Two years ago nationalism sparked massive protests in Egypt. Could it happen again?

Protesters shout slogans against Egyptian President Abdel Fatah al-Sissi during a demonstration on April 15, 2016, in Cairo. The protests were over transfer of sovereignty of the two Red Sea islands, Tiran and Sanafir, from Egypt to Saudi Arabia. (Amr Nabil/AP)
Protesters shout slogans against Egyptian President Abdel Fatah al-Sissi during a demonstration on April 15, 2016, in Cairo. The protests were over transfer of sovereignty of the two Red Sea islands, Tiran and Sanafir, from Egypt to Saudi Arabia. (Amr Nabil/AP)

Earlier this month, Egyptian President Abdel Fatah al-Sissi won reelection with a sweeping 97 percent of the vote, in what was widely considered a sham election. Overall participation was only 41 percent of registered voters, falling short of the 47 percent four years ago. The low turnout was effectively a gauge of the faltering popular support for the nationalist policies of Sissi, whose campaign centered on his ability to safeguard security and stability.

In the Egyptian context, nationalism is often understood as a tool wielded by the state to co-opt and redirect street pressure for reform into support for a strong state. By using populist nationalist discourse, some claim Sissi seemed to have struck a “winning formula” for popular support and legitimacy. However, my research on opposition protests and alliance building in Egypt demonstrates that reliance on his nationalist discourse is a double-edged sword. As the April 2016 “island protests” show, nationalism may not only support authoritarian domination but also inspire powerful resistance to such projects.

A tale of two islands

Two years ago, thousands of protesters gathered in provincial capitals on April 15 to demonstrate against the transfer of sovereignty of the two Red Sea islands Tiran and Sanafir from Egypt to Saudi Arabia. The largest protests since the Islamist anti-coup campaign in the aftermath of the 2013 military coup, the demonstrations were marked by a coalition of strange bedfellows. Similar to the revolutionary coalition of 2011, the “Egypt is not for Sale” movement comprised Islamists, liberals, leftists and even nationalist youth who had previously toed the regime’s line.

Many of these groups had been adversaries before but took jointly to the street to denounce the cession of Egyptian territory and defend the people’s sovereignty over their homeland. Notably their discourse carried the marks of both the new political language of the Arab uprisings and the patriotic lingo of the Sissi-era, bridging nationalist movements like Tamarod, moderate-Islamic groups like the Strong Egypt Party and revolutionary youth movements like April 6 and the Revolutionary Socialists.

Soon, broader sociopolitical demands resurfaced, such as the release of political prisoners, the revision of assembly and information provision laws and the dismissal of government officials. On April 24, the Strong Egypt Party confirmed that the campaign’s goal transcended the issue of the two islands, highlighting that they still included “state justice, freedom, democracy, rule of the people, neutrality of the institutions of both military and security forces, and the dignity of all citizens without distinction or discrimination.” The April 6 Movement went even further, stressing that a new chapter had begun of what had been started in 2011.

The aftermath of the island protests has demonstrated that this interpretation was not too far-fetched. Even though the island coalition dissolved, because repression successfully kept a lid on street demonstrations and opposition leaders were tied up in several lawsuits, it became a catalyst for contention on several other fronts. Dissent soon manifested as sectoral protests, driven first by the journalist syndicate, then spread to the lawyers’ and doctors’ syndicates and the education sector.

Nationalism as a double-edged sword in Sissi’s second term

Analysts have argued that the greatest challenge facing Sissi during his second term is no longer protest, but rather competing powerhouses within the security establishment and division among the ruling elite. As was the case before the 2011 uprisings, few see a chance for mass demonstrations in the foreseeable future, given the current level of repression and restriction of public spaces.

However, the 2016 island protests have shown that potential challenges for Sissi’s rule not only stem from mass uprisings with hundreds of thousands of participants. As scholars have highlighted in the wake of the 2011 uprisings, there is significant power in “the subversion of the very images that the rulers have tried to project as evidence and instrument of their dominion.” The Tiran and Sanafir island controversy undermined the regime’s nationalist image. Egyptian authorities had seriously underestimated the emotional bond between the Egyptian people and their homeland, strengthened through fights against colonialism and military and diplomatic battles over Sinai with Israel.

In his second term, several sensitive issues loom that could test Sissi’s nationalist credentials, creating new opportunities for mobilization and protest coalitions. This year, Ethiopia will likely complete construction of its hydroelectric dam in the headwaters of the Nile, potentially changing the water supply on which Egypt so heavily depends. Though Sissi has warned that any cutback of Egypt’s water supplies would be treated as a direct threat to its national security, he has made little headway in deterring the project.

Meanwhile, the “war on terror” places Sissi in a quandary between the need to deepen security cooperation with Israel in Sinai and the strong anti-Israeli sentiments of the Egyptian public. This predicament is exacerbated by President Trump’s push for a stronger Egyptian role in the Arab-Israeli negotiations and widespread rumors of a secret plan to settle the conflict by establishing a Palestinian state in Sinai. Finally, the island controversy will inevitably resurface given the Saudi plans to establish a $500 billion economic zone on the coast of the Red Sea. The mega city “Neom” will include Jordanian and Egyptian territories — including the recently ceded Tiran and Sanafir islands. It is unlikely that the Sissi administration will be able to keep a lid on all of these highly symbolic issues. Should it fail to deliver on its promise to protect the nation’s interest once more, nationalism might once again unite the opposition and drive Egyptians to the streets in protests against the regime.

Jannis Grimm is an associate researcher at the Institute for Social Movement and Protest Studies Berlin (ipb) and a doctoral fellow at the Berlin Graduate School Muslim Cultures and Societies, Freie Universität Berlin. He tweets @jannisgrimm

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