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Anti-corruption protests roiling Egypt add to regional insecurity

protestors in the street in Cairo
Anti-government protesters in Cairo. Photo: Oliver Weiken/picture alliance via Getty Images

Chaotic protests across Egypt this weekend — prompted by videos exposing corruption in President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi's military-backed government — underscore the population's weariness with economic hardship due in part to government austerity measures.

Why it matters: While Sisi markets Egypt as an island of stability in a turbulent region, popular dissatisfaction with his regime threatens that image. Whether the protests escalate or fizzle, the country remains a potential powder keg in a highly strategic location: straddling the Suez Canal, flanked by Israel and Libya, and across the Mediterranean from Europe.

Where it stands: Authorities have arrested several hundred protestors so far. Meanwhile, Sisi is in New York for the meeting of the UN General Assembly.

  • While most of this weekend's protests involved no more than a few hundred people each, they are the most significant demonstrations since Sisi took power in a military coup in 2013.

Background: Sisi has ruled with an iron fist, killing several thousand and imprisoning some 60,000.

  • Nearly all political and social movements active before the coup have been crushed, leaving few leaders to formulate coherent protest demands or to negotiate with the military and security apparatus.
  • Sisi has cut government expenditures but failed to empower the private sector to create jobs. And he has prioritized expensive vanity projects, such as a new administrative capital, over core needs like labor force development and water conservation.

Between the lines: While Sisi has sharply increased the military’s share of economic activity and political power, those benefits fall unequally, giving rise to internal power struggles.

  • This has led some Egyptians to speculate that factions within the military or intelligence services may have encouraged releasing evidence of corruption, potentially for their own gain.

The bottom line: While there is no clear path to peaceful change, Sisi’s continued rule promises to drive Egyptians into increasingly desperate circumstances, as well as to increase security headaches for Europe and the U.S., which funds Egypt’s military to the tune of $1.3 billion annually.

Michele Dunne is the director and a senior fellow in the Middle East Program at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.