by Joe Stork
The last week of September saw street protests in the Cairo neighborhoods of Warraq and Giza as well as other cities, involving scores and in some cases hundreds of people chanting for the ouster of Egyptian President Abdel-Fattah el-Sisi. Not long ago one would have characterized such brazen street protests—which have been outlawed since 2013—as unprecedented. But there was a precedent: the previous Friday, September 20, many hundreds took to the streets in Suez, Mahalla, Alexandria, and even in Cairo’s iconic Tahrir Square.
This time, though, security forces put Cairo on lockdown. They blocked roads leading to Tahrir Square, and Metro management announced a sudden need for “maintenance” that shut for the day at least four downtown stations. Authorities canceled soccer matches and concerts. At checkpoints along key arteries, police arbitrarily stopped passersby, checking their IDs and mobile phones for critical social media links. As mid-day prayers finished at the Al Fateh mosque in central Cairo (a gathering point for protestors in 2011), dozens of uniformed police along with plainclothes security “with masks and large guns” stood outside to ensure that exiting worshippers continued on their way. Independent media reported similar scenes in Alexandria, Suez, and other cities that a week earlier had witnessed apparently spontaneous mass protests railing against the president.
On the night of the September 20 demonstrations, security forces did not respond immediately to prevent or squelch the protests at the outset, perhaps reflecting confusion in Sisi’s absence—he was on his way to New York for United Nations General Assembly meetings. There were no statements from officials, and no mention in any of Egypt’s largely state-dominated media. On Sunday morning, though, the State Information Service issued a statement that did not mention the protests but said it had “carefully monitored” international media coverage and was “reminding” correspondents to “strictly abide by professional codes of conduct,” and that “social media outlets should not be considered as sources” owing to their “uncontrollable and chaotic nature.” The authorities promptly blocked a number of news sites, including BBC Arabic and the U.S. government-funded Al Hurra channel.
Police reportedly arrested several hundred people during and after the protests. They came out in force the next day, Saturday, to prevent any recurrence (though large protests did erupt again that Saturday in Suez).
During the week that followed, evidently intent on making sure there would be no repeat of the September 20 protests, security forces arrested more than 2,000 people. But as of September 28, fewer than half had been brought before prosecutors as required by law. Some arrests were targeted—among those detained were activist lawyers like Mahienour al-Massry and Mohamed Saleh Agag, well-known political science professors like Hassan Nafaa and Hazem Hosny, and people who were known activists but who had not participated in these protests like Khaled Dawood. Many others were apparently arrested randomly, for being in the vicinity of a protest or having suspect social media links when police inspected their mobile phones at checkpoints.
Egypt’s new general prosecutor, Hamada el-Sawy, said on September 26 that prosecutors had questioned “no more than 1000 people” up to that point, but gave no figure for those arrested. His statement said prosecutors would be conducting investigations in order to “make decisions regarding the defendants, releasing those who put themselves in suspicious situations without intending to break the law and punishing those who committed crimes.” On Sunday, September 29, police arrested prominent opposition activist Alaa Abdel-Fattah. His family said National Security Agency officers took him from the police station cell where he has been spending 12 hours every night as a probation sentence since completing a 5-year prison term in March for participating in street protests.
In addition to rounding up “the usual suspects” and many more, and turning downtown Cairo into an occupied zone, the government apparently sponsored a large pro-Sisi rally near Raba’a al-Adwiya Square in eastern Cairo, the site where in August 2013 security forces massacred nearly a thousand people protesting the military overthrow, led by then-Defense Minister Sisi, of the elected president, Mohamed Morsi. According to the independent Egyptian news site Mada Masr, the government bussed hundreds to the rally in exchange for free meals. Reuters journalist Amina Ismail tweeted photos and videos of dozens of people getting into mini-busses in the Bulaq Abouelela neighborhood for transport to the rally. Organizers gave them each a meal of kabab and rice.
A free meal—and a meal with meat—is no small thing in a country where a third of the country lives below the poverty line, according to a recent official survey, up from 28 percent two years earlier and 17 percent in 2000. The report was released only on July 30, having been delayed six months when “sovereign entities” objected, referring to intelligence and security agencies. According to an advisor to the Central Agency for Public Mobilization and Statistics (CAPMAS), which published the report, the increase was a result of austerity measures imposed by the government as the price for an International Monetary Fund bailout totaling $12 billion. “I keep praying people will go out and protest,” Sabah Fawaz, 58, told the New York Times. Her family, she told the Times, “eat meat barely once a month.”
The protests had been sparked by weeks of sensational videos posted by Mohamed Ali, a self-exiled former construction contractor living in Spain, who repeatedly lambasted Sisi and his entourage for corruption and wasteful spending on presidential palaces and the like, allegations that clearly had resonance among the country’s poor. Sisi met with Spanish Prime Minister Pedro Sanchez on September 24 on the sidelines of the UN General Assembly in New York to discuss “activating the frameworks of joint cooperation at all levels.” Some Egyptians expressed concern that the discussion included Spain’s hosting Mohamed Ali. Ali had said in a September 23 video that Egyptian authorities were trying to follow him, leading him to change his residence constantly.
Amina Ismail, the Reuters reporter, in her September 27 Twitter posts about the government-sponsored pro-Sisi rally, said the people she spoke with on the bus transporting them that they “seemed clueless, they even didn’t know where they were going. Many of them kept asking the organizer and the driver where they were going.”
Indeed, the surprise protests have left many Egyptians wondering where they are going. “There’s definitely wide dissatisfaction, but we don’t know what the alternative is,” journalist and opposition activist Khaled Dawoud told the Times. “I’m not going to support ‘get rid of Sisi’ or ‘get out Sisi’—what am I getting afterward?” Dawoud’s caution, as noted, did not keep him from being arrested on September 25. One 19-year-old protester seemed to capture the moment when he said, “Whatever happens, the train has left the station already. It’s been revealed that people are against Sisi.” Mohamed Zaree, Egypt head of the Cairo Institute for Human Rights Studies, who has been under a travel ban for three and half years for his criticisms of the authorities, noted that “the arrests and heavy security measures have scared people off,” but added that “a barrier was broken last Friday [September 20], and things won’t go back to how they were before then.”
Joe Stork is chair of the advisory board of the Gulf Center for Human Rights and former deputy director of Human Rights Watch’s Middle East division.