In a move similar to the one taken ten years ago in Tunisia by Mohamed Bouazizi, and which inspired the protests of what became known as the “Arab spring” uprisings, Egyptian Mohamed Hosni chose the famous Tahrir Square in central Cairo to set fire to his body on Thursday.
By choosing this particular site for his act, Hosni wanted his voice and image to reach large segments of Egyptian society. Videos of his self-immolation were shared on social media and succeeded to carry the right political messages to those concerned.
The incident shone the spotlight on a difficult social and economic situation caused by a worsening poverty rate, jumping to 32.5 %, especially after scrapping the subsidies of basic commodities and the ensuing jump in their prices, not to mention the negative economic repercussions of the COVID-19 pandemic.
Mohamed Hosni is only a small sample of the suffering of many Egyptians.
Mahmoud Masoud, father of two, works as a doorman. He receives aid from the government in the form of a monthly allowance but he said his modest salary was not enough to cover his family’s needs for more than a week and he couldn’t find a way to earn extra income. So, he found himself forced to take his two children out of school, which is in longer free as it used to be anyway.
Masoud’s case applies to many Egyptians. Passers-by in the streets of Cairo or other cities can notice the increase in the rate of poverty through the increase in the number of beggars in the streets, and the high rate of violence in popular neighbourhoods, which confirms the existence of simmering popular anger at the government’s policies. Some of this anger represents the natural price for implementing economic reforms that are painful in any case, but a lot of it has resulted from the government’s inability to bridge theeconomic vacuum created by these policies.
The Egyptian government has put in place a number of social programs to help low-income people, such as “Takaful” and “Karama”, plus other emergency aid, but the demand far outstrips the offer, and there are still millions of people who suffer from poverty and have zero prospects of alleviating it.
Observers point out that these people represent a critical bloc in Egypt and could be the source of the next danger to the whole system. Public anger has been compounded and exacerbated by the economic fallout of the COVID-19 pandemic and the government has failed to meet the expectations and demands of a large segment of this bloc, a population who is no longer able to bear the cost of living and may, at any moment, lose patience and come out fighting.
The Egyptian government has so far succeeded in tightening the screws on the opposition forces in all their various hues, turning Egypt into an almost opposition-free country, at least none that we can see in the streets. Practically, all those working in politics—including those parties that were once standing in the ranks of the opposition and its trenches—are now revolving in the government’s orbit and support its visons and decisions.
With the option of demonstrating in the street taken away from the youth opposition, they have turned to voicing their opposition through social media sites, which are a bit like a virtual Hyde Park to them.
Followers notice a remarkable rise in the level of anger on social media, and different social segments no longer bother downplaying their discourse to take into account monitoring content by the security services. The remarkable increase in online opposition has in turn placed additional burden on the security services in their monitoring of the online content which more often than not includes harsh criticism and violent language.
The Egyptian government did not find it difficult to clamp down on the opposition by issuing a set of tough laws, just as it did not find it difficult to besiege terrorists and break their back in Sinai. Now, however, it faces the dilemma of dealing with the muted outbursts of anger that are vented via digital platforms or through some desperate street actions.
Public opinion polls conducted by official institutions in Egypt, whose reports go directly to the President of the Republic, confirm the expansion of public anger, as it moved from decrying inflation and price hikes to decrying the deterioration of economic conditions and rejecting many of the regime’s policies.
The popular base of the Egyptian regime is being eroded by the people themselves, and the mega national projects launched by President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi and his tireless attempts to alleviate the suffering of the majority of Egyptians do not find positive echoes in some segments of the society that struggle to find sustenance.
They are convinced that the majority of the road projects, bridges, new cities, and infrastructure development are meant for the wealthy, while slum renewal projects that target lower segments of society still have a long way to go in order to reach the majority of these segments who are willing to live in the open, provided that their basic needs of food, drink and clothing are met.
Government sources expressed their fear that the interaction of anger would lead to the creation of a large opposition bloc that would be difficult to define and decide how to deal with, because it includes millions who suffer from economic and social distress, with the government unable to alleviate their suffering.
Source in Cairo told The Arab Weekly, “The politicized opposition is easy to deal with, and the terrorists and the pockets of extremists have been defeated physically and morally.”
They stressed that “the fear now comes from the awakening of the poor and the marginalised and from doubling the political and social charge against the ruling regimewith the aim of exploiting the tension that is simmering under and above the surface, especially when the government does not have urgent alternatives to alleviate the pain of the citizens.”
As the 10th anniversary of the January 25 revolution that brought down Hosni Mubarak’s regime draws near, the intensity of using this situation for political goals stand to increase, aided somewhat by Joe Biden’s victory in the America presidential elections. The search for a popular icon that will bring the muffled anger of Egyptians out on the street still goes on.
So, if Mohamed Hosni’s suicidal attempt in Tahrir Square—the iconic site of the Egyptian Revolution—failed, and the desperate man was in the end rescued, then others could pick up the torch with no planning or political conspiracy pushing them to do it. The increasing pressure and popular rejection of the current conditions can produce icons of different shapes and colours, not necessarily similar to Bouazizi’s experience in Tunisia, or Khaled Said in Egypt itself, as the wretched on this earth have reached an alarming high level of discontent and feeling that they have been left holding the pointed end of the stick.