One of the things that got lost in my week of light blogging was that, on Sunday, Egyptians marked the fourth anniversary of the start of the Tahrir Square protests (I realize how misleading that is, since there were protests all over the country) that ultimately forced Hosni Mubarak from office. For a couple of years January 25, “Revolution Day,” was a holiday, but since Egypt
returned to military dictatorship um, had its democracy saved by submission to the rule er, the great beneficence and eventual free election of Hosni Mubarak, Jr. Field Marshal Abdel Fattah el-Sisi, the past two Revolution Days have really been more about protest than celebration. The whole exercise has to be a little difficult for Sisi, whose rise from general to president likely wouldn’t have been possible had Mubarak not been forced out of office, but who most definitely does not want to be encouraging the same movement that tried to replace the last dictator with a democratically-elected government.
If you can discern a pattern based on two points of data, then it looks like Sisi is planning on honoring Revolution Day by killing a few dozen protesters on that date every year. Last year around 50 activists, those who support the outlawed Muslim Brotherhood and those who are just, for whatever reason, a little squeamish about the fact that their “democracy” is now run by an ex-general who rigged his own election despite the fact that he was, for all intents and purposes, the only guy running, were killed in clashes with regime security forces. This year, Sisi actually tried to cancel Revolution Day, ostensibly in mourning for the death of Saudi King Abdullah, but when that failed it was back to killing protesters (go with what you know, I guess).
The death toll this time was lighter than last year, as only 20 protesters were killed (be warned: there’s a graphic photo at that link), but one in particular, 32 year old Shaimaa el-Sabbagh (it’s her death that’s shown in that graphic photo I warned you about), seems to have struck a chord both in Egypt and around the world. The image of a young woman shot dead by her government for the crime of peacefully protesting that government (which is to say, for no crime at all), while another security officer watches it happen, is horrific and powerful. It’s spurred additional protests in Egypt and nearby Tunisia, which has gone through its own, fortunately much less violent, experimentation with democracy and the Muslim Brotherhood of late.
Sabbagh’s death even generated an angry op-ed (that’s the English translation) in the state run newspaper Al-Ahram, though as Joshua Keating points out, Sisi’s willingness to allow his media mouthpieces to criticize his government on this one thing probably speaks to how secure he feels his hold on power is right now rather than to some splintering within the ruling elite:
Al-Ahram’s editorial is being read by some as a sign of emerging splits in the Egyptian establishment, but it could also be read as a signal that the government is secure enough to allow a certain amount of criticism through approved channels. And Sisi has reason to feel secure. The retired general is believed to be firmly in control of his regime, with a growing personality cult to match. The opposition is demoralized and divided. Support for the Muslim Brotherhood is thought to be low following Mohamed Morsi’s deeply unpopular presidency. And the anti-Sisi forces are split between Brotherhood supporters and liberals, strange bedfellows to begin with. (That split has emerged again in the wake of Sabbagh’s killing, with some Islamists complaining that the secular socialist’s death provoked much more public outrage than the killing of another female protester, a 17-year-old Brotherhood supporter, in a rally several days earlier.
More good news for Sisi: Given the post-revolutionary turmoil in Syria, Yemen, and Libya, it seems unlikely that the U.S. will put too much pressure on him beyond some cursory statements on the importance of human rights. Last summer the U.S. resumed the military aid that had been frozen after Morsi’s ouster. Other Western governments followed suit: Even as Canada has pushed for the release of the Canadian-Egyptian Al Jazeera journalist Mohamed Fahmy, it’s also signed on to a new program to train Egyptian police.
“Ah, yes, it’s good to be the
king freely and fairly elected democratic president who is definitely abiding by the rule of law and protecting basic human rights”
The one blemish on Sisi’s record right now (aside from the massive human rights abuses and anti-democratic behavior, since he doesn’t give a damn about that stuff) is the ongoing, really escalating, Islamist violence in the Sinai. The Sinai has always been hard for Cairo to control, seeing as how most of it is desert inhabited by Bedouin tribes that naturally don’t stay in one place too long, but the chaos that’s attended Egypt’s government since Mubarak was ousted in 2011 has allowed some very radical movements to take hold in the area. They’ve been able to grow stronger due to resentment over the ouster of Mohamed Morsi’s Muslim Brotherhood government as well as the Sisi regime’s response to fighting in Gaza. The largest of the groups fighting in the Sinai, Ansar Bayt al-Maqdis (“Supporters of the Holy House,” i.e. Jerusalem), has allegedly pledged itself to ISIS, though there is believed to be another faction of the group based in the Nile valley that is loyal to Al-Qaeda (which, let’s remember, is currently led by a major figure in the history of the Egyptian jihad scene, so it’s got strong Egyptian roots). Look for Sisi to get more support from the US as the situation in the Sinai continues to get more dangerous.