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Rare Egypt protests give new resonance to actor's viral videos

Claudia Maedler, Bloomberg News on

Published in News & Features

It took an unlikely trigger to get Egyptians back on the streets of Cairo to protest against President Abdel-Fattah El-Sisi's government.

More than eight years after Egypt's uprising against then-leader Hosni Mubarak, and reeling under worsening living standards, hundreds of people defied a ban on protests to demonstrate in several major cities late Friday. The apparent inspiration: a series of online videos by a fledgling actor and ex-government contractor alleging corruption all the way at the top.

While small, the very existence of the protests was a stark reminder of simmering disquiet in the North African nation of 100 million that's seen two uprisings since 2011. The response of El-Sisi, an ally of U.S. President Donald Trump and who typically cracks down on dissent, could be crucial for the Arab world's most populous nation. He has dismissed the allegations as baseless.

Any more instability could mean further turmoil for Egypt's economy and its reputation among emerging-market investors. The benchmark EGX30 index for stocks declined 5.3% on Sunday, the most in a session since June 2016.

"It's not so much the size of the demonstrations, it's that they are happening at all," said Mohammad Darwazah, a director at Medley Global Advisers. "It's significant because this regime has a zero-tolerance policy for dissent. But when you shut down all institutions that can provide a release valve, frustration will inevitably grow."

The challenge for El-Sisi, who was elected after overthrowing and jailing an Islamist president amid mass demonstrations in 2013, comes as protesters in nearby Algeria remain in the streets demanding regime change long after the ouster of veteran leader Abdelaziz Bouteflika, and in wake of the April overthrow of Omar Al-Bashir by Sudan's military.

 

Authorities used tear gas to break up Friday's demonstrations and there were several arrests, according to rights groups. The protests took many by surprise, including activists who took part in the 2011 revolt, as well as state-run media, though there's little indication whether the action will snowball into further unrest.

In a video from self-imposed exile in Spain, Mohamed Ali, who's appeared in a few Egyptian films and says he owned a construction firm with links to the military, hailed the protests he'd been urging.

"Didn't Sisi see what happened yesterday?" he said in a dispatch posted Saturday on social media, the latest in a series that has gone viral. He speculated that the Egyptian leader "must be confused now and doesn't know what to do."

Egypt has long been seen as key to stability in the broader Middle East. The 2011 downfall of Mubarak rippled across the region, bringing turmoil in its wake. After the army's overthrow of an elected president from the Muslim Brotherhood, Gulf Arab nations poured in money to assist a government that had routed one of the region's major forces of political Islam.

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