Today, Egyptian President Abdel-Fattah el-Sissi is witnessing the most vocal and angry objection to his rule since he took power via a military coup in 2013. Across Cairo and beyond, Egyptians are gathering and chanting some of the same slogans from the January 2011 revolution—such as “the people want the fall of the regime” and “down with military rule.” These protests are not a spontaneous uprising. They were planned and announced on April 15, when thousands of Egyptians took to the streets, protesting the latest in a series of bold and controversial decisions that are slowly and steadily chipping away at Sissi’s once solid support structure abroad and at home.
During Saudi King Salman’s recent visit to Cairo, the Egyptian government announced that it had agreed to transfer sovereignty of two Red Sea islands—Tiran and Sanafir—to Saudi Arabia. This decision, which coincided with a $22 billion oil and aid deal, has a clear short term pay-off: a substantial Band-Aid on Egypt’s gaping economic wounds. But Sissi and his government are once again dramatically underestimating just how self-destructive their behavior can be. As my colleague Tamara Wittes eloquently noted, Egypt “continues to throw obstacles in the road of U.S.-Egyptian cooperation.” But even worse than the self-sabotage in Egypt’s foreign relations is the damage Sissi is doing to his reputation at home.
The decision to transfer the islands to Saudi Arabia may turn out to be the final nail in Sissi’s coffin.
To the streets, again
Following the announcement of this decision, Egyptians took to Twitter, with the hashtag “leave” and “I didn’t elect Sissi” trending in Egypt. Lawyers filed lawsuits in Egyptian courts opposing the agreement. And plans were made for a much larger protest today, Sinai Liberation Day.
But today’s protests are different than in the past. First, while the anti-Sissi protesters had time to plan and coordinate their actions, so did the regime. Today, pro-Sissi supporters organized their own protests, proudly waving the Saudi flag in Cairo’s symbolic Tahrir Square. The Egyptian Air Force painted the Egyptian flag in the sky. And the security forces came out in droves early today across greater Cairo, closing off access to most of the usual protests sites (such as the Journalists’ Syndicate and the Doctors’ Syndicate) and making a massive show of force to deter people from coming out.
The government clearly learned a few lessons since Mubarak’s fall. A law passed in 2013 requires pre-approval from the Interior Ministry for any protest activity. That gave Sissi’s henchmen a green light to round up actual and suspected protesters as they have been doing since Thursday, arresting hundreds of suspected agitators and human rights activists on charges related to organizing today’s protests. (Notably, the pro-Sissi demonstrators have not been touched.) As each new anti-regime protest pops up today, security forces are there, arresting protesters and journalists and dispersing them with tear gas and rubber bullets. Regardless of the final outcome of today’s events, Sissi should pay attention to the growing dissatisfaction among the Egyptian people.
The symbolism of holding today’s protests on Sinai Liberation Day is potent. Threats to Egypt’s nationalism and national sovereignty have long been key drivers of Egyptian rage, allowing the protest organizers to tap in to the anger and frustration shared by Egyptians across the political spectrum. The outrage citizens have expressed in the streets, online, and in the media should be a red flag to Sissi, who is hemorrhaging support.
Notably, he’s now struck a nerve not just with Islamists or others in the anti-Sissi crowd, but with one of the few remaining bastions of Sissi supporters—the everyday Egyptians who are not normally politically engaged. This is a group of people who, following five years of political turmoil, see Sissi as Egypt’s best chance at stability in an increasingly unstable neighborhood. And they’re generally willing to forgive Sissi for his transgressions. They don’t believe the theory that the Egyptian security services are responsible for Italian PhD student Giulio Regeni’s death. They agree that foreign funding of NGOs is a form of Western meddling in Egyptian affairs. They justify the brutal crackdown on free expression in the name of security. But secretly concocting a deal to give away Egyptian land—that is one pill even they can’t swallow.
Making matters worse are reports that Egypt consulted with Israel and the United States prior to the transfer. While the Israeli-Egyptian peace treaty remains active, Egypt and Israel’s peace is cold, at best. The notion that Sissi would consult with Israel over something that he kept secret from his own people is the ultimate insult and betrayal to many Egyptians. The facts behind the transfer matter very little. What matters is the perception of the Egyptian public that President Sissi has duped them.
The decision to transfer the islands to Saudi Arabia may turn out to be the final nail in Sissi’s coffin. Over the past several months, he has lost other pillars of support—including secular revolutionaries, who saw former President Morsi and the Muslim Brotherhood as subverting the revolution and supported the military’s return to power. The far-reaching and brutal crackdown on Egyptian journalists and NGOs turned many of them off from Sissi. And wealthy Egyptians, who believed Sissi’s promises to grow the economy and protect their assets, have increasingly questioned their leader as Egypt’s economy continues to plummet.
Sissi is not only running out of supporters, he is also running out of excuses.
Sissi is not only running out of supporters, he is also running out of excuses. Rather than admit his mistakes, Sissi has defended his actions, shifting the blame and feeding conspiracy theories. While protests were growing across Egypt on April 15, Sissi spoke to a group of Egyptian youth, referencing a “hellish scheme” to destabilize Egypt from within.
Unfortunately for Sissi, there is no such “scheme.” In 2011 it was not a Western plot, as some Egyptian conspiracy theories have suggested, that ousted Mubarak—it was the Egyptian people, fed up with actions Mubarak carried out as president. In 2013, the coup that ousted Morsi succeeded because the people were fed up with decisions he made in office to consolidate power and reject democratic reforms. Had either Mubarak or Morsi spent as much time responding to the wants and needs of their citizenry as they had quashing dissent, one of them might still be in office. Much like his predecessors, what Sissi fails to understand is that the thing most likely to destabilize his government is neither an external conspiracy not an internal scheme—it’s him.