At the end of September 2001, former Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon stormed into Al-Aqsa Mosque compound, and hours later the Second (Al-Aqsa) Intifada erupted. Demonstrations swept through Arab capitals for weeks in conjunction with calls to boycott American and Israeli goods.
I was in my first year at university and saw thousands of students demonstrating at Cairo, Al-Azhar, Ain Shams and other Egyptian universities as well as in the streets and major squares. I will never forget the huge demonstration in Al-Azhar Mosque when thousands of angry Egyptians protested against Israeli violations of the sanctity of the third holiest site in Islam, and the Muslims' first Qiblah (direction of prayer).
Back then, the Egyptian security forces did not suppress any of these demonstrations. The Mubarak regime allowed people to express their outrage through protests and boycott campaigns denouncing the Israeli aggression. The regime was well-qualified to play this role, using the masses to send messages to the world while opening a limited space for them to express their anger over certain issues as long as they weren't linked to calls for democracy or the rotation of power in Egypt.
Such scenes came to mind as I followed how the current regime of Abdel Fattah Al-Sisi has handled the issue of the offensive cartoons of Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him) and the boycott of French products. Pro-regime media in Egypt pushed the message that the boycotts are Turkish blasphemies that must be shunned by the Egyptians, who shall champion the Prophet only by imitating his morals and values.
Ahmed Moussa is probably the journalist closest to Al-Sisi's regime. A few weeks ago, he called on the Egyptians to boycott Turkish goods in a campaign launched by Saudi Arabia and the UAE, which the regime in Egypt endorsed, as usual.
"Boycott campaigns are an expression of popular anger and have nothing to do with the positions of the ruling regimes," claimed Moussa. "It is a duty, because whoever chooses to be hostile to us shall be treated with the same attitude." I found myself agreeing with him for the first and perhaps the last time in my life.
This is precisely what Mubarak's regime believed, so why did Al-Sisi fail to follow Mubarak's lead? He could have restored Egypt as a key regional player, but opted not to. There are probably three main reasons for this.
For a start, Al-Sisi and his regime do not allow any organised popular movement to develop, even if it is meant to champion the Prophet (peace be upon him). The current military regime sees danger in any popular gathering, and boycott campaigns or even a united stand on social media are viewed as alarming threats to its stability and survival. If a popular campaign to boycott French goods in support of the Prophet succeeds, then perhaps another campaign calling people to civil disobedience or to take to the streets against Al-Sisi and his regime might also be effective. Or so the regime thinks.
Moreover, Cairo's relations with France have to be taken into account. This is exactly what Khaled Al-Jundi, a pro-regime religious figure, referred to when he said that "the economic relations between Egypt and France are solid" while reviewing some figures on trade exchange between the two countries based on a report of the Central Agency for Public Mobilisation and Statistics (CAPMAS). According to Al-Jundi, a boycott campaign could destroy the jobs of 38,000 workers in Egypt's French-owned factories.
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Perhaps the most important reason is the Egypt-Turkey dispute since the July 2013 military coup which brought Al-Sisi to power. The Egyptian regime, which is unable to keep pace with Turkish movements in the region, has abandoned Egypt's historical role in solving Arab and Muslim issues.
Nowadays, Al-Sisi's priority in such situations is to link any popular campaign to Turkey and thus, in his eyes, discredit it. This is what Amr Adeeb said on the Saudi channel MBC Egypt, when he emphasised that the boycott of French goods is the embodiment of a Turkish-French dispute and that the issue does not go beyond political rivalry.
What is happening now gave Al-Sisi a real opportunity to restore Egypt's reputation as a leading Arab and Muslim country, even in part. He could have imitated Mubarak, but instead insisted on continuing with his sterile policies that have made Egypt, its regime and media a joke.
The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.