Anti-government unrest in Egypt in 2011 sparked a regionwide movement, but generally since 2013, the government has been stable and protest has been kept at bay, especially because there are tough penalties for demonstrating. A small but unusual rash of protests remains something to watch for now there is potential for them to expand in the Arab world's largest country.
On Sept. 20 and 21, major cities in Egypt experienced a series of small but vehement anti-government protests. Hundreds (or, at the most, thousands) of people reportedly protested in Cairo, Alexandria, Suez and El Mahalla El Kubra. Security forces fired tear gas and rubber bullets before detaining as many as 2,000 demonstrators for gathering illegally (since 2013, Egypt has restricted gatherings of more than 10 people unless they have a government permit). The rallies might represent a blip of instability that Egypt's security forces and government can manage quickly and easily, but a few factors suggest that more unrest could be ahead.
Economic grievances are fueling public anger at the government. Macroeconomically, Egypt is doing well after stabilizing its foreign exchange reserves, currency and inflation over the last three years due in part to the International Monetary Fund's largest-ever loan in the region. But what is good for government finances isn't good for all: A third of all Egyptians live in poverty, unemployment and underemployment remain serious problems, and IMF-mandated austerity measures have eaten away at citizens' purchasing power even as they have stabilized government finances.
This unexpected bout of unrest, specifically targeting President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi and the military, could be an explosion of simmering anti-government sentiment. This is the biggest episode of unrest in Egypt since 2016, when popular outrage swelled over the Egyptian government's plan to transfer control of two unpopulated Red Sea islands, Tiran and Sanafir, to Saudi Arabia. At the time, security forces managed to disperse demonstrations in Cairo with relative ease. But the demonstrators received political support from powerful places, including parliament, which passed a law condemning the islands' transfer. This time, the demonstrations are distinctly anti-government in nature, as they focus squarely on the president.
The Egyptian government cannot easily control the external inspiration for the protests. The protests were motivated by a series of videos shared by Spanish-based Egyptian businessman Mohammed Ali. He was a relative unknown before he published 35 videos, in which he lambastes the military, government and al-Sisi for wasting public funds and living in luxury while other Egyptians struggle in poverty. Ali, whose videos went viral, has called for more protests on Sept. 27.
A roundup of diverse dissidents indicates the government's effort to silence potential instigators of more unrest. Security forces arrested Hazem Hosny and Hassan Nafea, two anti-Muslim Brotherhood leaders who were aligned with former presidential candidate Sami Anan (himself a former chief of the general staff who was arrested when he tried to stand for election against al-Sisi last year), and journalist and opposition politician Khaled Dawoud. The detentions come on the heels of the arrest of lawyer and human rights activist Mahienour El-Massry on Sept. 22.
The Egyptian government and military have more than enough political and security resources to clamp down on small street rallies. Nevertheless, the disturbances deserve a close eye, as it is worth asking how much this unrest could destabilize al-Sisi's presidency. If protesters continue to gather in defiance of official warnings — and in the face of Cairo's efforts to slow down the internet — the government could face a new wave of profound anti-government unrest and anger. That, in turn, could snowball into a more persistent movement that would concentrate attention on al-Sisi's economic and social policies. In such a situation, the government could choose to violently suppress future demonstrations, but this could invite even more protests and damage the government's domestic credibility. That's why, if the unrest continues, the government might dangle economic concessions to assuage demonstrators' anger.
At the same time, it is plausible that elements of the Egyptian government or military permitted the protests to proceed by weakening the security response and amplifying rallying cries on social media in an effort to tarnish the president's image while he is attending the U.N. General Assembly. Incoherence in the Interior Ministry's initial response to the protests also prompted some suspicion that there could be divisions in the Egyptian state over both the best way to move forward and support for al-Sisi. If true, the government might again provide mixed messages following any future episodes of unrest.