Isolated protests and increased militancy both likely ahead of 25 January anniversary
The Muslim Brotherhood has issued a series of press releases over the past few weeks as part of its “January brings us together” campaign. The group is calling for demonstrations against President al-Sisi, in the lead up to the 25 January anniversary of the 2011 uprising against former President Mubarak. The statements released via the group’s official website have focused on the economic hardships facing ordinary Egyptians, government authoritarianism, the unstable security situation, as well as opposition to the proposed sale of the Red Sea islands of Tiran and Sanafir to Saudi Arabia.
This focus on issues unrelated to Islam or the Government’s crackdown against the Brotherhood itself, illustrates the group’s attempt to attract support from across Egyptian society ahead of 25 January. Continued economic weaknesses and difficulties in combating extremism have seen criticism of al-Sisi grow among non-Islamists in recent months, and the Brotherhood’s campaign is seeking to exploit this to maximise opposition to the President. However, the lack of any declarations of support from other groups illustrates that the movement, which remains weakened and divided due to the crackdown against it, is unlikely to be able to coordinate sustained, widespread protests.
Unrest in Cairo and other urban centres is therefore likely to remain isolated and low-level. However, there is a risk of discord in the North Sinai. Tribal leaders have threatened strikes, accusing the Government of carrying out “extrajudicial killings” of six men, in the wake of two attacks by the Islamic State affiliated Ansar Jerusalem (AJ) in al-Arish on 9 January, that claimed the lives of eight security personnel. AJ will therefore look to carry out further attacks to raise tensions here. The group may also look to act on the mainland following its bombing of a Coptic Christian chapel adjacent to Cairo’s St Mark’s Cathedral on 11 December. However, the group’s presence and capabilities remain more modest on the mainland, limiting the threat outside of the North Sinai.
Islamist militants from the Movement of the Hands of Egypt may also look to attack police and military targets in the capital, where it has an established presence, in the hope this will stimulate a crackdown that may fuel the anniversary protests. We therefore anticipate an increased tempo of violence against security forces across the country as the 25 January approaches. This is, however, unlikely to trigger protests large enough to significantly threaten al-Sisi’s position at present given the overall weakness of the Islamists.
Meanwhile, Egypt’s highest court ruled against the Government’s sale of Tiran and Sanafir Islands to Saudi Arabia on 16 January. This will give al-Sisi a boost by reducing nationalist anger towards the regime. The President’s initial decision to approve the sale met with significant hostility among his support base, and the judgment will limit support for further protests. Relations with Riyadh will however remain strained, and lessen the likelihood of the Kingdom resuming oil shipments - suspended since October - in coming months. Riyadh may also cut back on other investment pledges that it had linked to the transfer of Tiran and Sanafir, perpetuating Cairo’s current economic difficulties, and perhaps making it more difficult for the regime to retain popular support in the longer-term.