Benjamin Netanyahu was desperately trying to cobble together a coalition last week when Israel’s principal challenger Egypt startled the world with faint signs of recalling its rumbustious political past. Time was when Jawaharlal Nehru, Josip Broz Tito and Gamal Abdel Nasser led the non-aligned nations movement. Yugoslavia has now fragmented into half a dozen countries. India has turned to worship mythic Hindu deities of whom Mammon seems the most outstanding. And Egypt has been in bondage to Nasser’s foes since Anwar Sadat’s time.
The question that must loom large in everyone’s mind now is how Donald Trump’s United States of America perceives its interests are best served in West Asia. Mr Trump has already proved to be Mr Netanyahu’s best friend and sponsor. He agreed to Israel illegally shifting its capital from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem. He acquiesced in Israel trampling on international law and justice to annex the Golan Heights seized from Syria in the 1967 war. Moreover, Mr Netanyahu is suspected of clearing with him the sinister plan to kill once and for all the two-nation peace strategy by annexing one-third of what remains of the West Bank so that there is no territory left for a viable independent Palestine.
West Asia has often looked for the West’s approval before taking a momentous step. Mohammed Naguib, Egypt’s first president, cleared the plan to depose King Farouk with Washington. Iraq’s Saddam Hussein may not have gone to war with Iran if the American envoy in Baghdad hadn’t indicated that the US would support the adventure. It has long been evident that the so-called Arab Spring was less a spontaneous flowering of democracy than a finely calibrated American strategy to topple nationalist local leaders (even Libya’s Muammar Gaddafi who was only too anxious to buy peace) who were seen to stand in the way of overseas–some would say imperial–US strategies. Historians have listed a series of Arab and Palestinian peace overtures that Israel, backed by the US, rejected because in one way or another they did not serve American policy.
Given this background, it is impossible to say yet whether the thin voice of protest heard last week in Cairo means Washington has decided that Abdel Fattah el-Sisi, the present president, has outlived his usefulness or whether the protest does indeed reflect local sentiment. There has been nothing so far to compare with the 2011 uprising with massive gatherings in Cairo’s historic Tahrir Square that toppled the former leader, Hosni Mubarak, who blamed the banned Muslim Brotherhood for all his troubles. So does Mr Sisi who assumed power in a military-backed coup in 2013 that overthrew Egypt's first democratically-elected president, Mohamed Morsi. Morsi, who died in June, having spent the entire time since he was deposed in custody.
His successor has gained a reputation for not permitting any criticism. Yet, protests appear to have broken out in parts of Egypt with demonstrators calling for the president’s departure amid a high security alert. It began following Friday prayers in the Warraq area of what is called the Giza governorate when demonstrators chanted slogans calling for Mr Sisi’s resignation and condemning the deterioration of living conditions as well as the spread of corruption. According to witnesses and security sources, the police had to fire tear gas to disperse up to 1,000 protesters shouting "Leave Sisi". Demonstrations were also witnessed on the streets of Luxor and Qena governorates. In Cairo, security forces closed off entrances to Tahrir Square with a heavy police presence around the square and at some junctions in the city centre.
A major reason for wondering about the nature and strength of the movement is the apparently unorthodox source of the inspiration. Last week's protests were in response to a call for action from Mohamed Ali, an Egyptian businessman and former actor who claims to have made a modest fortune working as a contractor on projects for the Egyptian army, and who now lives in self-imposed exile in Spain. The dapper Mr Ali accuses Mr Sisi of wasting public funds on vanity projects despite widespread poverty and has called for a "million-man march" and "people's revolution" to topple the president.
Mr Sisi, who naturally rejects all such allegations, is not without supporters. His crackdown on dissent extends to liberal as well as Islamist groups and has effectively banned protests all these years. Meanwhile, pro-Sisi demonstrations have taken place in Alexandria, with buses ferrying people including company employees from Cairo and other cities to the rally, where crowds waved Egyptian flags and pictures of the president. Delta Sugar Company, a state firm, admits to bussing in workers from its factory in the Nile Delta and offices in Cairo. In a brief statement last Thursday, Egypt's interior ministry warned it would "confront any attempt to destabilise social peace in a firm and decisive way". Police now guard the entrances and exits of Cairo's Al-Fateh mosque, a starting point for the 2011 protests, while security forces have stepped up their presence in main squares. Plainclothes police check motorists' and pedestrians' mobile phones for political content. Although Mr Sisi plays down the challenge to his rule, saying there are "no reasons for concern", rights groups say nearly 2,000 people have been arrested.
Compared with the heady Tahrir Square rallies, the number of protesters calling for an end to Mr Sisi's rule seems insignificant and scattered across Egypt. But those handful of demonstrators are the first visible signs of political unrest in six years. Even official sources admit the poverty rate has risen to 33 per cent, taxes have gone up and subsidies decreased, at the behest of the International Monetary Fund which is seen as an instrument of Washington’s financial strategy. The military junta behind the president is as active in commercial undertakings ranging from selling cement to running schools as China’s People’s Liberation Army, and the old tactic of blaming the still popular Muslim Brotherhood for all Egypt’s ills only provokes derision. Mr Ali has been posting videos online telling tales of rampant corruption and implicating the president himself. His videos have spurred other Egyptians to post their own stories of corruption, including among military personnel, which prompts analysts to wonder if the real threat to the president comes from within. The conformist media has its head buried in the sand.
It may be that the US has decided to dump Mr Sisi as the assassinated Ngo Dinh Diem of South Vietnam, Ferdinand Marcos and the Shah of Iran were dumped. On the other hand, Mr Ali’s may be the authentic voice of Egyptian protest against misrule. Perhaps 100 million Egyptians are at last waking up after six years of enforced slumber.
The writer is the author of several books and a regular media columnist.