Protests of the Poor in Egypt: Causes and Implications

On September 20th, a series of anti-government demonstrations broke out in a number of Egyptian governorates and villages protesting the social and economic conditions of the country. These demonstrations coincided with the first anniversary of the protests called for by Egyptian contractor and businessman Mohammed Ali in September 2019. Starting in the villages of the Giza governorate, the protests moved on to governorates in Upper Egypt such as Asyut, Sohag, Qena, Minya, Beni Souef, Fayoum, Aswan, and Luxor. Despite the state of severe repression and political crackdown that has mired the country since President Abdel-Fattah el-Sisi came to power, protesters in these provinces nevertheless took to the streets to demand the resignation of Sisi.

Despite the state of severe repression and political crackdown, protesters in these provinces nevertheless took to the streets to demand the resignation of President Sisi.

Reasons behind the Protests

Why did these protesters take to the streets despite the drastic political crackdown in Egypt? There are several reasons, many of which are related to the desperate social and economic conditions in the country. These have worsened over the past months due to the coronavirus pandemic, which has caused many businesses to halt operations and certain professions to become entirely untenable. For instance, according to a statement1 by the official Egyptian Central Agency for Public Mobilization and Statistics (CAPMAS), by August 2020 nearly 2.5 million people had lost their jobs. The statement underlines that Egypt’s unemployment rate increased from 7.7 to 9.6 percent within the past six months (though some argue that these statistics underestimate the country’s true unemployment rates). The agency also states2 that 26 percent of employed individuals lost their jobs due to the coronavirus; most of them were previously employed in the manufacturing sectors such as the food, textile, agriculture, and construction industries as well as in transportation and retail. COVID-19 has also had disastrous effects on the tourism industry which, in 2018, accounted for about 12 percent of Egypt’s total GDP and brought approximately $12.6 billion in revenue last year. One study estimated3 that losses incurred by the pandemic-struck tourism industry reached about two thirds of the industry’s value. The number of workers in the tourism and aviation sectors affected by the industry’s decline has reached two million. The weight of these major losses has particularly been felt by those residing in the Giza governorate, where most locals depend on tourism as their primary source of income. Therefore, it should not come as a surprise that the protests related to social and economic grievances erupted in many of the villages in Giza.

Social and economic conditions have worsened due to the coronavirus pandemic, which has caused many businesses to halt operations and certain professions to become entirely untenable.

In addition, recent government policies related to raising prices and the decision to demolish unauthorized houses played a significant role in sparking the wave of protests. The government issued a statement allowing authorities to tear down all unlicensed buildings or collect fines from their tenants—a decision that had particularly negative impact on low-income households. Sisi also spoke in a crude manner4 and threatened to deploy the army to demolish citizens’ homes. According to some reports, there were two million homes with building violations built between 2000 and 2017; the government has vowed to demolish them unless their owners make modifications or pay fines.

Unprecedented Poverty

The recent wave of demonstrations occurred in the most impoverished regions and villages in Egypt, indicating a strong relationship between the protests and dire economic conditions. According to data from CAPMAS,5 the national poverty line in Egypt for the year 2017-2018 was 32.5 percent, meaning that about a third of Egyptians—out of a total population of about 100 million—live below the poverty line of 735 Egyptian pounds per month (approximately $47 per person). There are also several governorates where the poverty percentage is very high, such as in Upper Egypt, where it reaches 52 percent in comparison to the northern part of Egypt. For example, the poverty rate in Asyut governorate is 66.7 percent, in Sohag 59.6 percent, Luxor 55.3 percent, Minya 54 percent, and Qena 41 percent. Meanwhile, in the period between 2016 and 2018, the poverty rate increased by 4.7 percent as a result of economic reform policies; Egyptian Minister of Planning Hala Al-Saeed notes that reforms are painful but are needed to “save the economy.” According to official data, among the 1,000 poorest villages in Egypt, there are 250 villages in Sohag, 234 in Asyut, and 310 in Minya; this means that most villages in Upper Egypt suffer from extreme poverty. Therefore, it is not surprising that some of these villages have seen demonstrations to demand an improvement in their economic and living conditions.

Governorates in Upper Egypt have very high poverty rates, reaching 52 percent in comparison to the northern part of Egypt.

The Absence of the Middle Class

The recent protests in Egypt can be described as the uprising of the poor, of those who bear the brunt of inadequate living and economic conditions. It is remarkable that the middle class did not participate in these protests; some of the reasons are related to state repression and fear of a harsh response as well as to the possibility of government retaliation. This is similar to the actions of Egyptian authorities a year ago when thousands of protesters who demanded Sisi’s resignation were arrested. Another contributing factor was the feeling of sorrow and frustration following the failure of the January 2011 revolution, described by some as “the middle-class revolution,” which caused widescale disappointment and crushed the hopes and dreams of many young Egyptians who participated in it.

The recent protests in Egypt can be described as the uprising of the poor, with a remarkable lack of participation among the middle class.

Yet today, the protesters’ demand (with the slogan “Sisi leave!”) did not tempt the middle class to join the outcry. This may be one of the reasons contributing to the failure of the uprising of the poor. The most important goal of the earlier pro-democracy movement was the departure of Sisi; however, despite efforts by the masses—as well as the mobilization of Mohammed Ali and Sisi’s opposition abroad—to consolidate efforts over the past weeks, it failed. Nevertheless, the link between improving social and economic conditions and demanding Sisi’s departure is noteworthy, as evidenced in the slogans of the protesters who took to the streets from Egypt’s villages and hamlets, places that by nature are calm and not easily provoked by Egypt’s political context.

The Regime’s Reaction: Confusion and Repression

It seems that the recent protests took the Egyptian regime by surprise; there was confusion in the early days as the regime stood helpless in front of the crowds—which may have helped to spread the protests rapidly in just a few days. In the beginning, the government did not resort to violence or brute force to disperse the protests, the reasons for which relate to new tactics that seem to have taken the authorities by surprise. For example, the protesters took to the streets at night, spread across several villages simultaneously, hid their faces, and used certain techniques to film and broadcast the protests on social media and send footage to opposition news channels. The government’s initial delay in reinforcing severe security measures to crush the protests might have been due to a fear of provoking a mass reaction. Government authorities were evidently initially deterred by the possibility of the movement’s rapid and uncontrollable expansion, which they feared might lead to a major uprising—one that appeals to both the middle and lower classes.

The regime was taken by surprise and was initially deterred by the possibility of the movement’s rapid and uncontrollable expansion, but increasingly portrayed the protests as part of a foreign-backed conspiracy led by the Muslim Brotherhood.

Therefore, the regime had to launch a media counter-campaign to distort the movement and reduce its significance. At first, pro-government media sources denied the existence of such demonstrations, but once the movement grew and became more intractable, the protests were finally acknowledged, albeit as limited in number and narrow in scope. As they intensified, the government increasingly portrayed them as part of a foreign-backed conspiracy led by the Muslim Brotherhood. It is difficult to believe that the Brotherhood is behind these protests for several reasons, most importantly because the group does not have a large presence among the lower class. Most Brotherhood members belong to the middle class, which did not participate in the protests for the reasons mentioned earlier. The group has also lost a significant portion of its organizational strength due to the government’s crackdown, thus its ability to mobilize the masses has declined. Still, some Brotherhood members may have participated in the demonstrations because of concerns about poor economic and social conditions, like the rest of the protesters.

It must also be mentioned that the regime used brute force to disperse some protests, resulting in the killing of two people. One of them, a young man named Sami Wagdy Bashir, was killed on September 25th in the village of Blida in the Giza governorate and another, Awais al-Rawi, was shot dead in his home by an Egyptian police officer on September 30th. Hundreds of protesters were arrested during the last week of September, including a large number of children, some of whom were released. What is striking about these protests is the absence of media coverage, especially foreign media (with some exceptions).

A Turning Point

This is one of the few times that the lower class has been mobilized in response to grim economic and social conditions.

The protests of the poor represent a turning point in the political scene in Egypt. First, this was the first instance when protests took place in more than one Egyptian governorate, especially in the areas of Upper Egypt that do not usually witness political activity of this kind. In addition, the bold demand for Sisi’s resignation took place under a state of unprecedented securitization and a near-absolute closure of the public domain. Second, this is one of the few times that the lower class has been mobilized in response to grim economic and social conditions. Third, the spread of the protests across poverty-stricken areas in Upper Egypt made it particularly difficult for the government to suppress them by ordinary means. Fourth, the protests saw the active participation of both children and youth, many of whom were too young or unwilling to participate in the January 2011 revolution. This raises questions about the extent to which government policies of repression and intimidation were effective in weakening Egypt’s protest culture. Finally, the recent protests, despite their relatively small size and limited spread, represent an important step toward reclaiming the public sphere from the grip of Egypt’s police state.

Khalil al-Anani is a Senior Fellow at Arab Center Washington DC and an Associate Professor of Political Science at the Doha Institute for Graduate Studies. To learn more about him, click here. This article was first published in Arabic by the Arab Center for Research and Policy Studies in Doha.

1 Source is in Arabic.
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5 Source is in Arabic.