Hundreds of Egyptians took to the streets in Cairo and other cities in rare protests against the country’s president, Abdel Fatah al-Sisi, responding to an online call for a demonstration against government corruption.
Videos shared on social media showed protesters in central Cairo as well as the port cities of Alexandria and Suez, demanding that Sisi leave office. Protests also occurred in the towns of Damietta, Damanhur and Mahalla.
Demonstrations are all but illegal in Egypt after a broad crackdown on dissent under Sisi, who seized power following the overthrow of former president Mohamed Morsi in 2013.
Sisi’s rule has been marked by the repression of political opposition, civil society and any perceived criticism. Those taking to the streets risked arrest as well as the lingering threat of force by the Egyptian authorities.
Security forces moved to disperse the small and scattered crowds in Cairo late on Friday using teargas but many young people stayed on the streets in the centre of the capital.
Sisi could rule Egypt until 2030 under constitutional change.
Riot police, security force vehicles and plainclothes officers were visible in and around the square, after police shuttered many businesses in the vicinity and prevented traffic from accessing the area.
In a country with an estimated 60,000 political prisoners and where protests are expected to be met with force, observers marvelled at the demonstrators’ willingness to turn out even for a limited time.
“Protests are simply not possible in Egypt without permission from the authorities. We’ve seen many attempts in recent years that were broken up immediately,” said HA Hellyer of the Royal United Services Institute in London.
“All the grievances that led to people coming out on to the streets in substantial numbers in Egypt still exist and have done so for a while,” he added. “The question is whether or not the authorities will allow them to do so without a forceful crackdown. We simply don’t know yet what the calculus within the government will produce.”
Egypt’s tightly controlled pro-government media did little to respond to the protests. One channel showed an anchor broadcasting from Tahrir Square after it had been cleared of demonstrators, adding that a small group had gathered to take videos and selfies before leaving.
Mohammed Ali, a former military contractor and actor, had broadcast instructions to the protesters from Spain, where he is in exile, imploring Egyptians to go out into the streets after the end of a football match on Friday night.
The former building contractor released a series of viral videos on to social media, claiming that he possessed evidence of high level corruption committed by Sisi and the powerful military, whose control spreads into the construction sector.
Ali’s claims that the military is wasting public funds on mega-projects and a luxury hotel sparked debate among Egyptians, at a time when the average citizen is feeling the brunt of government-imposed austerity measures.
In a rare rebuke to criticism, Sisi recently dismissed the claims as “lies and slander”.
“The army is a … very sensitive institution toward any inadequate behaviour, especially if it was attributed to its leaders,” he said.
Sisi swept to power in a military coup preceded by a wave of popular protests in 2013. The military-backed leader was elected with 97% of the vote in 2014, and 97.8% four years later after running essentially unopposed.
A snap referendum in April granting Sisi sweeping new powers and allowing him to amend the constitution and remain in power until 2034 received almost 90% support.
While Sisi still commands support from some Egyptians who say that his rule represents a bulwark against the chaos of jihadist insurgency and the banned islamist Muslim Brotherhood group, his approval rating has long been difficult to gauge.
A 2016 poll by Baseera, the Egyptian Centre for Public Opinion Research, showed a drop in Sisi’s approval rating from 82% to 68%. No similar poll has been conducted since.
The spark of protest quickly spread to towns far from the capital, including Alexandria, Suez and the Nile delta town of Mahalla el-Kubra, about 68 miles (110km) north of Cairo, according to videos posted online.
Security forces inside Cairo moved quickly to assemble a heavy presence in the city centre and in the area around Tahrir Square, the symbolic site of the 2011 revolution that toppled former autocrat Hosni Mubarak.
More than 2,000 people have been arrested since protests began September 20.
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