Sisi′s falling star

Just days after the Egyptian regime seemed capable of tolerating protests critical of its policies, the authorities clamped down massively on a new wave of demonstrations to hit the country. The security apparatus' ambivalent response to the unrest has raised questions. By Sofian Philip Naceur in Cairo

By Sofian Philip Naceur

Thousands of government opponents took to the streets on 15 April for the first time since a restrictive law on protests was adopted in November 2013. They were demonstrating not only against the transfer of two islands in the Red Sea to Saudi Arabia, but also against President Abdul Fattah Al-Sisi.

Although the security forces broke up most of the nationwide protests within minutes, authorities initially took no action against some 3000 demonstrators staging a protest in front of the headquarters of the journalists' union in downtown Cairo. It was only hours later that police began to disperse the unauthorised demonstration. Tear gas was fired into the crowd and dozens of people were arrested. Even so, the actions of the police were comparatively restrained.

Nipping resistance in the bud

Encouraged by the unanticipated greater freedom, numerous opposition groups, including the April 6 Youth Movement, the Revolutionary Socialists and the Social Democratic Party mobilised for a day of action scheduled for 25 April. This time, however, the regime pursued a plan of preventative repression. The freedoms seen only ten days previously were nowhere to be found. All attempts by demonstrators to initiate protests were nipped in the bud by the police, the secret service and undercover agents.

The Journalists' Union building, one of the demonstration venues announced the previous day, was hermetically sealed even before the protests began. By early morning, the Al-Behoos metro station in Giza was literally teeming with secret service and undercover agents, who examined the mobile telephones and cameras of passers-by and journalists, compelling them to delete any recorded images and to leave the square.

Protesting the sale of two islands to Saudi Arabia in front of the Press Syndicate in Cairo (photo: Getty Images/AFP/Stringer)
Mass protest against Egypt′s controversial deal with Saudi Arabia: according to human rights activists, hundreds of demonstrators were arrested on 25 April. Amnesty International reported that the Egyptian security forces took at least 238 people into custody, including foreigners, activists and journalists. Amnesty described the rigorous police measures as ″brutally efficient″

Within minutes of the demonstrations starting in Bulaq Al-Dakrour and Dokki in Giza, hundreds of activists were forcibly dispersed. Similar action was taken against protests in other parts of the country. Some 1000 people were detained, half of whom were quickly later released.

This time, security forces clearly targeted the press. A total of 43 journalists were taken into custody over the course of the day's events. While six foreign reporters arrested were released the same day, seven Egyptian journalists remained behind bars. The Journalists' Union has since filed a complaint with the state prosecutor against the abuses.

Human rights activists accused of terrorism

Lawyers were also on the receiving end of the hard line taken by the regime. Many were denied entrance to police stations, thus preventing them from defending their clients. Arrest warrants were issued against at least twelve lawyers, including the human rights lawyer Malek Adli. The activist alliance Front of Defence for Egyptian Protesters (FDEP) registered a total of 1277 arrests of Egyptian demonstrators between 15 and 27 April, while state prosecutors initiated preliminary proceedings against 577 individuals. Some of these cases are quite significant.

The charges brought against Ahmed Abdallah, the Head of Board of Trustees of the Egyptian Commission for Rights and Freedom (ECRF), include accusations of instigating violence against the police and government and the dissemination of false information, as well as other charges that could lead to a sentence of between 15 and 25 years imprisonment.

Abdallah has been accused of being a member of a terrorist organisation and of indirectly promoting terrorism via the Internet. The 36-year-old was arrested at home during the wave of preventative arrests and has since then been imprisoned at the police station in Tagammu Al-Khamis.

Demonstrators in front of the Egyptian Embassy demand truth for Guilio Regeni (photo: picture-alliance/dpa/M. Percossi)
Mysterious torture: 28-year-old Giulio Regeni disappeared from Cairo on 25 January. His body was found nine days later. It showed severe signs of torture: his fingernails and toenails had been torn out and his ears cut off. The security forces subsequently killed four members of a gang, which they claimed specialised in the kidnapping of foreigners and was responsible for the student′s death. Italy remains unconvinced by this version of events

The ten charges brought against Abdallah are absurd in the extreme, says Franziska Brantner, German member of parliament for the Greens. The pre-trial detention of Abdallah is an arbitrary measure taken to muzzle the Egyptian opposition.

Questions remain as to why Abdallah has been accused of terrorism. His fiance, Esraa Shalaan, suspects that the charges are an attempt to ruin his reputation. The only evidence presented in the court hearing was a photo showing him in front of the Journalists' Union on 15 April, she says.

The managing director of the ECRF, Mohamed Lotfy, also criticises the proceedings against Abdallah. "The accusations of terrorism brought against Abdallah and other activists are grotesque and unsubstantiated by any evidence," he says.

Lofty sees a link between the arrest and the resolution passed by the EU Parliament in early 2016 demanding that Cairo maintain human rights standards. The resolution, which addressed the case of Giulio Regeni, the Italian postgraduate student tortured to death in Cairo – the source of some displeasure for the Egyptian government – explicitly mentioned the ECRF.

As a result the government in Cairo is not particularly well disposed towards the organisation. Recently, the ECRF has been engaged in cases that have caught considerable international attention. The ECRF has committed itself to fight for the release of Ahmed Said, a doctor sentenced in 2015 to two years imprisonment and represents the Regeni family in Egypt, since Italian authorities only have limited access to the case files. A politically motivated move against the ECRF therefore comes as no surprise.

Al-Sisi pays King Salman a visit in Saudi Arabia (photo: picture-alliance/ZUMA Press)
Signs that Al-Sisi′s influence is waning: activists are currently preoccupied with the idea that the ambivalent strategy of the security forces towards the protests on 15 and 25 April – and that fact that they were tolerated – was an active attempt to undermine al-Sisi′s authority

Fault lines within the regime grow deeper

There are increasing signs that President al-Sisi is facing growing opposition from within his own ranks. Political forces close to the old clique surrounding former President Hosni Mubarak, overthrown in 2011, make no secret of their hostility towards Al-Sisi. Even media outlets allied to the regime have been heavily criticising the leadership of the regime.

In light of this situation, activists are sceptical with respect to recent protests, as no one wants to be instrumentalised in a struggle for power between the various factions critical of al-Sisi within the regime.

Instead, activists are posing the question as to whether the ambivalent stance by the security forces in dealing with the protests on 15 and 25 April stems from upheavals within the regime, or whether certain protests are, in fact, being tolerated in order to damage the authority of al-Sisi. These suppositions should not be dismissed out of hand, but they still remain mere speculation.

"I do not believe that factions within the regime are attempting to overthrow al-Sisi. Although they have different interests, no-one in the regime, in the final analysis, wants to pave the way for a new uprising," claims a leading member of the April 6 Youth Movement, who prefers to remain anonymous. One thing, however, is clear. Al-Sisi's star has begun to fall. It remains open to question as to whether a majority within the regime can find – whether sooner or later – a less polarising figure to replace him with.

Sofian Philip Naceur

© 2016

Translated from the German by John Bergeron