Egypt: Digital generation back online to protest cost of living crisis

By Abir Sorour

Posted on Tuesday, 31 January 2023 10:58
A man looks at a laptop computer displaying Twitter in a cafe in Cairo, Egypt. (Photo by Peter Macdiarmid/Getty Images)

Egyptians struggling to cope with the country’s economic crisis are turning to online platforms to voice their fears over an uncertain future.

In the past four weeks, the Egyptian pound has lost around 40% of its value against the US dollar. Food prices have increased by between 30% to 60%. Around 60 million people in Egypt are just above or below the poverty line, according to the World Bank and local sources.

President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi has criticised the media for depicting Egyptians as unable to find food and essential goods. “I must blame the media. Why are you depicting Egyptians as desperate for food and drink? This is not acceptable. It is as if prices have increased. I am not saying that’s not true, but [I am saying] it is not the end of the world in Egypt,” he said.

The local Egyptian media, usually strongly supportive of the regime, has produced several reports featuring interviews with citizens in markets complaining about price increases.

Social and political demands

The president’s direct criticism has put a stop to that reporting, which is now focused on the government’s steps to help citizens cope with the economic crisis.

But on social media, a sphere that is relatively more difficult to control and police, anxiety has become widespread.

  • In 2011, social media was mainly used by the politicised, educated middle and upper classes, which were dubbed “the Facebook generation”.
  • In 2023, users of diverse class and education backgrounds and age groups are now using different platforms, including Facebook, YouTube, and TikTok, to voice their concerns.

One Facebook post said that “Egyptians in 2011 demanded: Bread, Freedom, social justice. Meanwhile in 2023, Egyptians demand: Bread”, reflecting the way that the economic crisis has overwhelmed other social and political demands.

Disturbing the peace

In Egypt, protesting or calling for demonstrations is illegal, and critics of the government are accused of “joining terrorist groups, spreading false news, or disturbing societal peace.” Several human rights groups have described these charges as vague and limiting freedom of expression to crack down on dissent.

“Online protests give individuals safety to complain without the direct threat of being detained or assaulted by the police,” a Civil Democratic Movement member says.

According to one local NGO, 2011, 2012, and 2013 witnessed a peak of physical protests. From 2014, confrontational protests decreased, giving rise to online protests such as posts, filing complaints to officials, demanding governmental intervention, or calling for boycotts. According to the same research, 2,450 online protests were documented in 2021, mostly sent to state officials and pro-government newspapers to solve infrastructure or services-related problems.

Popular coping mechanism

Daily, hundreds of social media posts and videos get shared by Egyptians echoing the hardships of coping with the economic crisis, complaining about price hikes and the inability of the government to regulate the markets, as well as criticising the government for spending massive funds on luxurious projects like the new administrative capital and high-rise resorts on the Mediterranean.

The media crackdowns have “made Egyptians resort to online channels,” a member of the Civil Democratic Movement, one of the last standing liberal-leftist political entities left in the country, tells The Africa Report.

One of the many examples is an Egyptian TikTok user who posted a video addressing the food prices surge. “We had enough Mr President. We can’t find rice or even pasta or bread, neither can we afford flour to bake our own bread,” she says in a video addressing the price hikes in her city. “This is our basic right: a piece of bread to eat. Enough Mr President.”

The TikTok user told The Africa Report that her audience is primarily housewives and the elderly. “We are not calling for revolution or chaos; we want the government to treat us like it treats foreigners. We want enough food and a decent future for our children, nothing more.”

However, some online critics receive threats and intimidation from the police, and others have been reported to have been detained. The Egyptian Penal Code says individuals can be detained for maliciously publishing false news and face imprisonment for up to one year or a fine of LE5,000-20,000 ($166-$662)

We had enough Mr President. We can’t find rice or even pasta nor bread, neither can we afford flour to bake our own bread.

In April 2022, three real-estate guards in their 40s were arrested after publishing satirical videos about rising inflation rates and were charged with spreading false information. One person claimed in a video that policemen had come to arrest her without a prosecution warrant but were unable to enter her apartment as she had just installed a metal door.

Even high-profile politicians are taking refuge in the online sphere.

Ahmed Tantawi, former Karama Party head and one of the most vocal critics of President al-Sisi, published a video on the anniversary of the 25 January revolution saying: “President Al-Sisi must bear the largest share of responsibility for what the situation in Egypt has reached, simply because he chose, over the nearly nine years, to rule alone.”

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