Egypt’s Puzzling Dilemma: Escalating Challenges and Obstructed Mobilization

When Egypt’s historic revolution erupted in 2011, stunning the world with its magnitude, peacefulness, organization, and solidarity, the popular demands chanted by the Egyptian people were “bread, freedom, and social justice.” These three aspirations, which were echoed by protesters in other Arab Spring countries, are far from fulfilled in today’s Egypt, nine years after this remarkable moment. In fact, it is fair to say that they are much less attainable today than they were under Egypt’s ousted dictator Hosni Mubarak.

Stifling Freedoms and Widening Socioeconomic Gap

Politically, there is an unprecedented degree of the erosion of freedoms in both the political and media landscapes in Egypt. The harsh crackdown and repression against political opposition resulted in the incarceration of tens of thousands of political activists since 2013, including many journalists, bloggers, and activists, in addition to those who were forcibly disappeared or executed. Indeed, such developments signal a severe deterioration in the country’s human rights record. The unprecedented stifling of the media and freedom of expression, as evidenced by the crackdown on many independent outlets and closing their websites, means that most media have been stripped of their independence and autonomy, increasingly becoming monolithic and uniform propaganda machines for the ruling regime. This was illustrated by the infamous “Samsung Scandal” incident when an Egyptian TV anchorwoman read an official 42-word statement uniformly shared by all national media absolving the government of any responsibility for the death of the late president, Mohamed Morsi, followed by the phrase “Sent from a Samsung device”!

The unprecedented stifling of the media and freedom of expression, as evidenced by the crackdown on many independent outlets and closing their websites, means that most media have been stripped of their independence and autonomy.

Economically, Egypt’s external debt tripled over the last few years. There is a significant discrepancy between the prices of goods and commodities and average monthly salaries. The Egyptian currency has been severely devalued following the International Monetary Fund’s newly imposed rules and policies affecting the country. With government corruption, which leads to wasting public resources in the interest of the few at the expense of the many, it becomes clear that the average Egyptian has many serious economic grievances.

Socially, the gap between the haves and have-nots in Egypt has never been wider. While a tiny percentage of Egyptian elites live in lavish, upscale, and gated communities and enjoy equally luxurious summer and winter resorts, most Egyptians are struggling to simply make ends meet. This social gap is also starkly evident between affluent urban areas—which receive the lion’s share of benefits in terms of infrastructure, services, and facilities—and lower income urban neighborhoods and remote and rural areas. The latter suffer the most from the interrelated evils of poverty, illiteracy, and disease and lack basic services and resources.

These mounting hardships and escalating challenges in the economic, political, and social domains have left many Egyptians arguably longing for the days of Mubarak’s era and lamenting his ouster. Yet, there are many serious obstacles impeding any form of grassroots mobilization and active resistance in Egypt at present.

One of the most important obstacles is the regime’s heightened learning curve. When Egyptians revolted in 2011, Mubarak’s regime was taken by surprise. It did not anticipate this massive outbreak of public anger and, in fact, did not even take it seriously, as reflected in the president’s infamous sarcastic comment about the protesters in Tahrir Square, “Let them have fun!” Equally, the government certainly did not anticipate the technological savviness of the young activists who used cyberactivism effectively and productively to network, organize, and mobilize. This created panic on the part of the regime, which used ineffective, or even counterproductive, techniques, such as shutting down the internet for a whole week, which cost the country huge economic losses and even backfired by fueling more street mobilization and protests.

Iron-Fist Policy

Vowing, or more accurately threatening, that “Whatever happened 7 or 8 years ago will never happen again in Egypt,” President Abdel-Fattah el-Sisi made sure that his government and security forces were fully prepared to take preemptive steps to eliminate the possibility of any similar outbreak of public protest. Spreading security forces in strategic locations in key cities, and even occupying the physical space that was once occupied by protesters—especially the symbolic Tahrir Square—with heavily armed officers and armored vehicles, sends a chilling message to anyone who might even think of protesting.

This new iron-fist policy of preventing protest, rather than reacting to it, was most evident when the Egyptian whistleblower, 45-year-old Mohamed Ali—an actor, contractor, and businessman—used his social media platforms from his self-imposed exile in Spain to expose the government’s corruption and to call on Egyptians to go out in the streets and protest. In response to his call, on September 20, 2019, sporadic protests erupted in different parts of Egypt, mostly in impoverished neighborhoods and certain rural areas that suffer from severe economic grievances and have fewer security forces deployed on the street. Although these protests were characterized by some western media outlets as rare and shocking, due to the high degree of repression witnessed in the country, and were therefore considered a positive sign that Egyptians are breaking the barrier of fear, they fell short of the anticipated large-scale protests Ali was calling for.

Most importantly, in anticipation of these protests, the government started a massive high-level security crackdown campaign and launched a huge wave of mass arrests before, during, and after the proposed protest date. Among the over 2,300 people arrested were key political figures, opposition leaders, activists, journalists, and bloggers in addition to average citizens. Furthermore, the security forces even searched people individually on the streets, asking to see their cell phones, in an unprecedented move aimed to halt activism not only on the street but also online.

Interestingly—and sadly—enough, the suffocating political environment is justified by operatives in both the state-controlled media and the security services that dictate content and agenda as an attempt to protect public safety, ensure stability, and enforce public order in the country.

Seeing what happened in September 2019, there was an even higher degree of intimidation and fear among the Egyptian people. This led to a total absence of any form of public protest on the ground, in response to Ali’s new call to launch massive protests on “Police Day” (January 25, 2020), which marks the ninth anniversary of the 2011 revolution.

Interestingly—and sadly—enough, the suffocating political environment is justified by operatives in both the state-controlled media and the security services that dictate content and agenda as an attempt to protect public safety, ensure stability, and enforce public order in the country. Moreover, heightened security and control of state media are used to justify a cult image of President Sisi as a protector and savior of the country and one who has no legitimate opposition. This is helped by the repeated reimposition of the state of emergency and the re-amending of the constitution to grant the president an unlimited term in office.

Who Will Now Mobilize the Street?

One of the dire consequences of this heavily stifled political arena is the absence of public opinion leaders and activists who can effectively mobilize the Egyptian street through protests, online activism, and digital networking, as previously witnessed in the Egyptian revolution of 2011. One of the common misrepresentations of the 2011 revolution was describing it as a “leaderless revolution,” a term that obscures the activism, heroism, bravery, and even martyrdom of some young Egyptians who were behind its success. While it is true that many of them lacked the strategic vision and the political expertise to lead post-Mubarak Egypt in a safe direction, away from the political ambitions of both the Muslim Brotherhood and the military, it is also true that many of them acted as the behind-the-scenes architects of this revolt, both online and offline. Today, many of these young activists are either killed, in jail, in exile, or in despair.

The crackdown on some of these young activists included arresting prominent opposition leaders such as activist and blogger Alaa Abd El Fattah, lawyer and human rights activist Mahienour El-Masry, and leading democracy and human rights activist, journalist, and blogger Esraa Abdel Fattah. This was in addition to arresting high-profile public figures from among the ranks of the military and diplomatic and political circles, such as Major General Sami Anan, former Ambassador Maasoum Marzouk, and Abdel Moneim Abul Fotouh, the former presidential candidate and political party leader, to mention only a few. Such actions leave a huge vacuum when it comes to organizing new grassroots protests.

One of the important factors contributing to the vacuum in leadership, at least from the organizational perspective, is the absence of the Muslim Brotherhood, both socially and politically. Friends and foes alike admit that the only group with a huge public following and the ability to amass over a million people and bring them out to the street was the Brotherhood. With many of its members killed, arrested, or exiled, and with the state-orchestrated media campaigns tarnishing the image of the Brotherhood by calling it an outlawed terrorist organization and stigmatizing its members by branding them as terrorists, traitors, or both, this organizing potential is also lost.

The current vacuum in public mobilization cannot be filled by activists in exile who are not capable of creating the trickle-down effect to the wider segments of society in Egypt. 

The current vacuum in public mobilization cannot be filled by activists in exile who are not capable of creating the trickle-down effect to the wider segments of society in Egypt. Many Egyptians still suffer from the lack of alphabetic—let alone digital—literacy, and some question the seriousness, authenticity, and genuineness of calls for protest when they come from those abroad and safe from facing the dire consequences of a heavily policed country.

This could be one of the reasons behind the limited reaction to the whistleblower Mohamed Ali’s mediated online calls for protest from his exile in Spain, coupled with his lack of political expertise and the fact that he is perceived by many as part of the establishment he is trying to topple. They point to the fact that he worked closely with the military for over 15 years and amassed huge wealth as a result of his business dealings.

Whither the Opposition Movement?

The only way to fill the current vacuum is to create an effective, organized, and well-managed opposition movement, both at home and abroad and across ideological differences and political divides, as the case of Tunisia’s transition to democracy illustrates. However, the absence of even the smallest margin of tolerance for dissent, opposition, and public participation in political life impedes the creation of such movements and efforts, leading to the absence of basic requirements for democracy and civic engagement and creating a chicken-and-egg dilemma that is not likely to be resolved any time soon.

Additionally, the current state of deep polarization and political fragmentation, which is molded and mirrored by state-controlled media, is both a cause and a consequence of the absence of active resistance and effective mobilization, on the ground and on social media. The ultimate result is a completely stifled political and media environment that does not allow for even the smallest margin of freedom to act as a safety valve through which Egyptians could vent their anger and grievances instead of resorting to revolt. This is a strategy that has been effectively utilized by former leaders, such as former Presidents Anwar Sadat and Hosni Mubarak, to prolong their autocratic rule.

The current state of deep polarization and political fragmentation, which is molded and mirrored by state-controlled media, is both a cause and a consequence of the absence of active resistance and effective mobilization.

Although the total absence of the safety valve may eventually lead to a new outburst of public anger in the long run, the form, intensity, and timing of which remain uncertain, it seems to be effectively suppressing any possibility for protest and public mobilization in the short run. Will the tug of war between the current Egyptian regime and its opponents lead to the regime adopting even harsher measures to continue suppressing dissent, at least for the time being? Will Egyptians find other ways to organize and mobilize—aside from the seemingly impossible option of street protest—such as civil disobedience and/or the boycott of basic goods and services? This remains to be seen. Until then, Egypt’s dilemmas and paradoxes are likely to continue—or even to grow and become more entrenched.

Dr. Sahar Khamis is an Associate Professor in the Department of Communication at the University of Maryland, College Park, with an expertise in Arab media. She serves on the Academic Advisory Board of Arab Center Washington DC.