Heavy police presence in Egyptian capital Cairo after protests
Tear gas used to disperse demonstrators who called for the president to step down
Egyptian protesters shouting anti-government slogans during a demonstration in downtown Cairo. Photograph: EPA
The centre of the Egyptian capital Cairo was on Sunday gripped by a heavy police presence following protests in the city’s iconic Tahrir Square and other Egyptian cities.
The demonstrations on Friday, while small, were an unusual show of defiance against the regime of Abdel Fattah el-Sisi, the president, who has ruled with an iron fist since 2014. Police in Cairo used tear gas to disperse scattered protests by demonstrators calling for Mr Sisi to step down.
The Egyptian Center for Economic and Social Rights, a civil society group, said so far a total of 274 people had been arrested in the capital, in the port city of Alexandria, and in Nile Delta towns.
The protests came in response to online calls for demonstrations by Mohamed Ali, a disgruntled building contractor who had worked with the Egyptian military before fleeing to Spain. There he has made a series of videos alleging misuse of public funds by Egypt’s army and the president. The videos have gone viral over the past two weeks.
Mr Ali over the weekend called for the protesters to come out again this Friday. He cited projects he said he was involved in, such as the building of a luxury hotel and presidential residences as examples of wasteful spending.
Protests have been banned in Egypt since 2013 after Mr Sisi, who was then defence minister, ousted his elected Islamist predecessor. He was elected president in 2014, and since then his regime has cracked down on dissent, arresting thousands of people, mostly Islamists, but also secular activists and journalists.
State media accused the banned Muslim Brotherhood group of seeking to destabilise the country, suggesting they were behind the latest unrest.
Mr Sisi has dismissed Mr Ali’s claims as “sheer lies and defamation” aimed at undermining the country and weakening confidence in its army and president.
Under his rule the military has widened its involvement in the economy and has overseen billions of dollars’ worth of infrastructure projects acting as the state’s main contractor.
Mr Sisi said: “The army is patriotic, honourable and strong. Its firmness stems from its honour.” He did, however, confirm that he had “built presidential palaces”, and said he would continue to do so. “All of this is not mine. It belongs to Egypt.”
Despite Mr Ali’s unlikely background – he explained he was angry because he had not been paid around $13 million by the military – his daily online diatribes against the regime appear to have hit a nerve with many Egyptians.
Economic reforms under a loan deal with the IMF have earned Mr Sisi international praise, but inflation coupled with austerity measures have added to the burdens on the poor and the middle classes. Government figures recently released show that a third of all Egyptians live below the poverty line – a rise of more than 4 million people between 2015 and 2018.
Tahrir Square was the epicentre of the 2011 revolution that toppled Hosni Mubarak, the longtime authoritarian president. Protesters occupied it for 18 days until the military forced Mr Mubarak to step down.
– Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2019