Cairo yields to public pressure but gives opposition cold shoulder

Over the years, the popular clamour has grown into a dangerous weapon that many have used to reach their goals, knowing that the government usually bows to such pressure.
Thursday 18/02/2021
Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi inaugurates of the Integrated Medical Complex in Ismailia Governorate, east of Cairo. (Egyptian presidency)
Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi inaugurates of the Integrated Medical Complex in Ismailia Governorate, east of Cairo. (Egyptian presidency)

CAIRO – Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi on Tuesday said opposition views should be expressed only under certain conditions that he believes are useful to directly improving citizens’ lives.

This makes political reforms contingent on the calculations of the Egyptian regime, which is now ready to make concessions in favour of spontaneous popular opposition while rejecting any compromise with the political opposition in order to not appear weak.

Sisi said that the Egyptian people have the right to express their opinions and objections, but only if they are forms of “valid opposition.”

The president made the comment at the inauguration of the Integrated Medical Complex in Ismailia Governorate, east of Cairo.

If the goal of expressing opinions or political opposition is to improve people’s conditions and lives, Sisi said, then people have the right to express their opinions and make objections. If people speak out to warn the state of a problem, he said, then this is acceptable, so long as they are well informed.

“Egypt is serious, honest, and sincere in facing its challenges, which will ease the burden on opinion and opposition,” said Sisi. “Say whatever you want, but please as you speak, look and listen.”

International media have increasingly criticised Cairo’s restrictions on freedoms following statements by the administration of US President Joe Biden on human rights, freedoms and democracy in many countries, including Egypt.

The Egyptian government recently responded to many popular demands, agreeing to discontinue certain development projects that locals complained would have a negative impact on their lives. On the other hand, however, authorities have refused many political parties’ demands for reforms that would enable them to exercise their role.  The Egyptian government, experts say, seems to prefer the people’s clamour over the parties’ peaceful moves.

By tolerating disorganised public clamour, the government has come under increased pressure and paid a heavy price, facing opposition for every unpopular decision it makes.

Over the years, the popular clamour has grown into a dangerous weapon that many have used to reach their goals, knowing that the government usually bows to such pressure.

A few days ago, government sources were forced to deny news that a bridge was being constructed next to the Basilica church in the Heliopolis area east of Cairo. With its denial, the government sources tried to absorb the anger of the mob, which did not fully settle until assurances were provided to various parties that the bridge would not be constructed.

Locals had shared posts on social media opposing the construction of the Ismailia Bridge in the Heliopolis neighbourhood, which is 2km long and passes by the Church of the Virgin Mary — a heritage church established 110 years ago — to the Ittihadiya Presidential Palace and the Heliopolis Sports Club.

Church officials expressed solidarity with the locals and also opposed the project for security and spiritual reasons. They argued that the bridge would make it easier for terrorists to access the church and that the sound of traffic overhead would inconvenience the place of worship.

The Basilica, in solidarity with the Maronite Church and the Greek Orthodox Church, sent a letter to Egypt’s parliament speaker, the speaker of the Senate, and the prime minister to express their opposition to the bridge’s construction. The Basilica also intended to address the president before the project was withdrawn.

View of traffic near a newly constructed bridge amid the spread of the coronavirus disease (COVID-19), in Cairo, Egypt September 4, 2020. (REUTERS)
View of traffic near a newly constructed bridge amid the spread of the coronavirus disease (COVID-19), in Cairo, Egypt September 4, 2020. (REUTERS)

The project adjacent to the Basilica was not the only one that the government opted to withdraw. The authorities reportedly stopped implementing many provisions on building violations.

After growing popular opposition, the government also promised to study the idea of withdrawing the Cairo Eye project in Obelisk Park near the Nile River at the entrance to the island of the upscale Zamalek neighbourhood in Cairo, close to the Egyptian Opera House, which replicates the London Eye.

The Cairo Eye project, an entertaining 120-metre high rotating wheel, includes 48 cabins and allows visitors to see about 50km from Cairo. The project is owned and implemented by Hawaii, and is estimated to attract 205 million visitors per year.

The Egyptian government appears to be practicing a new kind of democracy, through which it wants to win the people’s blessing rather than opposition parties, which face many political restrictions.

Geographical concerns were at the heart of the controversy that accompanied the Heliopolis and Zamalek projects, and criticism was largely from citizens living in those areas. Experts say the people’s opposition is limited in scope while political parties often criticise political visions and trends, not just small service or tourism projects.

The announced projects, the experts argue, have no political implications, and the discussions regarding them focused on considerations related to citizens’ perception and the direct impact on their lives.

The government apparently responds to citizens’ cries because people’s actions do not include specific political goals. By responding to popular demands, authorities want to communicate that they are in touch with the pulse of the street and push back against allegations that they arrogantly deal with public affairs. The government also wants to impose its political vision, including on issues such as human rights, which it views as limited to access to food, drinking water and clothing, and does not include the issue of freedoms.

The government’s perception of the opposition’s role means that dissidents are expected to conform to general policies and not voice certain disagreements. Such opposition usually includes parties or figures that are tolerated and close to the regime.

The government refuses to allow the opposition to play an open role under the pretext that Muslim Brotherhood members could use it to infiltrate the political scene again. All these factors have encouraged the government to create a new approach that forces it to make more concessions and withdraw more development projects, especially those that could anger a large segment of the population.

Political analyst Jamal Asaad Abdel-Malak said that “the rise of popular opposition is something that many countries of the world are witnessing, and is in line with the rising concept of ‘populism’, which is the antithesis of ‘representative democracy’.”

“While the influence of political parties diminished and the role of the local councils in expressing people’s views retreated, the public space opened for popular campaigns,” he explained.

Abdel-Malak told The Arab Weekly that “the Egyptian public’s interest in the projects of the Heliopolis Bridge and the Cairo Eye has links to the geographical scope inside the capital, which includes areas where the elite of politicians, journalists, writers and community stars reside. The elite have reported what is going on in the street to the media, then the popular opposition was able to impose itself, accompanied by public support that may be absent in many other cases.”

Observers say that the absence of community dialogue on current projects is one reason mob opposition emerged, posing a threat to development projects the government has invested heavily in.