Egypt is bracing for a second weekend of protests on Friday, with authorities stepping up arrests and tightening security in major cities amid calls for a “million-man march” against President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi.
Nearly 2,000 people have been arrested, rights groups said, since rare protests broke out in several cities last week calling on el-Sisi to step down. Thousands had marched against the president’s rule after corruption allegations emerged surrounding his lavish spending.
Security forces detained several prominent Egyptian intellectuals and public figures, including Hassan Nafaa, a political science professor at Cairo University and well-known columnist.
“I have no doubt that the continuation of el-Sisi’s absolute rule will lead to disaster,” Nafaa said in a tweet on Tuesday, a day before he was arrested. “Egypt’s interest requires his departure today before tomorrow.”
Nafaa’s arrest followed the detention of Hazem Hosny, a spokesman for former army chief Sami Anan who was jailed last year for attempting to run against el-Sisi in a presidential election. Khaled Dawoud, the head of Al-Doustor Party who has been a vocal critic of the president’s policies, was also detained.
Authorities in Egypt have also blocked news websites and disrupted access to messaging platforms, according to monitoring groups.
Analysts and politicians say the crackdown reflects the government’s insecurity and vulnerability at a critical time as Egypt‘s economic woes intensify for the poor and middle class.
“The government’s mass arrests and internet restrictions seem intended to scare Egyptians away from protesting and to leave them in the dark about what’s happening in the country,” said Sarah Leah Whitson, Middle East and North Africa director at Human Rights Watch.
“The nationwide crackdown on protests suggests that President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi is terrified of Egyptians’ criticisms.”
‘Sisi is done’
Ayman Nour, an Egyptian opposition leader and former presidential candidate, said el-Sisi was also “trying to send a clear message to prominent generals and politicians who might provide an alternative to him.”
Nour said he expects more people will take to the streets now that “the fear barrier” has been broken, with the government’s heavy-handed approach only heightening people’s anger at worsening socioeconomic conditions.
Though small in scale, the rare public displays of anger followed calls for action from a contractor who previously worked with the Egyptian military, Mohamed Ali. The part-time actor was able to forge close ties with members of the political establishment and top brass of the armed forces, eventually becoming an insider.
In a series of videos posted online, he admitted to benefitting from government corruption, describing how his company, Amlak, was awarded lucrative state contracts without going through the proper bidding process.
Ali said he regretted being part of the rampant corruption among the army corps and el-Sisi’s relatives, including his wife Intissar. His description of opulent palaces and luxury hotels that he claimed to have built for el-Sisi – and for which he has yet to be paid – stood in sharp contrast to the deep poverty Egyptians currently live in. Official figures show one in three Egyptians live under the poverty line.
On Twitter, hashtags such as “come out you are not alone“, “you are done Sisi“, “Sisi must go“, and “Next Friday” generated tens of thousands of tweets and retweets calling on people to take to the streets peacefully to demand that el-Sisi step aside.
Egyptian Hollywood actor Amr Waked posted in Arabic to his almost seven million followers on Thursday: “Sisi is done … it is over for him and anyone who supports him now will be making a huge mistake.”
Addressing el-Sisi directly in the tweet, Waked added: “Get smart stupid. Leave and let the people take what belongs to them.”
Security forces have stepped up their presence in anticipation of more protests with policemen stopping anyone suspected of political activism.
Even government supporters have been caught in the crackdown. In one video, an el-Sisi sympathiser is seen broadcasting a live feed from Tahrir Square, the epicentre of the 2011 protests that forced former President Hosni Mubarak to resign. The man was interrupted by the police as he dismissed reports of demonstrators taking place there.
In another video posted on Twitter, a police officer fires a pistol in the direction of a balcony where a woman filmed security forces chasing a group of young Egyptians.
Since the military’s overthrow of President Mohamed Morsi in 2013, el-Sisi has overseen a broad crackdown against any dissent.
While members of the Muslim Brotherhood – to which Morsi belonged – were the main target of a heavy-handed approach to political dissent, arrests extended well beyond the group. Civil rights activists, journalists, and actors have also been targeted.
The president’s supporters have justified the measures as necessary to restore order and combat armed groups operating in the Sinai Peninsula.
But in his latest video, Ali, the contractor, said the counterterrorism narrative was a way for el-Sisi to sell himself to the world.
“To stabilise the region and impose peace, I have to combat terrorism. And to combat terrorism I need terrorists,” Ali said on Wednesday, paraphrasing the el-Sisi government’s argument to world leaders.
Follow Ali Younes on Twitter: @ali_reports
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