt are likely to be insignificant, namely because Egypt is now a totalitarian state.

It was Arendt who observed that apathy is as important a tool to totalitarianism as violence: in Egypt, where fear ends, apathy - fuelled by years of social, political and, most vitally, economic stagnation and decay - begins. 

'Sisimania' is well and truly over

But fear and apathy often come hand in hand. Just last weekend, two more Egyptians died in custody in Tora prison, while in September alone at least six detainees, most of them political prisoners detained without conviction, have been killed. 

The constant violence of the Sisi regime is the main vector of fear and apathy among the people. Though the regime can't get to Mohamed Ali, and while the 'Palacegate' protests were essentially leaderless, the regime has put in place the apparatus to 
monitor social media and legally deem any person who incites protests as a terrorist. 

We saw this with brutal effect during the 'Palacegate' protests, as the regime detained an astonishing 1,300 people in a matter of days, decapitating the incipient protests and deterring others from joining. Sisi has built up savage machinery allowing him to give away islands, punish the poorest with austerity and get away with truly astonishing levels of corruption. This is the entire point of the totalitarian turn. 

All anti-regime Egyptians, despite the prevailing pessimism, harbour hope for a saviour on the horizon, but the regime remains ferociously strong. This is widely believed by even radical Egyptians, including a friend of mine who took part in 25 January, Rabaa and 'Palacegate', but who won't be protesting again any time soon.

"The regime has ensured that the price for revolting is too high and they have weakened the weapons [such as the internet] that we did have." He doesn't see any saviours on the horizon. "The only hope we have left," he concludes,  "is that we're wrong about Egypt being hopeless".

Sam Hamad is an independent Scottish-Egyptian activist and writer.

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