CAIRO: Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi on Friday dismissed a call for the second weekend of protests as “no reason for concern”, with hundreds already arrested in an intensifying crackdown on a rare show of discontent on the streets.
Last week’s open defiance of President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi — triggered by viral videos from exiled Egyptian businessman Mohamed Aly — has surprised observers in a country where the opposition of all stripes has been severely curtailed.
Elected president in 2014 after pushing predecessor Mohamed Morsi and his Muslim Brotherhood from power the previous year, Sisi is seen by many as one of the most authoritarian figures in the Middle East.
Construction magnate Aly has called for a “million-man march” to take place Friday and a “people’s revolution” to unseat the uncompromising head of state.
But after he arrived home from the UN General Assembly in New York, Sisi on Friday insisted there was no cause for alarm. “There are no reasons for concern. Egypt is a strong country thanks to Egyptians,” he told reporters with a smile.
“The case does not deserve all” this attention, Sisi said. “It is an attempt to create an image that is absolutely not real.” Roadblocks prevented traffic from entering Cairo’s Tahrir Square on Friday morning, AFP journalists said, although it was still possible to move into the area on foot.
Aly accuses Sisi of building lavish palaces while taxpayers grapple with the impact of austerity under an IMF loan programme totalling $12 billion. In recent days, security has been visibly stepped up, especially in Tahrir Square — the epicentre of the 2011 popular revolt that toppled long-time autocrat Hosni Mubarak.
That iconic location was key to last week’s demonstrations, which broke out after a football match with protesters chanting “leave, Sisi!” and accusing him of heading a “military regime”.
Alongside beefing up their presence on the streets, the security forces have also detained people they suspect of being key influencers of unrest — journalists, human rights activists and lawyers.
– ‘Wrong place, wrong time’ –
Human Rights Watch said Friday that nearly 2,000 people had been arrested over the past week, in what could be the biggest crackdown since 2013.
“Lawyers for detainees have posted on their social media pages several accounts of security forces arbitrarily arresting many people merely for being in the ‘wrong place at the wrong time’ or possessing critical content on their phones,” the rights group said.