STRATEGIC ASSESSMENT. In Egypt, systemic and massive corruption on a scale difficult to overstate has long been a staple of oppressive governments, from Mubarak to Sisi. Since taking power in 2014 after a military coup, Egyptian president Abdel Fattah al Sisi has consolidated power while extinguishing almost all political and social opposition far beyond anything during the long Mubarak regime. Sisi has equated criticism of himself as treason against the government and arrested or intimidated thousands of journalists and activists to ensure there are no credible alternatives to his rule. The despot’s playbook remains as effective as it is well-worn: all opposition is considered illegitimate. Such opposition is either driven by the Muslim Brotherhood—which Sisi has decreed a terrorist organization—or influenced by meddling foreign entities. Countries like the United States have once again sided with oppressive stability over freedom. U.S. President Trump has reportedly called Sisi ‘my favorite dictator’ but Washington’s affinity for anti-democratic regimes in the Middle East is nothing new.
Corruption allegations claim that Sisi has misappropriated public funds for private use, building presidential palaces, high-end properties, and even a tomb for his deceased mother, while ordinary Egyptians struggle with basic necessities. Risking their lives, hundreds of courageous Egyptians took to the streets to engage in public protests over the weekend. On September 20, in Tahrir Square in Cairo, where hundreds of thousands of protesters once demanded and achieved the ouster of long-time dictator Hosni Mubarak, Egyptians protested the corruption of the country’s current ruler, chanting ‘Sisi must go.’ There were similar protests in Alexandria and Mahalla el-Kubra. Police and security forces responded with tear gas and rubber bullets, and arrested dozens. On September 21, hundreds more protested in Suez. State media ignored the protests and foreign news websites like the British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC) were temporarily blocked to stop the spread of news about the rare protests.
Under Sisi, the Egyptian government has attempted to limit civil society, while the military has waged a largely unsuccessful, draconian counterinsurgency campaign in the Sinai against an affiliate of the so-called Islamic State. Civilian casualties and collateral damage have mounted, while IS Sinai continues to grow in strength. Egyptians are frustrated with the current state of the country more generally and Sisi specifically. The protests are a sign of public defiance largely unheard of under Sisi’s watch. The protests erupted when videos detailing corruption in the military were released by Egyptian actor and businessman Muhammad Ali, who had once done construction contract work for the military before leaving for self-imposed exile in Spain. The videos detail corruption in various military projects to include luxury hotels at a time when the Egyptian economy was struggling under austerity measures that hurt Egypt’s poor communities while protecting its most powerful. Food prices have risen while more Egyptians live in poverty; official statistics show that 33% of Egyptians today live below the poverty line.
From Spain, Ali has called for a massive ‘million-man march’ protest on September 27. It is unclear both how many Egyptians will take to the streets next week and how far the government will go in response. Extreme violence by the Egyptian security forces is not idle speculation; in August 2013, government forces killed hundreds of protesters—the exact number remains unknown—in Cairo’s Rabaa al-Adawiya Square. The government has not used lethal force against the current protests, but this could change if the regime senses there is any momentum behind the protests beyond ‘venting’ or if the demonstrations increase in frequency and size. However the regime reacts, it will likely face little meaningful pressure from the U.S. putting protesters in a potentially dangerous situation (TSC).