The heartbreaking murder of a young woman activist has exposed the fragility in the rule of Abdel Fatah al-Sisi. Shaimaa al-Sabbagh, a well respected member of Egypt’s left wing Socialist Popular Alliance Party, was shot in the chest by riot police as she was preparing to lay a wreath in Tahrir Square on the fourth anniversary of the revolution.
Her murder spread panic through the regime that portrays itself as the guardian of a secular Egypt.
Shaimaa, who does not wear the veil, was pictured dying in the arms of her husband. At first the regime blamed members of the banned Muslim Brotherhood for her murder. But her killing, recorded on film and witnessed by a lawyer, tore a hole through the official version of events.
The Al-Ahram newspaper, considered the mouthpiece of the government, ran a front page accusing police of her murder. Thousands of people turned out for her funeral in Alexandria. Among them were workers from the textile factory, whose strike she supported. The mourners chanted “Down with the military regime” and “The interior ministry are thugs”.
The disquiet inside the regime reflects deep problems confronting Sisi. Many of Egypt’s working class neighbourhoods are hotbeds of discontent. Supporters of the Muslim Brotherhood, along with others who were part of the 25 January revolution, continue to organise demonstrations in defiance of the anti-protest laws brought in following the July 2013 coup.
Sisi’s regime continues to persecute left wing activists and Islamists. He has moved to “normalise” relations with Israel, reimposing the blockade on the Gaza Strip and ordering the demolition of villages near the border to choke off the supply tunnels that are vital for the survival of the Palestinians. Egyptian troops are also facing a growing Islamist insurgency in the Sinai Peninsula.
Meanwhile there has been a rash of strikes, among them the textile mills of Mahalla al-Kubra. The strikers’ demands over bonuses quickly morphed into calls for reforms to the wages system and for more investment.
The strike was called off after the government promised to pay the bonuses and “examine” other demands. That the military government is forced to compromise is a sign that the regime does not feel strong enough to confront workers.
The killings and continued protests are an embarrassment to Sisi, who is desperate to portray his rule as a return to stability. He was a guest at the Davos business jamboree and is planning a global investment conference in the Sharm el-Sheikh resort. The murder of Shaimaa, one of many killed attempting to commemorate the revolution, highlights his failure to quell the resistance to his regime.