Is Egypt on the verge of another revolution or coup?
By Moaz Abdelrahman
An old revolutionary slogan has returned to Egypt: “The people want to bring down the regime!” Hundreds of protestors have taken to the streets in different cities since September 20, demanding that the Egyptian President Abdul Fattah el-Sisi step down.
Earlier this month, Egyptian businessman and contractor Mohammed Ali fled to Spain from where he started to expose a network of corruption within the Egyptian military establishment, as well as Sisi. Sisi’s response to these allegations during the National Youth Conference displayed an unprecedented sense of audacity, as he spoke of his expenditures on the presidential palaces, and compared himself to Kavalali Mehmet Ali Pasha, the founder of modern Egypt in the nineteenth century.
On September 14, Ali called on the people of Egypt to revolt on September 20, assuring them that the military would support their cause. His message was taken seriously by old revolutionaries and activists who had led the January 25, 2011 revolution, and those who were too young at the time to join, but still held some nostalgic memories of unity and the call for freedom.
Motivated by Ali’s videos and reports of protests on September 20, many more protests have emerged in cities throughout the country.
The September 20 protests were remarkable in that there was an absence of military presence, tear gas, and rubber bullets, which had characterized the response to protests since 2013. This is reminiscent of the January 25, 2011, revolution, when most of the people who were arrested that day were simply released by police in other neighborhoods without being interrogated or brought to police stations.
Many have commented that the military’s choice not to intervene in these most recent protests demonstrates that Ali was right. They believe that some factions within the military establishment are trying to utilize these protests to oust Sisi. Though there is some evidence to support such claims, no one can be certain until the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF) makes a statement.
To understand the current situation in Egypt, it is helpful to have a sense of the waves of protests and civil disobedience that have arisen in Egypt since 2013.
After the military coup in July 2013, numerous other protests have taken place, including those against the Protest Law and the expropriation of Tiran and Sanafir islands to Saudi Arabia. The military and police forces have responded with brutal violence, leading to incidents such as the Rabaa Massacre, the largest mass killing in Egypt’s modern history.
The state’s response to these protests was characterized by excessive violence, random arrests, and extrajudicial killings — what Egyptian authorities refer to as the “neutralization” of dissidents. Since 2018, a wave of silence has taken over the country, with voices of dissatisfaction largely relegated to social media outlets. Some assumed that this silence demonstrated a newly apolitical Egypt and the perpetuation of Sisi’s regime.
People in Egypt have been living under “kakistocracy,” or a political regime led by the least qualified in a state, for six years. Sisi’s leadership and over-reliance on foreign and domestic loans have caused Egypt’s debt to grow rapidly. To respond to this growing crisis, he chose to massively cut spending on social services.
Sisi maintained his position of power with iron fist policies and the elimination of rivals within the military establishment. He utilized large-scale arrests to silence over 60,000 political prisoners in the country. By the time Ali promised the Egyptian people that they would have support in a revolution against Sisi, they were eager for a change in leadership.
The important question here is: what will happen next? There are several possible scenarios. On one hand, it is possible that these protests represent a push for a popular revolution. On the other hand, it is possible that these demonstrations are supported by the military and serve as a precursor to a military coup. If this is the case, then there are many subsequent possibilities.
If the protests are a kind of military coup planned by some factions within the army, it can lead to unintended consequences and backfire, as some people are asking for a full-scale revolution against the military establishment. Even so, these factions could use the momentum arising from the protests to push for reform, call for the release of political prisoners, and demand early elections. In this case, the military could maintain its hegemony over the state without facing a deep sense of resentment from the people. The other possibility is this coup aims only to eliminate Sisi, due to his family’s involvement in military affairs: Sisi has dismissed his rivals within the military establishment, and his son works in the General Intelligence Service and oversees national security.
But right now, people in the streets are not focused on what will happen next. Even though they chant the old slogans of January 25 Revolution, their main aim is the removal of Sisi and the release of political prisoners. This wave of protests, even though small in scale, demonstrates how afraid Egyptians have become of confronting the military. Yet the number of protests also demonstrates that many are overcoming this wall of fear and are willing to risk their freedom to remove Sisi from power. People have already protested two Fridays in a row, in the face of teargas, beatings, and mass arrests.
Sisi’s comments during the National Youth Conference represented the darkest hour of Egypt’s night. It showcased his disinterest in the well-being of the Egyptian people. His arrogance contradicted comments he made in the past, calling upon the masses and speaking out against the country’s former rulers. This darkest hour is the one before dawn. Whether this day will dawn on a spring day of freedom or a cold winter of repression remains to be seen.
Moaz Abdelrahman holds a BA in International Relations (high honors) from Istanbul Bilgi University. He was a political activist and a co-founder of the Students' Coalition Against the Coup in Suez, Egypt in 2013, before he had to flee Egypt in 2014 due to political repression.