- Sharif Abdel KouddousDemocracy Now! correspondent and a reporter with Mada Masr, an independent media outlet in Cairo.
Demonstrations continued in Egypt Friday, with thousands taking to the streets to demand the resignation of President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi over accusations of corruption. Nearly 2,000 people have been arrested over the past week amid protests in Cairo and other cities. The demonstrations were triggered by social media posts by a former army contractor accusing Sisi and other officials of misusing public money. Anti-government protests are rare in Egypt as they’ve been effectively banned since Sisi came to power following the 2013 overthrow of former President Mohamed Morsi and launched a widespread crackdown on dissent. Earlier this week, President Trump praised Sisi as the two leaders met during the U.N. General Assembly here in New York. Trump also recently referred to Sisi as “my favorite dictator.” For more, we’re joined by Sharif Abdel Kouddous, Democracy Now! correspondent and a reporter with the independent, Cairo-based media outlet Mada Masr.
AMY GOODMAN: This is Democracy Now!, democracynow.org, The War and Peace Report. I’m Amy Goodman, as we turn to Egypt, where thousands of protesters defied a police crackdown on dissent and took to the streets of Cairo and other cities today, demanding the resignation of President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi over accusations of corruption. About 2,000 people have been arrested over the past week in growing demonstrations that were triggered when a former army contractor posted on social media, accusing Sisi and other officials of misusing public money to build lavish palaces for Sisi’s personal use. Widely posted Twitter hashtags, including #SisiIsNotMyPresident and #NextFriday, referring to today’s protests, also helped galvanize the uprising.
Anti-government protests are rare in Egypt and have been effectively banned since Sisi came to power following the 2013 overthrow of former President Mohamed Morsi. Najia Bounaim of Amnesty International called on the international community to oppose the government crackdown, writing in a statement, quote, “The government of President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi is clearly shaken to its core by the outbreak of protests and has launched a full-throttle clampdown to crush demonstrations and intimidate activists, journalists and others into silence. The world must not stand silently by as President al-Sisi tramples all over Egyptians’ rights to peaceful protest and freedom of expression,” she wrote.
Earlier this week, President Trump praised Sisi as the two leaders met during the U.N. General Assembly here in New York.
PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: It’s an honor to be with my friend, the president of Egypt. And he is a real leader. He’s done some things that are absolutely amazing in a short period of time. When he took over not so long ago, it was in turmoil. And it’s not in turmoil now. So, I just want to say we have a long-term, great relationship. It’s better than ever before. We’re doing a lot of trading.
AMY GOODMAN: Trump also recently referred to the Egyptian President Sisi as “my favorite dictator.”
For more, we’re joined by Sharif Abdel Kouddous, Democracy Now! correspondent, reporter with the independent, Cairo-based media outlet Mada Masr.
It’s great to have you back here. You’re covering the United Nations General Assembly. Sisi was there. And yet, back in Egypt right now, 2,000 people have been arrested. Talk about the significance of this moment, Sharif.
SHARIF ABDEL KOUDDOUS: Well, there was a very severe crackdown that happened following kind of these not unprecedented protests, but very rare, but very significant ones, that took place on September 20th. And as you mentioned, this came on the back of this army contractor who worked on construction projects with the military for many years, dating back to the Mubarak era. He posted on social media this video. He’s a little-known actor, as well. And he accused Sisi and top —
AMY GOODMAN: And where is he?
SHARIF ABDEL KOUDDOUS: He’s in Spain, in self-exile. He left. He sold much of his assets in Egypt, made millions, and went to Spain. And he posted these videos from there. And he accused Sisi, by name, and top generals, by name, of acts of corruption, of squandering funds on vanity projects. He was very specific.
And it touched a nerve for, I think, two reasons. One is, of course, that Egyptians are suffering very deeply economically. This is on the back of years of austerity measures, that came on the back of an IMF loan, $12 billion, that included very deep subsidy cuts to electricity and fuel. It included sales taxes. It included devaluation of the currency. The number of Egyptians living below the poverty line rose above 30%, by the government’s own figures. So, all of that came while people are really suffering economically.
But also it was the way he spoke, as well. He cast himself as a self-made man, kind of a street thug. He has a lot of charisma when he speaks. He didn’t use the language of political rights or as a member of the opposition. It was: “I made money with you. You stole my money. I want my money back.” And this really kind of touched a nerve, I think, with a lot of people.
And the response from Sisi, they organized, very hastily, a youth conference in Sharm el-Sheikh, where — a one-day conference, where Sisi responded. And he didn’t refute the allegations, really, directly; he just said, “Yes, we’re building presidential palaces. We’re building a new state. And we’re going to continue building more.” And this just caused more people to come out — Wael Ghonim, a figure from the 2011 revolution, many other people — to do more of these videos. And it kind of snowballed into last week.
And what we saw last week was people, mostly young men in their late teens, early twenties, come out and protest. There was a very swift crackdown, as you mentioned. And we saw the biggest arrest sweep since Sisi came to power formally in 2014. Over 2,000 people have been arrested over the past week. Before that, the largest campaign was about 1,200 arrested in 2016 in protests over two islands being handed to Saudi Arabia.
The majority of people who have been detained our young men. They’re being held without access to their family or lawyers. But they’ve also detained prominent opposition figures, as well, activists, journalists, political party leaders, university professors. They’ve even arrested lawyers who are attending interrogations with detainees at the prosecutor’s office, including one, Mahienour el-Masry, who is quite well known and a human rights activist.
AMY GOODMAN: And she was there at the frontline just trying to coordinate —
SHARIF ABDEL KOUDDOUS: Yes. And this has happened to a —
AMY GOODMAN: — and represent people.
SHARIF ABDEL KOUDDOUS: This has happened to a number of lawyers who work as human rights lawyers. They’re at the prosecutor’s office trying to get details of who’s detained, and they’re themselves detained.
And we’ve seen on the streets a very vast security presence, with plainclothes policemen in Tahrir and around downtown Cairo and in other cities across the country stopping any young man that they see, taking their phone, making them unlock their phone, and they’ll look through the contents on Facebook and Twitter to see if there’s any political content, and arrest them. They’ve been raiding homes.
And there’s also been disruption experienced on the internet. And cybersecurity companies like NetBlocks and others have documented this. So, there’s disruptions to things like Twitter, Facebook and Skype and also encrypted messaging apps like WhatsApp and Signal.
And finally, also BBC News was blocked officially. The Supreme Media Regulatory Council said it was because it inaccurately reported on last week’s protest. And the U.S. government-funded outlet Alhurra was also blocked, as well. And they’ve joined about 500 websites which have been blocked over the past few years in Egypt, including the one I currently work for.
AMY GOODMAN: Your website.
SHARIF ABDEL KOUDDOUS: Mada Masr, which is an independent media outlet in Egypt.
AMY GOODMAN: Has been blocked.
SHARIF ABDEL KOUDDOUS: It’s been blocked for about two-and-a-half years, yeah.
AMY GOODMAN: And you just mirror and mirror and mirror.
SHARIF ABDEL KOUDDOUS: We put up mirrors, and there’s ways around it, but it’s a little cat-and-mouse game.
But, I mean, and also I should say, just to finish, that as we’re going to air right now, protests were called for after Friday prayer, which just ended maybe an hour and a half ago. The roads leading to Tahrir have been completely closed off. There’s a security presence in there, very heavy police presence downtown. The Interior Ministry has said they will act with decisiveness against any, what they called, attempts to destabilize the country.
Sisi has just landed from New York. He landed to a very managed and staged entrance with journalists and supporters waving flags. And he said there’s no reason for concern.
And, finally, there’s been pro-Sisi rallies organized by businessmen and celebrities and parliamentarians, and organized by the intelligence services, which are trying to counter the ones against Sisi. And they’re actually being held in Rabaa Square, which is now called Hisham Barakat Square, but Rabaa Square is the site of the largest massacre in Egypt’s modern history, six years ago, in August, where over a thousand people were killed, who were supporters of the former now-late President Mohamed Morsi.
AMY GOODMAN: I want to go back to Sisi here in New York. On Monday at the United Nations, a reporter asked the Egyptian President el-Sisi and President Trump if they’re concerned about the protests in Egypt.
PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: No, I’m not — I’m not concerned with it. Egypt has a great leader. He’s highly respected. He has brought order. Before he was here, there was very little order. There was chaos. And so, I’m not worried about that at all.
PRESIDENT ABDEL FATTAH EL-SISI: [translated] Let me say that you will always find something like this in our region, especially with political Islam. There have been effort that have been put forth for many years to make sure that this political Islam is having a role on the political arena. And consequently, this part of the world will remain in a state of instability as long as political Islam is [inaudible]. But I want you to rest assured that, especially in Egypt, the public opinion and the people themselves are refusing this kind of political Islam through Egypt. They have demonstrated their refusal before, and they refused those to have control on the country after only one year.
AMY GOODMAN: So, that’s the Egyptian President el-Sisi and President Trump. Trump didn’t call him there “my favorite dictator,” but he has called him that. And then, respond to what Sisi said.
SHARIF ABDEL KOUDDOUS: Right. Well, the “favorite dictator” comment was reported by The Washington Post in a meeting at the G7, where Trump was waiting to meet Sisi, and he reportedly said, “Where’s my favorite dictator?” And I think, as was reported, his aides, Trump’s aides, and the Egyptian aides, who were waiting, were all looking at the ground and couldn’t believe that he said something like that.
But, you know, it is — there is a frankness to it. I mean, I think we have to remember, Trump is an extension of what has been U.S. policy for many decades under successive Republican and Democratic administrations, which have supported Egypt through Mubarak and the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces and Mohamed Morsi, despite different types of human rights abuses, with diplomatic, military and economic support.
Trump, though — I think it is important that the rhetoric that comes from the administration does matter also. And when you have one of the — the biggest arrest sweep that’s been happening in Cairo, and Trump sits and says, “There’s no problem with that. Everyone has demonstrations. Sisi has brought stability,” this really does give a green light for Sisi to crack down even further. Some administrations have used the State Department to speak out and say, you know, “We urge him to use self-restraint,” and things of that nature, so that I think there is an important factor in rhetoric, even though it is just rhetoric, and we have to remember that U.S. policy hasn’t changed much. Also, you know, Boris Johnson, who just met with Sisi also during the UNGA, similarly said — praised the bilateral relationship between the U.K. and Britain. So we can see this is part of a larger change that’s happening.
AMY GOODMAN: And then el-Sisi saying at this U.N. meeting, “Let me say, you will always find something like this in our region, especially with political Islam.”
SHARIF ABDEL KOUDDOUS: Right. He’s trying to paint what’s happening now, blaming it on the Muslim Brotherhood, which is the bogeyman. And Sisi’s kind of raison d’être was — him coming to power, was getting rid of them. And, you know, I think this language can be familiar to many people here in the United States, when they talk about Islamic terrorism, and they try and blame everything on that. That’s what Sisi has been trying to do. But this, I think any credible person can see that it has nothing to do with that.
And finally, if we’re looking at the U.S. response, the only, I think, presidential candidate who has said anything is Bernie Sanders, who tweeted a couple of times, most recently last night, saying the right of protesting is an international right, and Egypt should exercise self-restraint. Senator Bob Menendez, Chris Murphy also tweeted similar things, as did a congressmember whose name escapes me.
But I think we have to really watch what’s happening right now in Egypt, because despite — these are unorganized protests. There’s no political movement backing this. Everything has been shut down politically for years now. So, it’s spontaneous. It’s random. It’s hard to call this a movement. But certainly, I would say that something changed on September 20th, that there was a before and there was an after, and the way Sisi is viewed and the way he’s talked about, and knowing that there’s this widespread discontent, just amongst people themselves, I think, will reverberate and have a real effect.
AMY GOODMAN: Do you see a possible reprise of the Arab Spring?
SHARIF ABDEL KOUDDOUS: No, I don’t. I think that was a particular moment. And we have to remember that 2011, at least in Egypt, in Cairo and cities across the country, didn’t just happen out of a vacuum. I think that’s a dangerous way of looking at it. There was 10 years of organizing and movement building and politics happening. You know, up to 2 million workers went on wildcat strikes. All of these things brought what happened in 2011 together in a real movement. This is very different.
AMY GOODMAN: Has that all stopped, from then to now?
SHARIF ABDEL KOUDDOUS: There’s been, you know, the fiercest repression in Egypt. Any group, any person who tries to do anything is quickly imprisoned, or they’re subject to different kinds of penal measures. It’s been very hard to do anything. Having said that, there is, I think — I’m always amazed by the bravery and the perseverance of people in Egypt to continue their work and to continue pushing back, despite the dangers of doing so.
There’s also a lot of talk that there’s an internal struggle within the regime, that Muhammad Ali, this contractor who put up these videos, is somehow backed by elements within the regime that are dissatisfied with the way Sisi has handle things. Sisi has really lost a lot of popularity. There has been disagreement over those Red Sea islands that were handed over to Saudi Arabia. Within the regime, within the judiciary, they weren’t happy about that. A former chief of staff of the military, who dared to run against Sisi in the 2018 election —
AMY GOODMAN: We have 20 seconds.
SHARIF ABDEL KOUDDOUS: — was imprisoned for 10 years. And this is someone who was from the military establishment. So, there’s talk of things being back, but it’s very opaque, and it’s very hard to know.
AMY GOODMAN: How do you remain safe when you return?
SHARIF ABDEL KOUDDOUS: I continue to do my work, but I don’t think they focus on me too much.
AMY GOODMAN: I want to thank you so much, Sharif. Be safe. Sharif Abdel Kouddous, Democracy Now! correspondent, reporter for Mada Masr, an independent media outlet in Cairo.