Wednesday, 25 September 2019

A chronicle of anti-Sisi protests in Egypt at the end of the third week of September

This survey of comments from Twitter started on Saturday 21 September, Sydney time, (Friday 20 September in Egypt) and ended two days later, in the evening of Monday 23 September (lunchtime on Sunday, Cairo time). Time-wise, Sydney is eight hours ahead of Cairo. The dates and times used in this post are for Sydney, Australia, and where necessary I have included the local Cairo equivalents.

For obvious reasons in this post I only sample English-language tweets. I tried to rely where possible on reliable sources, mainly news outlets, but other views are also expressed where they offer different perspectives on the events at the centre of the protests. I was very selective with the items copied from my feed, focusing on evidence of protests involving large numbers of people as well as commentary illuminating them. The order used for this survey is largely chronological but there are exceptions to this rule where it made sense to group tweets around unique themes.

The outbreak of protests in Egypt on the night of Friday 20 September (the morning of Saturday 21 September in Sydney) was not entirely a surprise as Friday is often a volatile day in Muslim countries due to its being a special day set aside for religious devotions.

As you will see if you read through this (rather long) post, eventually the Egyptian authorities took measures to suppress the disorder and at some time on Monday 23 September (Sydney time) the feed of tweets from people in that country appeared to stop. From then on what was happening on the ground in places such as Suez and Cairo wasn’t clear. But for a while, it looked like something remarkable.

The first sign that I saw that something was happening was from something a person on Facebook had posted. I followed a link to a tweet and then tuned into the #Egypt hashtag on Twitter. There was a rash of messages coming out of the country, it appeared, as well as a substantial number in Turkish. Some were in English, for example one that I saw on Saturday 21 September at 7.14am (11.14pm on Friday 20 September in Cairo) from Orla Guerin, a BBC correspondent, who tweeted, “Rare protests on the streets [against] President #Sisi, following damaging corruption allegations by whistleblower Mohamed Ali. If protests continue/ build this could be very significant. Critics finding their voice again.....daring to demonstrate.”

A reporter named Sara Firth from TRT World, the national broadcaster of Turkey, wrote at 7.12pm on 21 September (11.12am on 21 September in Cairo), "Egyptian activists have held protests against the government of President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi. Demonstrations were held in Alexandria, Suez, Gharbiya & Mahala, Mansoura and Damietta Friday & into the early hours of Saturday."

Al Jazeera, the Qatar-based news outlet, published a story about the protests on 21 September. I saw the tweet with the link in it at 10.45am on Sunday 22 September and the web page said that the story had been published 12 hours earlier.

On 21 September at 11.48am journalist Mohamed Hassan, who had 5981 followers and who included the name of the news outlet Middle East Eye in his profile, tweeted a thread explaining the protests. Here are a few of those tweets.
On September 2nd, a former contractor working with the Egyptian military released a video online accusing president Sisi and his close companions of rampant corruption in the construction industry, and of robbing him of over 200 million Egyptian pounds. 
The man, Mohamed Ali, who is also an actor, released a series of daily videos detailing specific projects Sisi, his wife, and several other top generals were involved in - which included using state funds to build personal palaces and hotels. 
The videos gained massive traction in Egypt, and were watched by millions each day, giving Mohamed Ali a sudden and overwhelming following, and prompting him to continue criticising the Egyptian government and its economic and political failures. 
Keep in mind that under Abdel Fattah el-Sisi, opposition and criticism has become virtually impossible. Activists are jailed. Opposition parties shut down. Journalists arrested without charge. Simply posting anti-government messages on social media can get you jailed and tortured. 
So for many, Mohamed Ali, who had fled to Spain a year before releasing the videos, quickly became a rallying figure and a voice who spoke directly to Sisi without hesitation. He also knew his secrets, having worked closely with him for years. 
Last week, Sisi did something unusual. He directly responded to Mohamed Ali's claims during a youth conference. He admited that he did build palaces using state funds, but denied he was corrupt and claimed it was all for the country's good. 
This didn't go down well. People were furious. And Mohamed Ali used the momentum to call on people to take to social media and demand Sisi resign. If that didn't happen, they should protest for 1 hour on Friday night. Which is tonight.
There were more tweets than this in the thread, but what appears above outlines, in some detail, the incipient moment of the protests. If you want more information you can go to Hassan’s account, which uses the Twitter handle @MHassan_1.

The protests were still continuing the next day. On 22 September at 7.47am an account named Ahmed Shalaby with 1537 followers tweeted, “Egyptians take to the streets demanding President Sisi's removal. The rallies come after Egyptian businessman Ali accused President Sisi of corruption and called on him to resign.”

Some photos appeared on 21 September at 3.14pm that had been put up by a Pakistani account called Haqeeqat TV, with 104,404 followers. The photos came with the comment, “Time is Up for SiSi.” One of the photos included in the tweet is shown below. It shows a large crowd of people and a fire outside a building. Haqeeqat TV calls itself “Pakistan's Largest Youtube Channel” on its English-language Twitter account. There was no information about where the photo was taken or who took the photo, or even if it was taken in Egypt.

At this time, the feed of tweets from people on the ground in Egypt was still strong. On 21 September at 3.35pm an account named Hasib N with 3719 followers and, in its profile, mention of a connection to something called the Legacy Institute, tweeted, “Allah be with the people of #Egypt, remove their oppressors, & give them leaders that are in their service & lead them to prosperity.”

The BBC News (World) account tweeted on 21 September at 11.01pm, “’These protesters have been chanting and calling on President Sisi to go and leave power.’ The BBC's Sally Nabil says tear gas has been fired to disperse demonstrators in Tahrir Square in Cairo.” The comment came with a video.

A long thread started on 22 September at 3.58am (7.27pm on 21 September in Cairo) from a person named Iyad el-Baghdadi, who had 133,552 followers when I checked his profile. It outlined the problems with the political settlement in Egypt. President al-Sisi, he said, has been worse than Mubarak as political Opposition has been completely dismantled. “Sisi's years have been far more repressive than even the worst of Mubarak's years.” 
It is also impossible for the Egyptian army to just give up power, and any uprising that seeks to do so will result in something worse than Syria. The army is still very much in control in Egypt. 
Note that the majority of the protests targeted Sisi and not the army establishment. This does not necessarily mean that Egyptians are still fond of their "patriotic" army. It means that Sisi is the current object of their wrath. 
For all of these reasons, it's both unlikely and undesirable that "the regime" falls, if we define the regime as the Egyptian army establishment. 
Whoever in the Egyptian army succeeds Sisi will therefore have quite a job cut out for them. They'll have to re-establish legitimacy. This situation *could* (if mature decisions are made) lead to a political opening.
El-Baghdadi recommended the solution to the current problem would be for a new leader to be put in place and then a gradual transition to democracy.
No regime has endless repressive capacity. Even the most repressive regimes rule by some sort of promise or narrative or social contract. Sisi seems to have lost his. The next contract is unlikely to be democratic, but can be an important step towards one, and that's important.
The protests continued the next day. On Sunday 22 September at 8.06am (the evening of Saturday 21 September in Cairo) the Al Jazeera English account tweeted, “Protests demanding the resignation of President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi continue for a second night in #Egypt.”

The government’s line was being pressed by some, for example on Sunday 22 September at 7.05am (11.05pm on Saturday 21 September in Cairo). At this time the account of Egypt Today, an English-language news outlet founded in 2017, tweeted, “Egyptian security forces successfully raided a terrorist hideout at Matariya neighborhood in eastern Cairo, said Interior Ministry’s statement on Saturday.” it went on at 7.14am, “Security troops linked to the National Security sector carried out on Saturday a daring raid on a terrorist hideout where weapons & arm fires intended to be used against the public were kept.” The outlet appears to be independent but it’s hard to say as there’s no information on the website about where its funding comes from.

The government also started on this day to crack down on the media. At 7.15am an account named Nadia Mohamed with 439 followers tweeted, “Today, #Egypt blocked #BBC Arabic website, after coverage of last night.”

The following photo was taken from a video included in a tweet put up on 22 September at 7.19am by an account named Jamal Elshayyal, an Al Jazeera journalist with 26,109 followers at the time I checked his profile. The photo shows a Suez street and the video was evidently taken from a high vantage point, most likely a building. You can see protesters and a police tuck. There is also a fire on the street at one point. The number of protesters is small.

But the government was watching such images carefully and reacted to their dissemination by people such as this. At 9.08am on that same morning (evening of the previous day in Cairo) a tweet appeared from an account belonging to journalist Mohamed Hassan. He tweeted, “LATEST in #Egypt, a man called Mohamed Saied living in Suez was filming clashes of police and protesters from his balcony, now says police are coming to detain him. Final video shows him in a stunned state saying goodbye, while a woman offscreen begs him to stop filming.”

At 9.21am an account named Bravenhaurten with 24 followers tweeted, “’Hey guys, the police are coming to arrest me. They're standing at the bottom of my building, and they're coming. I haven't done anything except film. Goodbye.’ This is the final video. Mohamed Saied posted this 55 minutes ago.” The tweet came with a video showing the face of a man talking to the camera.

And while Tahrir Square had been a location where the protesters had been gathering, there were also protests in other parts of the capital. At 7.27am an account named Nervana Mahmoud with 38,598 followers tweeted, “While Western journalists are fixated at #Tahrir, waiting for the *Spring*, Egyptian security forces were in #Matariya district chasing, for hours, a senior cadre of #Hasm who was heavily armed with rocket-propelled grenade!”

Suez was also lit up by violent protest. That Sunday at 7.30am (11.30pm on Saturday 21 September in Cairo) a Brussels account named Zakaria Khayar with 852 followers tweeted, “Moments ago - Suez is now raging, with fierce clashes between security forces and demonstrators in Arbaeen Square, after security forces attacked them with cartridges and gas. People chanting: ‘the people want to bring down the regime’.”

On 22 September at 8.06am an Egyptian account named Eng. Tharwat Mohamed with 2131 followers tweeted, “Security forces in Suez, historically a bastion of resistance in #Egypt forcibly disperse pro-democracy protesters in the centre of the city. The movement to oust #AlSisi is building rapidly across the country.”

And there was drama in people’s comments as the authorities took action to quell the disturbances. At 7.38am the same Bravenhaurten mentioned above tweeted, “Reports coming from #Egypt that, unlike yesterday, authorities today are using brute force to crackdown on protesters. It seems that there's a showdown inside the decision making circles. If things go on this tense, coming Friday protests will be bloody.” This was a reference to the following Friday, 27 September.

On 23 September at 12.52am Al Jazeera journalist Jamal Elshayyal tweeted a letter that the Egyptian government had written, and included a comment, “The #Egypt Gov sent this memo out to the foreign journalists who are still allowed to report from inside the country. I particularly like point 2!! When was the last time an opposition voice was allowed on Egyptian TV??”

Not only were the authorities delivering warnings to foreign journalists, they were also starting to use technology to prevent the dissemination of messages between protesters and from protesters to the world. On 23 September at 2.52am an account named, which tracks interruptions to online services, tweeted, “Confirmed: Facebook Messenger, BBC News and social media CDN servers restricted in #Egypt by leading providers amid demonstrations against government corruption; incident ongoing.” 

“CDN” means “content delivery network” and according to Google refers to, “a bunch of servers geographically positioned between the origin server of some web content, and the user requesting it, all with the purpose of delivering the content faster by reducing latency.” The NetBlocks story linked from the tweet also said that Facebook had been blocked. Twitter wasn’t mentioned in the story, which went on: 
Technical measurements show that the social media and messaging platforms became unavailable on AS8452 (Telecom Egypt) and AS24835 (Raya) on Sunday amid heightened political tensions following the publication of videos alleging state corruption.
On 23 September at 6.37am an account named Tita which had no location information in its profile, tweeted, “Encrypted and secure IM apps like Wire and Signal are being blocked in #Egypt. There has been some news also about FB messenger and WhatsApp being not accessible on different ISPs. Download Tor browser for desktop and enable bridges.”

It was hard, sometimes, to know if what was being shared was authentic, especially when it came to images and videos. On 23 September at 6.44am an account with the Twitter handle @KhaledEibid tweeted a video with a comment, “Trump favorite Dictator #Sisi continue [sic] lying when he talked about the poverty of #Egypt and Egyptians, while spending millions on himself and his family, also wasting billions in projects such as the new 6 palaces and 4 private jets.” The video showed the interior of a specially fitted-out jet but it was impossible to know if it was actually showing one of the president’s jets or not.

Some people expressed alarm are what they suspected was inauthentic content. On 23 September at 3.31am a tweet appeared from a Cairo-based woman named Minoush Abdel-Meguid whose profile said works for a private equity firm based in Egypt named Union Capital. The tweet said, “Dear Egyptian activists and revolutionary wannabes kindly ensure videos you share about #Egypt protests are not old footage and plz don’t retweet them as if they are recent. We understand that the revolution hype attracts you but honesty is integral to activism or so it should.” 

Some information got out about who the rioters were. For example, a Guardian story appeared on the morning of 23 September that pointed out that many of the people protesting were in their 20s and so were too young to have been involved in the 2011 protests. The story also said: 
The Egyptian Commission for Rights and Freedoms (ECRF), a Cairo-based NGO, reported on Sunday that at least 220 people had been arrested since protests began on Friday night. The organisation said it had set up an “emergency room” to deal with the spike in arrests, and that at least 100 more people were likely to have been detained after protests in Suez, Alexandria and Giza. Another NGO, the Egyptian Centre for Economic & Social Rights, stated it had recorded at least 274 arrests since the demonstrations began.
By this time the mainstream had caught up with events and had started to publish stories about the riots. On 23 September at 6.55am Kenneth Roth, the executive director of Human Rights Watch, tweeted, “Egyptian outrage at the corruption of Pres Sisi and his military (as detailed in viral videos) seems to have reached a level of intensity that people are taking to the streets despite the autocrat’s usual repressive response to any public manifestation of discontent.” His tweet also retweeted one that had gone up on the same day at 6.08am from Berlin-based Egyptian writer Amr Magdi, that said, “My brief talk on Egypt's anti-Sisi protests. on Al Jazeera Inside Story. People's frustration has reached unprecedented levels and they are left with nothing to lose.” His tweet contained a link to a YouTube video.  

The actions of the authorities reportedly led to the arrest of over 500 people (this figure from an organisation named Economic and Social Rights) and in one case a person who is widely known was snatched off the street by a group of men. This was announced on 23 September at 3.36am in a tweet that appeared from the account of a person named Yasmin El-Rifae, editor of Mada Mars. Her tweet said:
Mahinour el Masry was grabbed by men in civilian clothes & dragged into a white minivan moments after she walked out of court, where she was attending a hearing as a lawyer. This was reported & confirmed by several lawyers & witnesses.
This is the most high profile arrest since anti-Sisi protests began on Friday.
Mada Mars is an Egyptian media organisation that on its English-language website says:
We are an Egypt-based media organization interested in producing intelligent and engaging journalism, and more generally in re-examining the role of media in relation to its public.
The site was established in 2013 by a group of journalists who had lost their jobs at other organisations. It appears to be independent but there is no specific information on the “About” page that describes where its funding comes from. El Masry’s Wikipedia page says she is currently serving a prison sentence but this information might be out of date. She was born in 1986 in Alexandria. The site also says she is “an Egyptian human rights lawyer and political activist” and it spells her given name “Mahienour”.

Different people had different views about the protests, and were not shy of expressing them online. On 23 September at 12.10pm a 38-year-old, whose account had the Twitter handle @Gihan81 and 65 followers, tweeted, “Sisi is a piece of shit. No doubt about that. But the solution is certainly NOT the #MuslimBrotherhood and their leftist allies. They are no better than the current regime. We would be going from one puddle of shit to another.”

Foreign nations also didn’t escape people’s ire. On 23 September at 2.50pm an account named The New Arab (that has a blue verification tick from Twitter) tweeted, “‘UK 'complicit' in #Egypt regime brutality against pro-#democracy protesters‘.” The tweet came with a link to a story on its website.  The story included the following:
Since assuming power, Sisi's regime has had £141 million worth of arms sales approved by the British government, which included assault rifles, small arms ammunition, weapon sights and armoured vehicles, all of which were likely used against protesters. 
In 2011 the Egyptian authorities used UK-made tear gas against pro-democracy campaigners.
The stock market was closed, suspending trade in equities. On 23 September at 7.24pm a news site called Egypt Independent tweeted, “#Egypt trading suspended as shares plunge after protests.” The tweet came with a link to a story dated 22 September.  The website’s “About” page contains this:
Egypt Independent is the sister English-language publication of Al-Masry Al-Youm daily, the country’s flagship independent paper. 
In 2011, Egypt’s year of revolutionary change, Egypt Independent launched a weekly print edition that serves as an insightful digest of the country’s dynamic times.
And where was al-Sisi? On 23 September at 7.26pm a news outlet with the name NRT English tweeted, “Heads of state of Iraq, Jordan, and Egypt meet ahead of UN General Assembly.” The tweet came with a photo (see below). Al-Sisi is the man at the table on the left in the photo. There was also a link to a story on the outlet’s website.  The “About” page was only in Arabic and the text there didn’t translate using Google Translate.

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