In a move that runs against geopolitical logic, Egyptians woke up early in April to the news that the Egyptian government is willingly giving away land to its “sister” Saudi Arabia. The media maelstrom and street protests that followed was another episode in a string of confrontations over the past months. The government’s lashing out—at protesting doctors, journalists, people angry about police violence or islands arbitrarily given away—reveals the Egyptian state’s deep-seated fear of its own people.
President Abdel Fatah El-Sisi took the decision to hand over the Red Sea islands Tiran and Sanafir without a referendum or consulting parliament, as dictated by the constitution. To add insult to injury, not one official came forward to speak to the people and explain why a piece of the land they fought for in the 1967 war against Israel is being taken away from them. The public later learned that Egypt had consulted Israel. According to then-Israeli defense minister Moshe Yaalon, approval was sought on the condition that Saudi Arabia “fill in the Egyptians’ shoes in the military appendix of the peace agreement,” allowing Israelis freedom of passage in the area.
Not only is the land cheap, but so are the lives of Egyptians. El-Sisi’s nefarious ménage à trois with Saudi Arabia and Israel follows a series of revealing crises that have stripped the state naked of its “roadmap to democracy” theatrics and emphasized that, in the “war on terror,” the state is the one doing the terrorizing.
A deep sense of betrayal over the island deal galvanized thousands to protest on April 15, dubbed “Land Friday,” during which more than one hundred demonstrators were detained by security forces. Meanwhile, state supporters took to the streets to defend the decision; none were arrested for “illegal assembly” or “threatening public peace.”
As activists called for more protests on April 25, government anxiety about popular and organized resistance exploded. Security forces went around Cairo cafes at night, randomly arresting citizens from numerous areas, including ones usually spared government raids like the fashionable Korba district. Protests were broken up as rapidly as they started. Dozens of citizens were put behind already brimming bars, journalists were detained for doing their jobs, and later on lawyers were arrested for defending them.
In the blink of an eye, detainees were prosecuted, tried, and sentenced: 152 protesters were sentenced to between two and five years imprisonment and some received a 100,000 EGP fine. On May 24, the five-year sentence was reversed for forty-seven detainees, yet the punitive fine was not.
Blunt repression by the authorities has been the driving force behind re-ignited tension on Egypt’s streets. Security forces are granted the privilege of conducting forced disappearances, extrajudicial killings, and torture, along with military trials and handing out seemingly arbitrary harsh sentences.
These are not “isolated incidents,” as the government likes to sugarcoat them. A few months ago, a policeman shot dead an auto-rickshaw driver over a fare dispute in Cairo’s El-Darb El-Ahmar district—inciting hundreds of local residents to protest before local police headquarters. In another episode, a policeman shot and killed a tea seller in the city’s suburbs.
In February, the concentration of police violence led thousands of doctors to protest hospital abuses. After two doctors were assaulted in a Cairo hospital for refusing to falsify a policeman’s medical report, along with many other transgressions, the doctors’ syndicate organized the first wave of significant protests since El-Sisi’s ascent to power in 2013.
The shifting shape of opposition, from disjointed activists, to formal organizations like syndicates, brings a different dynamic to the scene. As the possibility of other unions and more citizens expressing discontent grows bigger, the state’s alarm bells sound louder. The torture and killing of Italian scholar Giulio Regeni, who was researching labor unions, brought to light how Egyptian authorities have long fretted over these organizations.
In early May, police forces stormed the journalists’ syndicate for the first time since its establishment seventy-five years ago, and arrested two journalists who had denounced the island giveaway. The interior ministry’s attempts to muffle voices of dissent are, unlike its arrests, not random. A memo, meant for internal circulation, but mistakenly sent to journalists, put forth the ministry’s plan to turn public opinion against the syndicate by sending “carefully selected experts” from police backgrounds on talk shows to discuss the illegality of “sheltering fugitives.” Looking at how media was able to influence popular opinion against president Mohammed Morsi, the pivotal role the written word of the fifth estate plays explains the current government’s treatment of journalists as “fugitives,” adding them to the circle of the nation’s “traitors.”
Despite the obvious risks of protest, outrage against the interior ministry exploded on the stairs of the journalists’ syndicate. An unprecedented step found publications defying the media gag previously ordered over the arrests. Hundreds of journalists called for the resignation of the interior minister, as well as for the freedom of their colleagues in prison. Journalists also demanded that President El-Sisi apologize for breaching the sanctity of their syndicate. None of the demands have been met, and the head of the syndicate was later arrested.
Two years ago, El-Sisi asked his subjects to await a whole other Egypt. Since then, Egypt’s political leadership has been committing one error after another. Yet rapidly turning up the pressure on the people has resulted, perversely, in increasing heat on the government itself. As prices inflate, subsidies drop, and tourism crumbles, people are waking up to the regime’s inability to govern and to provide an adequate economic and social life. The possibility of political activists joining forces with empty stomachs and trampled dignities is a scenario that sends the state into a frenzy. Any mobilization that reminds El-Sisi and his men of January 2011 and its political might—which almost cost the 65-year-old military-backed regime control over the country—scares them further into using oppressive hands.
As people grow hungrier for justice, El-Sisi’s once shining star is beginning to fade.
Aya Nader is an independent journalist based in Egypt, published in Al-Monitor, Open Democracy, and Daily News Egypt, among others. She is an MA candidate in International Relations at the American University in Cairo. Tweets @AyaNaderM.