The Galabiya Revolt

Thursday 1 October 202005:23 pm
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A long time ago, the most famous of all revolts was led by the Sans Culotte, centuries later, if Egypt’s demonstrations grow into something larger, they will be stamped the Galabiya revolt. At least 3 Egyptians are dead and an estimated 500 Egyptians are in Sisi’s jail cells. It is October in Egypt and for the second consecutive year many are glowering “Sisi Must Go’’ in governorates as disparate as Aswan, Cairo, Alexandria and Qena.

Beginning on September 20th, thousands of youthful and largely rural Egyptians have taken to side streets and dusty neo roads, to protest the rule of Egyptian autocrat Abdel Fattah El-Sisi. Just as with last year's demonstrations starting on the same date, September 20th, it remains to be seen whether this is merely a pebble against an impenetrable wall or something potentially larger. Easy for some to dismiss these demonstrations as limited in scope but when taken together with last September’s larger demonstrations, and sporadic recent demonstrations that have popped up in opposition to El Sisi’s muscular attempts to demolish illegal housing we are presented with a more nuanced threat to Sisi’s state.

Begin with over 60,000 political prisoners, a 6 year old figure because Sisi wants to hide the extent of the crime. We do know, over 4 years ago, the authorities were busy building jails to accommodate double that number

Where do we go from here? Why are these demonstrations particularly youthful, often composed of large percentages of teenagers and children? Why have more left leaning dissidents remained mostly silent?

International news cycles being what they are, most international readers are likely not to have paid Egypt much attention since after Muhammad Ali; The Egyptian contractor hit a nerve by exposing corruption and triggered more widespread demonstrations. Some long term causes remain and are as plain as the searing sun on a Cairo summer’s day.

Begin with over 60000 political prisoners, a 6 year old figure because Sisi wants to hide the extent of the crime. We do know, over 4 years ago, the authorities were busy building jails to accommodate double that number. Abdel Fatah is enamored with jailing dissidents in large numbers.

Arrest is not the only danger. Since late 2016, millions have fallen closer to the poverty line, thanks in no small part to the floating of the Egyptians pound, an IMF mandated move that bore all the hallmarks of regime sadism. To give but one of a myriad of examples electricity bills alone nearly doubled overnight, to say nothing of food products. Sisi managed, through unfeeling dictates, to raise the poverty level from 28%, in 2015, before the currency float to, a government manipulated, 33%. What does “government manipulated” mean? By moving the line of what is considered to be “impoverished’’ upwards the regime avoided the true figure poverty figures are devastating conforms the world bank: “Some 60 percent of Egypt’s population is either poor or vulnerable, and inequality is on the rise”. That was nearly 18 months ago. Things have gotten much worse since. Without a social net to prevent millions of Egyptians from hitting rock bottom, particularly those who hail from the particularly hard struck country side it is no wonder the Galabiyas rage.

“Some 60 percent of Egypt’s population is either poor or vulnerable, and inequality is on the rise”. That was nearly 18 months ago. Things have gotten much worse since

Then, there is the colossal Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam (GERD) negotiation implosion. Egypt’s most crucial resource, water, will be in dangerously short supply for many years to come because Sisi thought it sufficient to have the Ethiopian prime minister Abiy Ahmed Ali swear an oath to “not do any harm to” Egyptian water in 2018. Lacking awareness of the intricacies of state affairs the average Egyptians undoubtedly knows: sans water Egypt perishes. Two years after that “oath’’, in mid July, the dam started to naturally fill with rainy season water and the vice around Egypt’s water supply began to tighten because of Sisi’s disjointed strategic mismanagement.

You can be sure the GERD is far from a singular Sisi saunter on failure’s plank.

Egyptians have long memories and a deep connection to their land and unquestionably Sisi’s popular support was deeply compromised when he sold Egyptian land to his Saudi counterparts. The move to sell Tiran and Sanafir was viewed as nothing short of treason by many. Prominent Egyptian writer Ahdaf Souief, at the time, penned a New York Times piece entitled: Egypt’s lost islands, Sisi’s shame.

For the Egyptian state betrayal of its citizenry is a profession, its failure to test, treat and contain Covid19 is but the latest prime example of a government throwing its citizens to the wolves. While, officially, the country has registered slightly north of 100,000 cases and slightly south of 6000 deaths and the real figures may never be known the government’s own leading scientist suggested on more than one occasion that the true figures likely exceed 5-10 times official figures. This would leave us with grotesquely larger figures of 1 million cases and in excess of 50000 deaths. Egypt continues to get shellacked Covid’s economic impacts on a variety of fronts, not the least of which is tourism, with losses estimated to be as high as 80% and rather than support the state has continued to hammer citizens by raising prices, fees and tolls.

It should surprise none that the demonstrations have now persisted for 9 days-though signs are they began to ease up on September 28th with promises with a second Friday of Anger October 2nd- despite a security iron vice in all major cities. Put simply, nearly everyone is getting hammered economically.

Conversations with sources, largely in the dying middle class, lent credence to the notion that few have escaped economic hardship in the past few years and more so in the past few months as Covid has ravaged the economy. But for the more impoverished classes, from the lower middle class on downwards, there are chronic issues which have worsened during Sisi rule. Rather than focus on youth unemployment which rose to a grotesque 61% in the 15-29 category in the 2nd quarter of 2020 the president and his administration remain focused building palaces for the elite, including the president in the New Capital. With intelligence in short supply in some deep state circles digital armies have been provided with talking points that highlight the youthful nature of the protests. In so doing they point to the government shortcomings, demonstrators are young as a direct function of rising anger among that ticking time bomb of a subset which accounts for over 30% of the labor force. It is a mini revolt of those forgotten.

So why are the liberals, progressives, who triggered the January 25th revolution largely silent, and nearly absent from the streets? To be clear that group is far smaller numbers in numbers than both domestic and foreign perception and has been the number two target for the regime after political Islam. Alaa Abdel Fatah and Ziyad el Alaimy may be its most famous activists but there are thousands in their mold withering in Sisi jails, as such you have a leadership problem. Additionally, lingering depression over the failure of january 25th is a semi-permanent intellectual smog serving to dull any constructive discourse or interaction with suffering masses. Because progressive circles have suffered such loss, be it killings or mass incarceration they are deeply sensitive to similar risks for the current demonstrators. One can not sidestep the obvious distrust of Mohamed Ali, who has shown an abundance of political naivete while inserting himself in the call for these demonstration; couple that with suspicion that political Islam may well be manuevring some of these calls to protest behind the scenes and you begin to understand the hesitation of the progressive flank.

There is also the matter of political experience which blares the importance of a road map. Without a clearly delineated road map, thousands, who could play a pivotal role in these demonstrations, have chosen to remain on the sideline but remain respectful of the screams of those who can no longer take the daily desecration of their rights lying down. Rasha Azab, Egyptian journalist and activist, put it this way “ housing, transportation and education all at once...after a pandemic you hit the people hard? All the support to any voice emerging from hallways of darkness and injustice’’.

Even though there is no clear game plan, limited political support from those whose capital is experience, and a ferocious security pushback from the regime these demonstrations reveal fissures within the Egyptian state. It is not a breaking of the wall of fear, per se, but a no less important chiseling of a wall systematically built by counter revolution since Hosni Mubarak departed on February 11th, 2011.

Only a fortune teller can venture a guess what precisely lies ahead for Egypt, but make no mistake those brave souls are taking back a right this autocracy has snatched: the right to protest. Above all else when thousands scream, they signal to the silent millions they must stand up. Scream loudly enough, often enough and even the deaf shall hear.

What happens from here on out will not be determined by those who hold pens or guns but by those wearing Galabiyas.

*The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect Raseef22

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