Wednesday,19 September, 2018
Current issue | Issue 1293, (28 April - 4 May 2016)
Wednesday,19 September, 2018
Issue 1293, (28 April - 4 May 2016)

Ahram Weekly

Politics on Sinai Day

Massive security deployment to confront protests on Sinai Day contained dissent without addressing the problem, writes Amira Howeidy

Al-Ahram Weekly

There were no sizeable demonstrations in response to calls for protests on Monday though the heightened level of nationwide security and extensive military deployment testified to the concern with which the authorities viewed the calls.

On Monday central Cairo — epicentre of the 2011 uprising against Hosni Mubarak — resembled a military zone. In other areas where protests were expected security forces were prepared for the worst. Despite the sweltering heat they were dressed in black anti-riot body protectors. There were APCs, trucks, metal barricades and flash checkpoints — all the paraphernalia necessary to prevent any anti-government demonstrations from taking place. Yet a handful of protests did occur, in Greater Cairo and at least nine governorates.

In the capital flash protests were the order of the day, in western Cairo’s Boulaq Al-Dakrour and Dokki neighbourhoods, Downtown’s Talaat Harb Street and eastern Cairo’s Nasr City. In the short time before protestors were dispersed by police they voiced anti-government chants, demanded the removal of President Abdel-Fattah Al-Sisi and denounced the agreement under which Egypt ceded two Red Sea islands to Saudi Arabia earlier this month.

“Those asking who are we? We are the youth of 25 [January 2011]” chanted a small group of protestors in Nahia Street in the working class district of Boulaq where the protests began. “Time, take notice, they sold the land to Salman,” shouted the demonstrators in reference to the Saudi monarch.

The Egyptian-Saudi maritime agreement was announced on 9 April during an official visit by Saudi Arabia’s King Salman in the course of which he pledged massive financial assistance and loans to Egypt. While the government insists the Red Sea islands of Tiran and Sanafir were only ever under temporary Egyptian administration, critics of the agreement accuse Egypt of swapping the islands in return for Saudi Arabia’s financial assistance.

The backlash against the deal extended to the streets on 15 April when thousands protested against the agreement at the Press Syndicate. Chants were not limited to opposing the transfer of sovereignty but extended to calls for the fall of the regime. It was the largest non-Muslim Brotherhood demonstration in more than three years.

Though small in comparison to the massive protests that marked the 2011 and its immediate aftermath, security forces made it clear they would not allow a repeat of the 15 April protests.

On Sunday Interior Minister Magdi Abel-Ghaffar vowed to take decisive action against unauthorised demonstrations. In a televised speech on the same day President Al-Sisi urged the public to defend the state against the “forces of evil”.

The Interior Minister’s promises did not extend to pro-Sisi demonstrations in Mohandessin and central Cairo at which Saudi flags were waved enthusiastically. Giant speakers mounted on pick-up trucks drove around downtown Cairo blasting out the pro-military song Teslam Al-Ayadi (blessed are the hands), setting the tone for a day on which it became abundantly clear not all “unauthorised” demonstrations are equal.

A massive celebration marking Sinai Day was held at Abdeen Palace where hundreds of people were bused in from Cairo and neighbouring provinces. A group of women who had just arrived from Fayoum, 100 km southwest of Cairo, said they had been invited by the pro-Sisi Mostaqbal Watan (Nation’s Future) Party to spend the evening at the celebration.

“We don’t really know what that party is but who cares, its something fun to do,” said a woman in her 20’s.

According to the Front to Protect Protesters, a volunteer group of lawyers and activists, at least 240 people were arrested on Monday nationwide. Most rights defenders believe the real figure, including undocumented arrests, exceeds 400. Forty-two reporters were also arrested, though most were released in a matter of hours. As of Tuesday, according to Press Syndicate board member Khaled Al-Balshi, seven reporters remained in custody, making it the most dangerous day for journalists in many years.

The Press Syndicate has announced it will file a complaint with the public prosecutor against the Interior Minister over the arrests.

At least 97 people were arrested ahead of Monday’s protest in a security crackdown targeting activists and students in cafes and house raids which lasted for days. Revolutionary socialist activist Haitham Mohamadein and Ahmed Abdallah, head of the board of trustees of the rights group the Egyptian Commission for Rights and Freedoms (ECRF), were arrested at their homes. Mohamadein has been remanded in custody for 15 days pending investigations. He faces charges of belonging to a terrorist group, a euphemism for the outlawed Muslim Brotherhood.

Abdallah faces 10 charges including inciting attacks on police stations and violence to topple the regime and using social media to propagate acts of terror.

For the first time since Israel’s withdrawal from the Sinai Peninsula in 1982 — celebrated on 25 April as Sinai Day — the routine national holiday has acquired political importance with Egyptians showing an unprecedented interest in the history and strategic importance of the two islands at the mouth of the port of Aqaba now they are no longer theirs. 

The debate over the two islands has triggered a series of analogies comparing the domestic and regional impact of the islands’ transfer to Saudi Arabia with previous historic turning points.

The Egyptian-Saudi agreement, which makes Riyadh a party to the Egyptian-Israeli peace agreement of 1979, is now being described as a “new Camp David” and the nationwide arrests that preceded Monday’s planned protests have been compared to president Anwar Al-Sadat’s sweeping arrest campaign of September 1981, which targeted his opponents.

Critics of the agreement went over Defence Minister Sedki Sobhi’s statements with a fine-tooth comb hoping to unearth hints of his disapproval of the Egyptian-Saudi agreement. The analogy this time was with Al-Sisi’s role in unseating president Mohamed Morsi in 2013 when he was defence minister.

The political tension that peaked between the two protests of 15 and 25 April appears to be dissipating, at least for now. But observers are left with lingering questions on their meaning and future dynamics: were the security measures a sign of weakness on the part of the authorities or a justified measure to contain chaos?

“The police were prepared for the worst case scenario,” says Abdel-Moneim Said, director of the Regional Centre for Political and Strategic Studies, a private think tank. Some protests start small then evolve into a sit-in and no one, not even the protestors, knows when they’ll end, he said.

“Worst-case scenario preparations could easily come across as going overboard,” adds Said.  “And it’s not over yet. A door was opened on 25 January, 2011 and the tension it has created hasn’t run its course.”

Sanaa Abdel-Fattah, 22, would agree. One of the activists who joined the protests, “we’re just warming up,” she wrote on her Facebook page. Abdel-Fattah has already served time in prison for violating the protest law in 2014.

By adopting cat-and mouse tactics and showing up in many different locations protestors drove the Interior Ministry “crazy”, she wrote, despite the heightened security measures and the ministry’s zero-tolerance policy.

Within the ranks of revolutionary circles some expressed disappointment at the number of arrests and the size of the turnout. Regime supporters meanwhile shrugged the demonstrations as a non-event, a sign of the deep unpopularity of protestors at a time when the country is in desperate need of stability and economic growth.

There is no easy answer to how the public viewed the protests or the occasion that triggered it. In downtown Cairo one woman screamed “traitors!” from her window at a flash protest in Talaat Harb Street while others watched smiling their approval.

“Important events cannot be measured by the size of protests or the police’s ability to squash them,” said columnist Abdallah Al-Sennawi. “They are measured by the amount of anger they generate.”

As the economy struggles with inflation, a steep devaluation of the local currency and dwindling foreign revenues political tensions have been exacerbated by a noticeable increase in criticism of the authorities in mainstream and social media. Once described as a Sisi supporter, Al-Sennawi now publishes columns that smack of impatience.

This is not a revolutionary moment, he added, “but things can’t go on like this without meaningful reform.”

“This is an alarm bell.”


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