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Economic Despair Drives New Type of Egyptian Protester
‘The expression of disfavor can land you a lengthy jail sentence.’ Abdel Fattah el-Sisi. (Pavel Golovkin/AFP/Getty Images)

Economic Despair Drives New Type of Egyptian Protester

Housing law draws poor, rural people to streets in demonstrations often overlooked by media

Egypt has delayed an end-of-September deadline for demolishing buildings that are not up to code following protests by poorer citizens across the country who have been unable to pay the fines.

The government says the fines are now due by the end of October after demonstrations over the Building Reconciliation Law began on September 20 as Egypt’s economy deteriorated amid the coronavirus pandemic.

“This is a new population that has probably never protested in their life,” Mohamed Lotfy, executive director of the Egyptian Commission for Rights and Freedoms, told The Media Line.

Prime Minister Mostafa Madbouly has been cited by Egyptian newspapers as saying that about half of all Egyptians live in buildings erected without permits. The illegal construction is due to unmet demands despite the country’s high growth rate.

Hussein Baoumi, Egypt researcher at Amnesty International, told The Media Line: “You’re talking about areas that many Egyptians couldn’t point to on a map, whereas in the beginning of 2011, the [Arab Spring] protests sprang up in major cities and downtown Cairo.”

Then as now, most of the demonstrators are young.

The 581 protesters arrested as of Wednesday in 17 of Egypt’s 28 governates include at least 68 children, some as young as 11.

Several days ago, Egypt’s chief prosecutor, Hamady El-Sawy, said the youth would be released. It is as yet unclear how many have been freed and when the others will be let go. Prior to Sawy’s statement, two children were released.

Amr Khalifa, an independent Egyptian-American political analyst living in New York City, told The Media Line: “You can see the existential nature of the fight in the demographics of those who took to the streets: extremely young, largely rural – two subsets that have been pulverized by economic hardships.”

You can see the existential nature of the fight in the demographics of those who took to the streets: extremely young, largely rural – two subsets that have been pulverized by economic hardships

It is, he says, a “mini-intifada of the forgotten,” adding that people who are struggling financially have either been suffering since the Egyptian pound was devalued in 2016 or started to experience economic hardship because of the pandemic.

The percentage of Egyptians living beneath the poverty line has increased, according to Egypt’s official Central Agency for Public Mobilization and Statistics. In July 2019, 32.5% of Egyptians were living in poverty, compared to 27.8% in 2015.

About half of all Egyptians need a loan to pay their bills, according to the Information and Decision Support Center, a think tank that provides information to the country’s cabinet.

Another reason for the protests, according to Lotfy, is that Egyptians do not have the power to make changes if they are dissatisfied with government policy.

“There is no way for you as a poor person to stop the demolition of your home because you can’t afford the fine,” he said. “There is a general feeling that there are no political channels for people to express their discontent because the usual vectors for change – media and independent media, elections, political parties – are not functional.”

There is no way for you as a poor person to stop the demolition of your home because you can’t afford the fine

In Egypt, social media posts that support protests or criticize President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi can result in a lengthy jail sentence.

Amnesty International’s Baoumi says that “any sort of criticism or opinion that authorities and security forces don’t like will very easily lead… to detention for a long time, for months or years without trial.”

He adds that he has received numerous reports of human rights violations during the protests.

“The police have responded with excessive force,” Baoumi said. “In at least one instance, police used live rounds against protesters.”

In at least one instance, police used live rounds against protesters

A man in Giza, across the Nile River from Cairo, died during a protest. However, Amnesty and other human-rights groups have not been able to verify the cause.

Kareem Taha, the Czech Republic-based executive director of the Egyptian Front for Human Rights, told The Media Line: “We [have seen] a number of different patterns during the arrests, including indiscriminate arrests, mobile-phone searches and the… disappearance of a number of those who were arrested.”

Basma Mostafa, an investigative journalist who asks that her place of employment be withheld for fear of retribution, agrees with Taha.

“Cairo has become a military barracks with a heavy security presence, where they search the phones of passersby,” she told The Media Line.

”Some were arrested if the security forces found anything on their phone that indicated they were critical of the authorities,” she said. “All the protests were dealt with by force to disperse them.”

Baoumi says Egypt’s government “really doesn’t believe in human rights,” adding that violations have been the norm for decades.

“Quite simply, they see political freedoms as something that is completely at the government’s [discretion],” he stated.

Protests are relatively uncommon in Egypt because the penalties can be high.

“While the size is significantly smaller than last year’s demonstrations, repression, a staple of everyday life for the average Egyptian, makes the very descent into the streets an act of heroism,” Khalifa, the independent Egyptian-American political analyst, said.

Repression, a staple of everyday life for the average Egyptian, makes the very descent into the streets an act of heroism

“But,” he added, “this is no Arab Spring 2.0.”

Mostafa said she believes that these demonstrations will not bring long-term change.

“It is difficult for change to happen with limited and scattered protests, but this is an indication that people are angry,” she said.

Taha agrees but notes that some change has already occurred.

“For the first time, state newspapers are recognizing the demonstrations and analyzing their causes,” he said.

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