More than 1,900 people have been arrested in Egypt in the last week, as the country braces for further demonstrations on Friday against the rule of president Abdel Fatah al-Sisi.
The figures 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.
Egyptian authorities also arrested several prominent opposition figures, despite no indication that any were involved with this new wave of dissent.
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 political scientists Hassan Nafea and Hazem Hosny, and former spokesperson for ex-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 this Friday. But after tear gas, rubber bullets, beatings and live ammunition were used against demonstrators who took to the streets to call for Sisi’s ousting last weekend, questions of how security forces could respond and whether they may resort to deadly force cast a shadow over coming events.
As a clear warning to potential demonstrators, downtown Cairo was heavily guarded on Wednesday. Riot police, vans of security officials and plainclothes police stood guard along the network of streets surrounding Tahrir Square, the epicentre of Egypt’s 2011 revolution.
The symbolic site had become a fortress. Blue-and-white Egyptian police vans equipped with GPS-tracking technology sat at the entrance to nearby bridges. Police stopped and searched pedestrians in downtown Cairo, 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.
Under Sisi, who swept to power in a military coup in 2013, public dissent has been extinguished, making any form of protest extremely dangerous. Ahmed Mohy, a lone protester who publicly held a sign in Tahrir Square demanding that Sisi stepped down, was arrested in March and is yet to be released. 21 people were arrested last May and later imprisoned on terrorism charges for protesting against a fare rise on the Cairo metro. The country currently detains an estimated 60,000 political prisoners.
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. 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. 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 better life.”