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Shortly after a deadly train crash killed 25 people in Cairo last month, Ahmed Mohie went to Tahrir Square, the ground zero of Egypt’s last revolution, with a poster that carried his message to the president: “Step down, Sisi.”
Like many Egyptians, the 34-year-old activist saw the train crash as the latest example of the country's failing infrastructure under a regime plagued by corruption. And like with many activists before him, the government's response was swift and punitive. Egyptian authorities quickly arrested Mohie and an unidentified man who appeared to be taking a picture of him. He streamed his arrest from a police van for 11 minutes on Facebook Live.
“Don’t forget me, don’t forget your country...I am not afraid of anything. I am sure I will be physically tortured,” Mohie said in the video.
He was thrown in jail and charged with joining a terrorist organization (a charge Egypt has come to use broadly under President Abdelfattah al-Sisi), but not before his message went viral online. Soon after his arrest, hashtags started trending on social media, but only one sprang to the top: “Be assured, you’re not alone.”
This hashtag is part of a defiant online protest campaign, spurred by a popular TV star, that has swept through Egypt in recent weeks. Launched four days before the Cairo train crash in February and later surfaced as a rallying cry for Mohie, the hashtag has come to signify the collective outrage over issues that plague Egyptian society: rampant government corruption, repressive policing and the stifling of dissent. Adding to the outrage is a new constitutional amendment being considered in Parliament that would allow Sisi to stay in power until 2034.
Public protests are illegal under Sisi’s increasingly authoritarian rule. Just in early March, at least 70 people were arrested at small, scattered anti-regime protests that spread across the country, with some people arrested in their homes. According to Mada Masr, an independent news outlet in Egypt, the defendants were charged with joining a terrorist organization and spreading false news. Last week, Sisi imposed tighter restrictions on websites and social media accounts with more than 5,000 followers, claiming they could constitute a threat to national security.
“[Social media] is their safest way to protest. Physical protests are almost always met by extreme violence.”
In the six years since Sisi took power in a military coup, Egyptian security forces have arrested or charged at least 60,000 political prisoners, according to Human Rights Watch.
Yet despite what Amnesty International has called the “worst crackdown on freedom of expression in the country’s recent history,” each day, more Egyptians are coalescing around the online campaign, which they see as their “last thread of hope” against a government that has effectively made protests illegal.
“President Sisi has overseen a brutal crackdown on all forms of political opposition and organizing. But he didn’t stop there: Freedom of expression, association, freedom of thought and movement have also been crushed by his security services,” said Philippe Nassif, advocacy director of the Middle East and North Africa at Amnesty International. “[Social media] is their safest way to protest. Physical protests are almost always met by extreme violence.”
Nearly one month on, the hashtag marks the most consistent campaign against Sisi since he took power, analysts said. Just 11 days ago, “Be assured, you’re not alone” was the top trending hashtag on Twitter in Egypt, Algeria, Morocco and Jordan.
“I think this campaign and any other campaign that invites people to peacefully criticize the government or organize protests is very threatening to the government,” said Amr Magdi, Middle East and North Africa researcher at Human Rights Watch. “It’s a government that derives its power from naked power and coercion, not from fulfilling citizens' needs and demands. Therefore any peaceful expression is perceived as a threat.”
The hashtag’s rising popularity can be attributed to TV host and regime critic Moataz Matar, who responded to Mohie’s very public arrest by encouraging his 1 million followers on Twitter to protest against the government's growing crackdown on speech and dissent.
He’s called for small acts of protest in the physical space. First he urged his followers to whistle and bang pots throughout the country every Wednesday night from 11-11:30 p.m, asking them to record the noise on their phones, so they can share the videos online and grow the movement there. In recent weeks, his calls for action have grown more tangible, encouraging people to write the campaign slogan on dollar bills and walls, and to stop paying their electric bills for one whole week.
Since the campaign started, Matar has been calling on people via Twitter, Facebook and his TV show to join the protests. The “Be assured, you’re not alone” hashtag has reached an estimated 410 million on social media, according to an analysis conducted by Brand24, a tool which tracks social media influence online.
“It could be the beginning of a social media movement.”
The campaign hasn’t escaped Sisi’ notice. Two days after his initial call for action went viral, the Central Bank of Egypt (CBE) announced a ban of any banknotes with writing on them, warning that they would no longer be recognized in bank transactions. And on Sunday, Egypt's state Information Service (SIS) accused the BBC of "promoting the lies of Muslim Brotherhood terrorist group" after the British state broadcaster published a piece on Matar’s "Be assured” hashtag campaign. In a statement, officials urged “all officials and Egyptian intellectuals” to boycott the BBC until it apologizes.
Matar’s protests have come at a high personal cost: He says Egyptian authorities disappeared his two siblings, their wives and four children earlier this month, raiding his mother’s house at dawn soon after the hashtag took off.
Yet he’s continued to advocate for freedom of speech and expression. Recently, he expanded the call to all Arab countries to join the Twitter campaign propelling the hashtag to trend in Jordan, Morocco and Algeria. The goal, he said, is to unite neighboring countries around the principles of freedom of speech and expression.
For now, analysts and activists said the online campaign is about giving Egyptians an outlet to voice their true feelings in an increasingly hostile environment. But things could change quickly.
The protests come at a time when analysts said Sisi appears particularly vulnerable. The country’s economy continues to suffer, and foreign debt has ballooned from $35 billion in December 2010 to $92.6 billion in June 2018. Poverty rates are also on the rise: according to AlBorsa, a newspaper based in Egypt, the proportion of people below the poverty line rose to 30.2 percent in 2018, up 5 percent since the Arab Spring, and the highest poverty rate since 1999. Prices in Egypt have also dramatically increased since Sisi floated the currency in 2016, stoking a wave of anger over the cost of living.
“The economy is very bad, infrastructure and social services even worse, and Egyptians are growing restless and frustrated,” said Amnesty’s Nassif. “It [the hashtag campaign] could be the beginning of a social media movement.”
Cover: A large election poster for president Abdel Fattah el-Sisi in Cairo, pictured on 13 March 2018. (Photo by Matthias Toedt/dpa/AP Images)