Over 1,900 arrested as Egypt braces for more demonstrations planned for Friday against rule of Abdel Fatah al-Sisi
Egyptian authorities have made it clear that they intend to use force to quell Friday’s planned demonstrations against the rule of the president, Abdel Fatah al-Sisi.
Public dissent has been all but extinguished under the former army general, who swept to power in a military coup in 2013, making any form of protest extremely dangerous.
More than 1,900 people have been arrested since rare protests broke out last weekend, and on Thursday the ministry of the interior “affirmed that it will confront any attempt to destabilise the country with decisiveness”, according to local media.
Central Cairo was heavily guarded as riot police, vans of security officials and plainclothes police spread out along the network of streets surrounding Tahrir Square, the epicentre of Egypt’s 2011 revolution.
The figures for the arrests were compiled by the Cairo-based NGO the Egyptian Center for Economic and Social Rights. Bystanders and others who had little to do with the protests were reportedly detained along with the demonstrators, and those arrested were being held across the country.
Several prominent opposition figures have been detained, despite no indication that any were involved with the new wave of dissent.
The award-winning human rights lawyer Mahienour el-Massry was seized outside a Cairo courthouse where she was defending protesters. Days later, journalist and opposition politician Khaled Dawoud was arrested, as well as the political scientist Hassan Nafea and Hazem Hosny, a former spokesperson for the former military chief of staff Sami Anan, who remains in detention after attempting to run for president last year.
Exiled former contractor Mohamed Ali, whose videos alleging rampant corruption within the Egyptian military sparked the recent protests, has called for a million people to march on Friday. It was unclear on Thursday whether the use of teargas, rubber bullets, beatings and live ammunition against those who took to the streets last weekend has discouraged would-be protesters from heeding that call.
Tahrir Square resembled a fortress on Thursday. Blue-and-white Egyptian police vans equipped with GPS-tracking technology sat at the entrance to nearby bridges. Across central Cairo, police stopped and searched pedestrians, sometimes seizing their phones to search for political content. People living in the surrounding neighbourhoods worried about raids on their homes.
Despite the risks, some were determined to protest. “I will go down and participate, because it can not get worse than the current situation. We are not worth anything in this country,” said Fatma, a teacher from the Egyptian coastal city of Alexandria.
An information battle raged online and on the airwaves. The Egyptian authorities struggled to maintain the image of business as usual, while pro-government outlets derided videos of the protests as fake.
Meanwhile the web-monitoring organisation NetBlocks reported that Egypt’s internet was experiencing increasing restrictions, including disruption to Twitter, Facebook messenger and Skype. Egypt’s media regulator said the BBC was “likely blocked,” due to its “inaccurate coverage”, of the protests.
Sisi has repeatedly made it clear that he won’t tolerate any dissent. Ahmed Mohy, a lone protester who publicly held a sign in Tahrir Square demanding that Sisi step down, was arrested in March and is yet to be released. Twenty-one people were arrested last May and later imprisoned on terrorism charges for protesting against a fare rise on the Cairo metro. There are an estimated 60,000 political prisoners in Egypt.
The Egyptian leader blamed “political Islam”, for the protests during a trip to the UN general assembly this week, a reference to the banned Muslim Brotherhood group.
The British prime minister, Boris Johnson, praised Sisi during a bilateral meeting in New York, mentioning only “positive progress in our bilateral relationship”, and ignoring the crackdown back home. The US president, Donald Trump, who has called Sisi his “favourite dictator”, dismissed the protests in Egypt. “Everybody has demonstrations,” he said.
Egyptians’ living conditions have progressively worsened while the risks of speaking out have grown. An estimated 32.5 million people live below the poverty line according to the government’s own figures published in July. Citizens have weathered years of harsh austerity measures including deep subsidy cuts and price increases for basic goods.
Yet despite widespread discontent, many were troubled by fears that renewed protests could bring unrest and further destabilise the economy, or create a fresh wave of repression that threatens to ensnare even more of the population.
“I never went to a protest, and I will never go. There is a lot of wrong things in the country, some people are literally eating from the garbage. But protesting and riots will make things worse,” said Sayed, a 34-year-old fast-food worker in Cairo. “God knows I agree with what they say, but I’m alone and I have no one to defend me. So I can only focus on putting bread on the table,” he added.
Others felt that participating might be their only remaining option. “I will watch what is going to take place in the streets, as I don’t want to be just a number,” said Fatma. “I want to make a difference. I want to do something good in order for my kids to have a better life.”