International and local media allege that Egyptians are set to protest on November 11th. We investigate why anger has reached a boiling point and how the potential mass protest could end Egypt's democratic experiment, inflicting a wound that will prolong the country's recovery.
Several uncertainties are currently threatening Egypt’s stability, resulting in calls for protests on November 11th. Local and international media outlets are painting the possible protest as if it were a foregone conclusion; however, this isn’t the first time under president Sisi’s rule that a protest has been called for November and failed to spark a popular uprising. In an effort to expose truth from lies surrounding the potential protest, I decided to investigate the roles the government, the media, and everyday Egyptians are playing in fuelling a protest that could topple President Sisi and create further instability in a country already struggling to keep it together.
Calls to overthrow President Sisi are nothing new to Egyptians, as they tend to surface almost every year around significantly historic dates like January 25th, June 30th, and for some reason random days in the month of November. Back in 2014, protests were called for November 28th. At the time, President Sisi was into his first year of presidency; allegedly leading the call, despite a newly-issued law banning protests, were Salafis and Muslim Brotherhood members. Local television outlets didn’t shy away from covering the potential protest, warning people not to go down for fear of mass arrests and violence. When November 28th came around, few – if any – took to the streets. The only significant event that occurred that weekend was that Mubarak was found not guilty of conspiring to kill hundreds during the 2011 uprising and exonerated for corruption charges stemming from a controversial gas deal with Israel.
Two years later and the calls for a November protest return; however, this time there are several frustrations with the current state of the nation that go well beyond the Muslim Brotherhood’s anger over the removal of the former president, Mohammed Morsi who was sentenced to death. Wreaking havoc on Egyptians of all social classes, especially Egypt’s poorest, is the current shortage of commodities and foreign currency resulting from the all-time low in tourists and foreign investment in the country. The lack of foreign currency has caused banks to implement strict restrictions preventing the withdrawal of foreign money.
Exasperating this already frustrating decision is the continuously widening gap between the banks' value of the pound against the dollar (8.88) while, according to Bloomberg, the black market is selling dollars at a record low of 15.58 per dollar. Many financial experts believe that the pound will be floated by the banks to close the gap, however, this decision is being delayed because Egypt is in the process of securing a $12 billion dollar loan from the IMF that requires the country to meet certain conditions before receiving the loan. Unfortunately, the longer the government waits, the more devalued the pound becomes on the black market, devastating Egypt's imports. “Importers are forced to buy dollars from the black market, so traders have one of two options – either factor in the dollar in the final price or give up the commodity altogether,” explains Mohamed Hamza, a senior researcher at the USDA office in Cairo, to Bloomberg.
The importing problem directly relates to the emerging shortages, ranging from baby formula to sugar. The latter happens to be the hot topic of the month, fuelling further frustration in a nation of religious tea-drinkers, and has spurred many to expresses their anger through online videos. Take the example of toktok driver Moustafa Abdou, who expressed his dismay during a street interview in a way that instantly connected with the Egyptian masses.
After the video went viral, reports emerged alleging that he may have been arrested or gone into hiding, but even his family no longer knows his whereabouts. A week later, a video is posted of a man in Alexandria setting himself on fire in front of a military building, alleging that he can no longer afford to eat. When taking into consideration that core inflation has reached a seven-year high, standing at 14 percent, electricity prices have been raised between 25-40 precent, there's a 13 percent value-added tax implemented, and the prices of commodities are increasing, it becomes abundantly clear that the pains Egyptians are feeling are extremely real. Sadly, these are just a few examples, and if the IMF loan is approved, further increases are expected.
Couple these factors with the other serious problems like education, health care, security, press freedom, and human rights abuses, and it becomes alarmingly apparent that any one of these problems warrants their own protests. However, protests are illegal without a permit, which is rarely issued, and when news broke that Egypt gave Saudi Arabia possession of the islands of Tiran and Sanafir, many took to the streets and were quickly arrested en masse.
The easiest person to blame for the current situation is obviously President Mubarak and his 30 years of institutionalised corruption. Understandably, trying to reverse 30 years overnight is impossible for any elected official. However, President Sisi has been in power for enough time for people to formulate an opinion on the decisions he has made. Although he managed to build roads, present a vision for new cities, and alleviate the energy and gas shortages that existed during Morsi’s reign, he's also responsible for unpopular decisions like the Tiran and Sanafir debacle, the building of multiple massive prisons, the continuous military spending spree, and his decisions to ignore the crackdown on the press and so-called political activists – including sentencing a young Egyptian to three years for simply Photoshopping Mickey Mouse ears on President Sisi. This crackdown on free speech is why there's a political void for future candidates, which is also why Egyptians struggle to suggest a suitable replacement for the current president.
Personally, I like that the president is tackling issues, but what I don’t like is the way he prioritises or handles tackling them. Egypt is rich in resources, and instead of exploring and discovering massive gas fields and extracting tons of gold (that could buy foreign currency), the government decides to gamble on an extension to the canal that failed to increase revenue. Another example would be investing billions of dollars in weapons when the country doesn’t have the dollars to stabilise imports. Many Egyptians disagree with the last example, believing that having a strong army is the highest priority, especially amidst regional conflicts, but when violent extremist groups are posing the biggest threat to the nation, one should question how Mistral helicopter warships or Rafale jet will effectively stop the almost routine checkpoint gun fights, getting bombs on flights, or even prevent assassination of officials in Cairo. If tourists are going to return to Egypt, the first step will be returning a sense of safety and security. The second step will be to end the vicious cycle of Egyptians clicking on terrible and often unreliable news circulating around international and local news outlets.
International online news outlets would have you believe that a November 11th revolution is a foregone conclusion, but they didn't write about it because they care about Egypt. They wrote about it because they need to meet their quota of daily hits, and Egyptians are one of the world’s largest online audiences. If Egypt descends into chaos on November 11th, their hits will exponentially increase. That's why there are tons of stories ranging from the truth to absolute lies, and the more sensational the headline the more clicks and shares it gets from an Egyptian population. That is why everyone from Daily Mail to the BBC, and even this online publication, feature some terrible news almost on a daily basis – because that is what Egyptians continue to click on and share, helping online outlets secure their quotas. This becomes a vicious loop of creating constantly negative content, which goes viral and gives the image that Egypt isn’t a safe place to visit. Conversely, if Egyptians didn’t click on the sensationally negative, there would be absolutely no incentive for online media to focus on it. Take the example of the current sugar shortage. The price of sugar is rising globally and supplies are low, but the second that someone reports it’s a shortage, it automatically becomes one. This is because, as soon as people perceive there is a shortage, they end up purchasing more than they normally do, making the problem exponentially bigger. At this time, there's still a lot of confusion surrounding sugar stocks and rumours continue to spread alleging the government issued raids seizing sugars from local factories, even though inside sources of the factory have recently emerged to dispell the rumour as myth.
As much as I would like to see a change in leadership, doing so by protests will only make all the problems mentioned above a lot worse. If Egyptians are serious about making a meaningful change, then creating political parties with strong platforms and leaders will be a more efficient strategy than destroying any of the little gains made since the 2011 uprisings. This will take time, and if Egyptians begin now, they may find a popular leader to replace the president by the next election. If at that point the will of the people is stopped, then protests should take place. This restraint will at least preserve the faux democracy we pretend to be practicing. Just look at the American elections; both candidates have been campaigning for the presidency for two years. It’s not hard for Egyptians to believe that these two are America’s best representatives because we faced a similar conundrum deciding between Muslim Brotherhood candidate or a military propped candidate in our historic first democratic election. Neither were a good fit, and if Egyptians had protested then instead of voting, they could have probably saved a lot of time and pain in the ongoing recovery.
Egyptians often talk fondly about the past as a way of ignoring the present while never considering the future. Protesting on November 11th may deliver a fatal self-inflicting wound the nation may not be able to recover from. Those who descend will likely face mass arrests and, if the situation is handled in a careless and violent manner by authorities, the spilled blood could spark millions to join and end the democratic experiment in Egypt. Although democracy doesn't seem to be working, it's still worth saving as a decent space of time between peaceful mass protests.
Main image by @MO4Network's #MO4Productions.
Photographer: Ezz El Masry