Egypt Pulse

Sisi critics, supporters face off online

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Article Summary
Tensions are running high in Egypt after the government raised prices of fuel and cooking gas — and as the June 30 anniversary approaches, the authorities are taking no chances and have deployed added security.

The fifth anniversary of the June 30 Revolution, as the day is referred to by Egypt's pro-government mainstream media, is drawing near. In Egypt's polarized society, the anniversary is perceived differently depending on whose side you’re on.

In recent years, June 30 has been recalled with bitterness by the Islamists, tens of thousands of whom languish behind bars today. It has also been celebrated with much fanfare among supporters of Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi. To opposition activists and supporters of the Muslim Brotherhood, the now-banned Islamist group of former President Mohammed Morsi, the day marking the start of mass protests that led to the removal of Egypt's first democratically elected president in July 2013 commemorates a military coup that derailed the democratic transition process in Egypt.

While society remains deeply polarized, the mood in Cairo is tense, even tetchy, as Egyptians prepare to mark the anniversary of Morsi's ouster. In recent days, public anger has been fueled by steep rises in the prices of fuel and cooking gas, the third such hikes since the flotation of the Egyptian pound in November 2016. The latest price increases (of up to 50% for gasoline and more than 60% for gas canisters) are part of austerity measures that the government hopes will reduce public debt and resuscitate the ailing economy. The reform measures — a requirement for Egypt to obtain a $12 billion loan from the International Monetary Fund — are piling pressure on poor Egyptians who struggle to cope with high unemployment and double-digit inflation.

Seemingly worried about a fresh wave of protests like that provoked by the recent rise in metro fares, the government announced the latest price increases as Egyptians were celebrating Eid Al-Fitr, the holiday marking the end of the Muslim fasting month of Ramadan. The news cast a pall over the Eid celebrations, dampening the holiday mood and sparking an outcry on social media.

Using the Arabic hashtag for #Sisi_Leave, opposition activists defiantly listed a host of reasons they believe Sisi, who was recently re-elected for a second term, should step down. The hashtag has been trending with activists posting pictures of the Jan. 25, 2011, mass uprising that forced former President Hosni Mubarak to step down. Below the pictures are captions that read “We will do it again,” “Yes we can” and “The end is near.” Some activists cited June 30 as a prospective date for “the next uprising.”

“Dictatorship = No accountability = Lies to stay in power = Crackdown on freedom of expression = etc. #Sisi_Leave,” tweeted actor Khaled Abul Naga.

“For the sake of a democratic Egypt, a nation that respects justice and equality #Sisi_Leave!” tweeted human rights lawyer Gamal Eid.

Eid is among a group of human rights defenders and civil society actors that has borne the brunt of an ongoing government crackdown on nongovernmental organizations (NGOs). The founder and chairman of the Arab Network for Human Rights Information, a Cairo-based rights watchdog, Eid has been banned from traveling and has had his assets and those of his organization frozen after being charged in the notorious 2011 NGO case, reopened by the government in March 2016. He and 16 other defendants face accusations of receiving illegal foreign funds for their organizations.

The hashtag is also being used to draw attention to the plight of political detainees, many of whom are allegedly unjustly jailed on trumped-up charges and others allegedly forcibly disappeared by the regime. A September 2017 report on torture in Egyptian prisons released by Human Rights Watch claims that since 2013, “Egyptian authorities have arrested or charged probably at least 60,000 people, forcibly disappeared hundreds for months at a time, handed down preliminary death sentences.”

The activists are also widely sharing a quote from Sisi from May, telling Egyptians he would step down if that was the will of the people. Sisi made the comment after the hikes in metro fares angered the public. Reminding him of his promise, the activists are urging him to follow through on his words and step down.

Some, however, are urging caution. "Before taking to the streets to demand that Sisi step down — a legitimate right of the people — we must first agree on how to manage a new transition and put in place a system that would ensure a peaceful handover of power, or else we would be repeating the same mistakes that have brought us where we are today,” Hassan Nafaa, a professor of economics at Cairo University and an outspoken government critic, warned via Twitter.

The hashtag provoked vicious attacks on Nafaa and other critics from pro-government trolls who accused them of being “foreign agents” and “traitors.” The trolls are using a counter hashtag, #Sisi_Is_My_President_And_I_Am_Proud, which in recent days has flashed periodically on the screens of some of the pro-government TV channels in a reminder to viewers to express their support and solidarity with Sisi.

A lot has happened since the summer of 2013, when Tamarod, a social movement that was later reported to have been backed by security agencies, gathered “millions” of signatures for a petition demanding Morsi's removal from power.

The most striking change, perhaps, has been the drop in Sisi's popularity. A short five years ago, the then-defense minister was perceived by an overwhelming majority of Egyptians as a “savior against what they identified as an existential threat from the Muslim Brotherhood,” reported H.A. Hellyer, a senior nonresident fellow at the Atlantic Council in Washington, in an article published by the news site Vox in November 2016.

Today, there is evident increasing discontent over the rising prices of basic commodities, transportation and public services, police impunity and what Amnesty International has called “an existential threat” facing civil society. Unable to take to the streets to express their grievances because of a controversial 2013 protest law banning demonstrations without prior permission from the authorities, the opposition activists can only vent their anger and frustration on social media networks, the last remaining platform for free expression and debate in the country. But that, too, may no longer be possible.

A new cybercrime law approved June 5 by the parliament “gives investigative authorities the right to order the censorship of websites whenever a site hosts content that poses a threat to national security or … the national economy. The law also creates a stronger legal basis from which authorities can pursue voices of dissent or political criticism," reported Ifex, a global platform that promotes freedom of expression.

Amid the first rumblings of revolt, the government is taking no chances and has beefed up security in the streets and in petrol stations across the country ahead of the June 30 anniversary. The authorities' heavy-handed tactics against dissenters (such as the recent arbitrary arrests and detentions of several prominent opposition figures like Hazem Abdel-Azim and Shady Ghazaly Harb on charges of spreading false news and belonging to an outlawed group) have succeeded in intimidating even the most brazen of critics into silence.

Sisi has vowed there will be no repeat of the events of 2011. He has also warned against any criticism of the police or military, saying that such criticism would be tantamount to “high treason.” Many of those who protested the hikes in metro fares some weeks ago have been arrested and remain behind bars to this day.

Mustafa el-Sayed, a professor of political science at Cairo University, wrote in an op-ed published June 24 in the privately owned Al Shorouk newspaper, “The Egyptians are a patient people. Despite the rising discontent over the recent increases in prices of fuel, electricity, water and public transport, they have so far restrained their anger in the hope that at the end of this period of belt tightening, they will be rewarded with a prosperous economy, greater job opportunities, a better standard of living and improved public services. If that does not happen and they do not reap the benefits of the reforms, the people will likely stage a silent revolution: They will refrain from working, accept bribes or earn their living through illegal means. We may also see small outbursts of anger with scattered rallies here and there. If the anger is not addressed, the silent revolution may ultimately evolve into a full-scale rebellion. The question now is how long will it be before the patience of Egyptians runs out?"

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Found in: Social Media

Shahira Amin is an award-winning journalist based in Cairo. Former deputy head of state-run Nile TV, she quit her job at the height of the Jan. 25, 2011, uprising to protest censorship of her work. She has since worked as a freelance writer for Index on Censorship, Freemuse, CNN and other news websites, and as a filmmaker producing documentaries for UN agencies. She has been writing for Al-Monitor since January 2016.

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