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Threat of Widespread Protests Justifies Continued Closure of Egyptian Stadia

Egyptian-general-turned-president Abdel Fattah Al-Sisi’s failed economic policies are prompting protests and widespread expressions of discontent.

While the grumbling is unlikely to mushroom any time soon into a popular revolt similar to the one that toppled President Hosni Mubarak in 2011, it goes a long way to explain why Mr. Al-Sisi has refrained from lifting the ban on spectators attending Egyptian soccer league matches which has been in place for much of the last five years.

With an anti-government protest scheduled for November 11 and sporadic ones already occurring, Mr. Al-Sisi fears that like in 2011, stadia, if opened, could again become rallying points for the discontented and disaffected.

Militant, politicized, and street battle-hardened soccer fans played a key role in the walk-up to the 2011 revolt, the protests on Tahrir Square that forced Mr. Mubarak out of office, and subsequent demonstrations against successive governments.

A Facebook page commemorates the revolt against Mubarak and has called for a revolution of the poor. The page has attracted until now only 40 interested people and 23 declarations of willingness to participate. While low, those numbers are problematic given Egypt’s draconic anti-protest law and brutal repression of any form of dissent, they likely represent a broader sentiment in society.

Despite the low probability that widespread discontent will jell into a large-scale willingness to run significant risk and defy the regime, the call for the protest is but one of a number of incidents signaling that anger in Egypt is beginning to boil at the surface.

In contrast to 2011 when the Egyptian military was held in high regard because of its refusal to crush the revolt on Mr. Mubarak’s behalf, the more recent incidents have targeted the armed forces, holding them responsible for the country’s dire economic straits.

Screengrab of the Egyptian man who set himself on fire. (via Twitter)
Screengrab of the Egyptian man who set himself on fire. (via Twitter)

An Egyptian taxi driver, in an incident similar to the one that sparked the popular revolt in Tunisia almost six years ago and the subsequent uprising elsewhere in the Middle East and North Africa, set himself alight last weekend in protest against rising prices and deteriorating living conditions.

The 30-year-old driver, Ashraf Mohammed Shaheen, who was rushed to hospital with burns covering 95 percent of his body, staged his protest in front of a military facility in the Mediterranean port city of Alexandria.

Mr. Shaheen’s protest resonated on Twitter where the hashtag #Bouaziz_Egypt gained significant traction. Mohamed Bouazizi was the Tunisian street vendor who set himself on fire in December 2010 and sparked the Arab popular revolts.

A video of a tuk tuk driver furious at Egypt’s economic plight that was initially broadcast on a pro-government station went viral at about the same time logging some six million hits on Al Hayat TV’s Facebook page before it was taken down. Another 4.4 million have since viewed it on another Facebook page where it had been posted.

“You watch Egypt on television and it’s like Vienna, you go out on the street and it’s like Somalia’s cousin…We had sufficient sugar and enough rice before the last presidential election and we even exported it. What happened? Where did the sugar go? They squander our money so-called national projects that are useless and education in Egypt that is very bad, even worse than you can ever imagine,” the driver fumed in a man-on-the-street interview in a popular Cairo neighborhood.

The driver was lamenting shortages of staples such as rice, sugar and oil due in part to a lack of foreign currency and the plunging value of the Egyptian pound on the black market. “What does it mean that the army says it will subsidize red meat? Why does the army control electricity? Why do they control gas? Why do they control the sewers?” she asked in reference to the military’s vast economic interests.

Mothers carrying their infants protested last month against the rising price of baby milk as a result of shortages. The protest prompted Mr. Al-Sisi to order the military to dispatch trucks across the country loaded with baby milk that soldiers sold at half the market price.

Earlier, Egypt’s state broadcaster attempted unsuccessfully to calm simmering anger with a series of television ads that highlighted the achievements of Mr. Al-Sisi’s government such as the expansion of the Suez Canal.

The immediate future holds out little hope of economic improvement. Mr. Al-Sisi has urged Egyptians to tighten their belts further in advance of a $12 billion bailout loan from the International Monetary Fund (IMF) that will require the government to take additional austerity measures, devalue the pound, and increase prices.

In the time of Mr. Mubarak, soccer stadia were one of the few places where Egyptians could vent their frustration and pent-up anger. The stadia also emerged as a grunt school for militant, well-organized soccer fans who became street battle-hardened in frequent clashes with the security forces.

With few exceptions, stadia have been closed since the protests against Mr. Mubarak erupted in January 2011. Mr. Al-Sisi has opted to keep the stadia closed despite repeated talk that fans would be allowed to return in apparent fear that they could again emerge as a venue to galvanize anti-government sentiment.