By Afro-Middle East Centre
Protests by Egypt’s main journalist syndicate and Egyptians previously loyal to the military regime point to increasing opposition to President Abdel-Fattah el-Sisi and his regime, and to their inability or unwillingness to scale down their repression of citizens.
The most recent protests were sparked by the police’s storming of the journalist syndicate’s Cairo headquarters and the arrest of journalists Amr Badr and Mahmoud el-Sakka. They were accused of inciting protests against Sisi’s April 2016 decision to hand over the islands of Sanafir and Tiran to Saudi Arabia. The decision was widely criticised by Egypt’s elite and media. Ironically, one of the ‘reasons’ cited for the military coup against former president Mohamed Morsi was the (false) claim that he intended transferring control of North Sinai to the Palestinian resistance group Hamas. Badr and el-Sakka had opposed the unpopular island transfer, which saw thousands protesting and 1 200 arrested. Over 150 protesters were subsequently sentenced to between two- and five-year prison terms for the protests, which violated the November 2013 protest law adopted to quell dissent after Morsi’s ouster. Even former Sisi supporters, including Popular Current Party’s Hamdeen Sabahi, challenged the island decision in court, and it is likely that opposition will increase further if parliament ratifies the handover.
The May protests follow a pattern of increasing dissatisfaction with Sisi’s policies, which have failed to stimulate an economy that contracted in 2015. Inflation currently stands at eleven per cent, and the much- touted eight billion dollar Suez Canal expansion project only marginally increased government revenue, owing to the global economic slowdown and drop in oil prices. Shortages of cooking gas and electricity continue, and the drop in foreign reserves has caused the government to tighten exchange controls, especially since Gulf aid has diminished following the accession to power of King Salman in Saudi Arabia. Further, the military has aggressively increased its already numerous activities in Egypt’s economy, thus competing with private business. Egypt’s elite has been impacted, and Sisi has come under increasing criticism from private media outlets and commentators. His popularity has decreased drastically.
The protests have been endorsed by over 3 000 members of Egypt’s 8 000-member journalist syndicate, including editors of most major private and even state-owned media outlets. Supported by the previously apolitical doctors’ syndicate, which opposes the interior ministry’s treatment of doctors, protesters have demanded the removal of the country’s interior minister, Magdy Abdel Ghaffar. The syndicate has refused to publish the minister’s name until an apology from Sisi is received, and has vowed to escalate actions into a full-blown strike in the coming weeks.
Traditional opposition parties such as the Muslim Brotherhood and activist youth groups such as the April 6 Youth Movement have added their voices, and for the first time since seizing power, Sisi faces a backlash from most major Egyptian constituencies. Prior to the large 15 and 25 April protests, the frequency of and attendance at anti-regime protests had been waning when compared to late 2013; however, the island transfer has galvanised many Egyptians. It seems even some officials in the interior ministry are sympathetic, and memos alluding to methods of regime discourse manipulation and instructions on constraining protests have been leaked. Much of the media had previously supported the regime, and endorsed Sisi’s crackdown on the Brotherhood, enabling him to control public discourse and silence opposition figures.
The regime responded by increasing its crackdown on opposition figures, including journalists, insisting in one leaked memo, that it ‘cannot retreat from this position now; a retreat would mean a mistake was made, and if there was a mistake who is responsible and who is to be held to account?’ Sisi has, in recent months. sought to silence opposition even from the supportive elite, insisting that it threatened the country’s stability. He even implored Egyptians in one speech to listen only to him.
In January 2016, the Al-Nadeem Centre for Rehabilitation of Victims of Violence in Cairo reported ‘195 deaths, 42 cases of torture, including eight people who were tortured to death, 60 cases of medical neglect, 20 cases of group violence by the police, and 66 forced disappearances, while 32 people were reported to have reappeared in various places of detention, in some cases months after they had vanished.’ Authorities subsequently shut down Al-Nadeem in February. It is noteworthy that the sentences issued to recent protesters are less punitive than those issued to people believed to be close to the banned Brotherhood. Six people, including three journalists (two from Al Jazeera) were sentenced to death on 7 May, accused of ‘leaking information to Qatar’.
Although opposition to the regime has increased, the regime remains unthreatened in the short term, especially since many Egyptians are content with the ‘stability’ Sisi’s rule brings. Moreover, the internal opposition is too fragmented, and the regime crackdown too heavy-handed to allow for the formation of a unified and coordinated stance. Moreover, many from within the Egyptian left and secularists are still prejudiced against the role of Islamists, specifically the Brotherhood, in a new dispensation, and are likely to advocate reform rather than revolution. The protests do, however, illustrate that Egyptians’ aspirations and expectations have grown since Mubarak’s overthrow, and that if Sisi’s policies to stimulate the economy continue to fail, Egyptians are unlikely to allow him the same amount of leeway as was afforded Mubarak, especially since the regime no longer operates from behind a liberal veneer.
By Afro-Middle East Centre
The recent handing over of two islands – Tiran and Sanafir – to Saudi Arabia by the Egyptian government emphasises that the Sisi regime remains so in need of external support to buttress its domestic control that it is willing to anger significant sections of the population. The islands’ importance to Israel and the fact that Israel agreed to the handover also point to strengthening cooperation between Tel Aviv, Riyadh and Cairo in an effort to contain Iran’s resurgence.
The announcement about the islands was made as the Saudi king, Salman bin Abdul Aziz, undertook his first official trip to Egypt since acceding to the thrown in January 2015. Other deals signed during his visit included a twenty-two billion dollar agreement for Saudi Arabia to supply Egypt with energy, and the establishment of a sixteen billion dollar joint Saudi-Egyptian investment fund. Recent tensions between the two regional powers had heightened after Egypt’s refusal to commit troops to the Saudi war in Yemen, and because of Egypt’s support for Russia's Syrian intervention. Egypt is also critical about strengthening ties between Riyadh and Ankara, and because of the Kingdom’s support for Yemen’s Muslim Brotherhood Islah party. Tensions had been simmering since Salman became king, however, with his suspicion that Egypt’s military ruler, Abdel Fatah el-Sisi, had plotted against his acceding to the throne.
Riyadh nevertheless views Egypt as an important ally in its attempt to counter growing Iranian influence in the region, and sees its large and well-equipped military as a critical deterrent to Iran’s regional forays. Moreover, Egypt’s Sidi Kerir port and SUMED oil storage terminal can be used by Saudi Arabia to slow down and disrupt Iranian oil exports. Before 2011 Iran had dispatched over 200 000 barrels of oil per day from the port, has used the storage terminal for oil shipped to Europe since diverting shipments through its own Kharg Island port causes a month delay. With this agenda, Salman has reduced his criticism of Egypt – and especially of Sisi – and continued to buttress it. Significantly, however, recent assistance packages to Egypt have been more as loans and investments than aid; only around two billion of the sixty billion in recent deals is aid.
But there is also a third player involved; for the transfer to have occurred Israel’s approval was required in terms of the 1979 Camp David Accords between Israel and Egypt. The two islands essentially block access to the Red Sea from the Gulf of Aqaba, thus blocking access to the critical Israeli port of Eilat. Israel thus regards control of the Tiran Straits and the waters around both islands as critical since much of its maritime trade passes through en route to Eilat. A perception that this access would be disrupted was a major factor informing Israel’s involvement in the 1956 Suez crisis and 1967 six day war. They were twice captured by Israel, which controlled them from 1967 to 1982. Guarantees over waterway access were thus key stipulations in the Camp David agreement. The transfer of the islands means Israeli vessels will now traverse Saudi waters to reach Eilat.
Tel Aviv’s acquiescence and statements by Israeli and Saudi officials indicate that firm guarantees had been provided by Saudi Arabia regarding Israel’s freedom of navigation through the Strait of Tiran. Israel has been informed about the secret negotiations regarding the islands from the beginning, and written guarantees that Riyadh would abide by the terms stipulated at Camp David were given in talks that involved Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Israel and the USA. (Although Israel and Saudi Arabia are officially in a state of war, they have collaborated on a number of issues recently, and Riyadh had informed Israel about then-secretive nuclear negotiations between the USA and Iran.)
For Egypt, transferring the islands to Saudi Arabia has little negative strategic implication. The islands are uninhabited, have few resources, and technically belonged to Saudi Arabia though administered on its behalf by Egypt since 1950, when Saudi Arabia requested Egypt to play this role, believing that Egypt could protect them from Israel. Returning the islands was thus an opportunity to renew Egypt’s relationship with Saudi Arabia, and to continue receiving assistance for Egypt’s stalling economy and Sisi’s power base.
The move has elicited much criticism from Egyptians, especially since Sisi had inserted a stipulation in Article 151 of the 2014 Egyptian Constitution prohibiting territorial transfers. The clause was intended to augment Sisi’s nationalist credentials, and because the army garnered support for its 2013 coup by arguing that the former president, Mohamed Morsi, was ceding parts of Sinai to Hamas, and endangering Egyptian sovereignty through his alliance with Qatar.
Sisi thus argued that the island transfer restores sovereignty to Saudi Arabia, which owns the islands, and was not a ceding of Egyptian territory. But prominent political figures such as Hamdeen Sabahi, Khaled Ali, Ayman Nour and the Muslim Brotherhood criticise this reasoning, and Ali has lodged court papers to halt the deal. Although this sees some fissures in the regime’s support base, it is unlikely to pose a significant threat.