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The War Next Door: Sisi’s Balancing Act on Gaza

Amidst the backdrop of Egypt’s presidential elections, the Egyptian government is torn between allowing Gaza demonstrations and its own insecurities regarding allowing demonstrations.

A few years ago I was walking down Tahrir Square and noticed the newly built concrete benches installed in front of the former government bureaucracy building of El Mogamaa. These benches were part of the government’s renovation of the square, attempting to entirely remove any remnants of the uprising of January 2011. I sat on one of the benches there to take a phone call. Seconds later, a security guard ran toward me and said it was forbidden to sit on any of the benches. After years of living under a strict security-focused regime, I knew that any reasoning with an Egyptian security officer was futile, so I stood up and left without protest.

I’ve heard the same thing happen to others and we all asked ourselves the same question: Why? What could be the reason behind such diktat that prevents people from sitting on benches, the very reason for their creation? There are two theories. First, the government fears that the public will somehow damage the new benches, an argument for which there is a significant precedent. For example, the government imposed an entry ticket to access a newly renovated walkway along the Nile, after people reportedly damaged property there. The second theory is that the security-anxious government is afraid of any assembly in the square that once witnessed an uprising that toppled the long-serving president Hosni Mubarak. I tend to subscribe to the second theory.

Ever since the current regime came to power in 2013, it worked on limiting any popular assembly, out of fear it would turn into an anti-regime protest

Ever since the current regime came to power in 2013, it worked on limiting any popular assembly, out of fear it would turn into an anti-regime protest. For example, since soccer is by far the most popular sport, attendance in stadiums is now strictly controlled via a company that seeks the security establishment’s approval in issuing an identification card—called “fan ID”—to every person who wants to enter the stadium. Prices of match tickets also witnessed a hike, in order to make them less affordable to the general public. This extra layer of security screening and the increase in match ticket prices fundamentally changed the profile of spectators: before, the stadium was for the masses; today, it is for a hand-selected few. 

This anxiety over assemblies is now being tested after Israel’s war on Gaza. Egyptians sympathize with Palestinians, and the Egyptian government was torn between opening up an avenue for the public to vent off anger and public support for the Palestinian cause, and its tangible fear that anti-Israel protests may transform into anti-regime ones. This had happened before: a supposedly controlled political rally in favor of President Abdel Fattah El-Sisi in Marsah Matrouh, a resort town on the Mediterranean coast, took on an anti-regime tone in early October. Protesters were heard chanting anti-government slogans, and at least one election banner bearing the face of the president was pulled down.

As victims of Israel’s war on Gaza began to flash on TV screens, the government felt it needed to give space for the public to vent their anger, but also to support the president’s firm stance against relocating Gazans to the Sinai. State-controlled media called on people to congregate in certain locations on October 20, to show support both for Gaza and the president. However, at least one of the demonstrations strayed from this state-approved scenario, as it made its way to the iconic Tahrir Square, after starting at Al Azhar Mosque. Videos of the demonstrations showed police trying, to no avail, to prevent people from reaching Tahrir Square. It was the first time demonstrations had reached the iconic square in 10 years. Popular pro-Palestine chants were heard, as well as slogans against the government’s attempt to frame the demonstrations as a backing of the mandate for the president’s Gaza policy. “What mandate? Palestine is more important,” demonstrators chanted, in one of the protests that steered away from the pre-planned government arrangement.

Reaching Tahrir Square was a red line that the demonstrators crossed. They were pushed back by police to nearby streets and tens of protestors were arrested. In addition, there were reports of arrests following demonstrations outside Cairo, which could mean that some of these demonstrations may have turned anti-regime as well. 

With the war on Gaza ongoing, the Egyptian state had to carefully show that again, Egypt was indeed supporting Gaza. This time, however, previous “mistakes” were not repeated. A fully controlled rally was organized on November 23, within the confines of Cairo International Stadium. Pro-government parties bussed in thousands to listen to the president give his speech on Gaza, and reiterate once again that the deportation of Gazans to Egypt is a non-negotiable red line. President Sisi’s motorcade was filmed passing through an array of trucks on their way to deliver aid to Gaza. This politicization of aid drew heavy criticism from people on social media. 

The economic crisis resulted in insurmountable anger toward the regime, anger that cannot find any venue to be expressed

The Egyptian regime is extremely antagonistic toward congregations even if they are not political in nature, such as at soccer games. It is fully cognizant of its growing unpopularity, because of its ongoing economic crisis, of a magnitude not witnessed in decades. Last August, inflation hit a record high of 40 percent, food and beverage prices alone increased by a whopping 71.9 percent, compared to the same month last year. In 2019, the World Bank estimated that 60 percent of Egyptians lived near or below the poverty line. Experts today predict that many have already fallen into poverty because of soaring inflation, and a currency that was among the worst performing in 2023. The economic crisis resulted in insurmountable anger toward the regime, anger that cannot find any venue to be expressed. As such, the regime is on high alert for any chance the population gets to congregate.

The regime is behaving quite differently than the previous one. Indeed, former president Hosni Mubarak allowed pro-Palestine demonstrations on university campuses and elsewhere. Unlike the current president, the former president did not have the burden of such an economic crisis; in addition, he was quite confident in his rule (that is, of course, before 2011). When referring to his opponents, whom he had given marginal freedom to operate, Mubarak had confidently said “let them entertain themselves.” Sisi, on the other hand, does not have the same luxury—he undoubtedly learned from the lessons of his predecessor. 

As Sisi is expected to comfortably win the presidential elections currently taking place in the country, his regime is walking on thin ice. The worsening economic crisis, the ongoing war on Gaza, and the population’s growing frustration and anger are not expected to subside anytime soon. The events of October 20 have demonstrated to his regime how easily an uncontrolled demonstration can turn anti-regime. How long will the regime keep the lid on top of the pressure cooker is yet to be seen.

The Big Pharaoh is a blogger who writes on Egypt and the Middle East.


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