Five bullets from a policeman’s gun ended the life of Owais al-Rawi of the village of al-Awamiya in Luxor province in southern Egypt. His father and neighbors rushed to his aid and loaded him into a car to take him to the hospital, but he died on the way. All he wanted was to free his younger brother, who had been detained by police, but other officers chased him down.
For many hours, the police held Rawi’s body to use as a bargaining chip with the villagers for the release of three security personnel who had been abducted during demonstrations in the village on September 20. Rawi isn’t believed to have been among the abductors, but the police suspected that he knew about the abduction plan because on social media he encouraged his followers to protest against the regime.
Neighbors told journalists that Rawi was an ordinary man who would simply go to work and come home, and was awaiting the birth of his third child. He worked at the international hospital in Luxor and was barely able to scrape by.
Millions of Egyptians are in a similar situation. According to the World Bank, more than 60 percent of the country’s 100 million people live below the poverty line. The government says this figure is too high by half, though the government determines the height of the poverty line at will.
The precise statistics are of no interest to the people who are well aware of their situation; after all, they’re the ones bearing the costs of the reforms of President Abdel Fattah al-Sissi – the gas prices that rose sharply after the fuel subsidy was canceled, the soaring cost of getting to work by subway, the cost of medication that skyrocketed even before the coronavirus hit, and the cost of vital private medical services, given the inferior public health services.
On September 20, Egypt was shaken by riots that erupted in rural areas, too, for the first time. This is a historic date for Egypt. Last year on September 20, massive protests erupted in the wake of videos published by businessman and actor Mohammed Ali about corruption in the military and by the president and his family. Huge throngs took to the streets calling for Sissi’s resignation and a purge in the army.
According to Ali, Sissi built himself lavish palaces and mansions in Egypt’s New Administrative Capital being built next to Cairo. Also, military leaders are receiving hefty kickbacks from multimillion-dollar projects, and money that’s supposed to go for public services is being pocketed by the president’s associates. None of this is new for Egyptians, but it’s hard to think of another time under Sissi when this phenomenon had gained such publicity.
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More than 4,000 people, including journalists, lawyers and political activists, were arrested on charges of violating the law on demonstrations, harming national security and membership in a terror group; that is, the Muslim Brotherhood. The regime was shocked by the scope of the protests, which were the biggest since Sissi was elected president in 2014, and top intelligence officials were held to account for mishandling of the demonstrations.
This time, too, the regime says the Muslim Brotherhood is behind the protests, and thus the government has contradicted itself. On the one hand, it claims that it put down the Muslim Brotherhood, and on the other it acknowledges that the movement can still bring crowds onto the streets.
A small fortune for the people
Although the demonstrations this time were much smaller, with some as paltry as dozens of protesters, the participation of rural Egyptians underscored the nature of the new threat.
The reason for the protests this time was a new law enabling people convicted of construction-related offenses to pay fines and avoid having their homes or home additions demolished. Originally, a more draconian law was passed in 2017 stipulating that all illegal construction would be demolished in keeping with the regime’s zero-tolerance policy for illegal building and its plan to move people out of slums and makeshift homes.
But amid public pressure this law was amended to say that a “ransom” ranging from 125 to 5,000 Egyptian pounds ($318) per square meter could be paid instead – often an unattainable sum.
These regulations aren’t just aimed at tycoons and real estate sharks. They largely hurt low wage earners with large families and migrants from the countryside who moved to cities decades ago and later expanded their homes without a permit.
This law is a continuation of the government’s decision to freeze construction of new private homes for six months, during which the owners must present business plans that conform to the new construction law and obtain approval.
This is ostensibly a revolutionary decision aimed at regulating the construction industry and reclaiming some of the land the state has lost to illegal building. But Egyptians view the plan as just another means of sucking funds from the people and exerting direct control over their property.
This feeling is heightened by parliament’s assessment that the government could collect 300 billion to 500 billion Egyptian pounds ($32 billion) from the fines and building fees alone, and that the government will increase tax revenues because it will have updated information on homeowners and the size of their properties.
Forceful seizure of property is nothing new to Egyptians. It occurred under Gamal Abdel Nasser, who also removed thousands of Egyptians from the Aswan Dam area, falsely promising that they could return when construction of the dam was complete.
And under Sissi, “for security reasons,” thousands of people near the Gaza border were forced out of their homes – which were then razed – and were required to relocate to El-Arish and other Sinai cities. They received very meager compensation. Such moves have harmed the public’s trust in the government – and the public doesn’t believe the president’s promises now.
Sissi makes threats
In an article on the Mada Masr website, Egyptian scholar and journalist Ali al-Rajal outlines the differences between the Mubarak and Sissi eras in this regard. He says the construction violations and the way they were ignored in President Hosni Mubarak’s time were part of the social contract that arose between a government incapable of solving the housing shortage and the public that had no choice but makeshift construction.
It’s true that in Mubarak’s time as well, corruption flourished and major contractors profited handsomely from the lack of regulation, but Sissi’s program that’s being violently implemented isn’t offering solutions. No one knows where the millions of people whose homes have been razed will go and how they’ll make a living. After all, a majority of these structures are in the big cities, and if these people are forced to leave for the countryside, they’ll have no way to support themselves.
Government figures show that only 100,000 homeowners have applied for approval so far, a tiny number far below the government’s expectations. Infuriated by this, on September 27 Sissi gave an angry speech warning that the government would use all means to implement the program. He also threatened the mayors and other officials who must implement the law that “anyone who fails to uphold the guidelines will be gone.”
Stormy responses ensued, so the following day the government released 68 children who had been arrested on suspicion of taking part in the demonstrations. But many others remained in custody.
Later Sissi denounced the protests and harnessed the famed institution for Sunni Islamic scholarship, Al-Azhar, to support the plan. The president’s relations with Al-Azhar are tense due to Sissi’s decision to curb the religious center’s monopoly on issuing religious edicts and undermine the fragile balance between religion and state.
Still, Al-Azhar said in a statement it was “following the destructive movements intending to undermine the public order, undermine our beloved Egypt’s security, spread chaos and disrupt the atmosphere of development and investment.” Similar statements were made by the Arab Spring protesters in 2011.
“Anarchists” and “chaos spreaders” aren’t an Israeli invention, and the size of the demonstrations doesn’t necessarily reflect the scope of the people’s distress, frustration and anger.
The president’s son, Gen. Mahmoud al-Sissi, has been tapped to quash the protests, but he must do it in a way that won’t mar the parliamentary election that’s due to begin this month and last a week into November.
Sissi has been praised by foreign banks, Egypt’s foreign currency reserves have increased in the past year and the pound is more or less stable. But Egypt still needs loans from the International Monetary Fund, foreign direct investment has plummeted to $5 billion, tourism is still frozen and natural gas production from the huge Zohr site isn’t yet funneling cash to the state coffers.
Demonstrations where Sissi’s portrait is burned and he’s called on to resign aren’t a threat to his regime, but they unnerve domestic and foreign investors. In the political sphere, Sissi can rely on the election to give him an obedient parliament that’s no different from the current one, but the legislature’s legitimacy depends on voter turnout.
If in the 2015 election voter turnout was meager to disgraceful, reaching only 10 percent in certain districts, this time the protests could erode parliament’s legitimacy even further.
Sissi, who has been criticized abroad for bullying his rivals, is trying to calm things down. He’s offering compensation to evicted families, and he has ordered clay bricks for state projects despite their inferiority to cement blocks.
He’s doing this because most of the production is in the Giza industrial zone, where stormy demonstrations took place, and according to some Egyptian commentators, Sissi might even put off implementing the construction law that’s inflaming the streets. But this would only be a respite in the government’s campaign to reconquer Egypt.