El-Sisi plays down protest call as Egypt tightens security

President tells supporters not to worry as security forces ramped up checks and closed off Tahrir Square in Cairo.

    Egyptian security forces block the road leading to Cairo's Tahrir square on September 27, 2019 [Khaled Desouki/AFP]
    Egyptian security forces block the road leading to Cairo's Tahrir square on September 27, 2019 [Khaled Desouki/AFP]

    Egypt's President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi has played down a call for protests against his rule, saying there were "no reasons for concern" even as the army and the police tightened security in the capital, Cairo, and other major cities.

    The dismissal on Friday came as rights groups said nearly 2,000 people have so far been arrested in a broad crackdown following last week's small but rare demonstrations against el-Sisi, who took power in a 2013 coup.

    "There are no reasons for concern. Egypt is a strong country thanks to Egyptians," the president told reporters with a smile, shortly after his return from the United Nations General Assembly (UNGA) in New York.

    In Cairo, security forces closed off entrances to Tahrir Square, the hub of the 2011 uprising that toppled former leader Hosni Mubarak. There was a heavy police presence around the square and at some junctions in the city centre.

    Egypt's Ministry of Interior, in a brief statement on Thursday, warned it would "confront any attempt to destabilise social peace in a firm and decisive way".

    Last week's protests were in response to a call for action from Mohamed Ali, an Egyptian businessman who accused el-Sisi of wasting public funds on vanity projects despite widespread poverty. The former military contractor, who lives in self-imposed exile in Spain, has called for a "million-man march" and a "people's revolution" to topple el-Sisi.

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    In a new video posted on Thursday night, Ali urged protesters not to clash with security forces and said Tahrir Square must not be the focus of the "Friday of Salvation" protests. "All the squares in Egypt are Tahrir Squares," he said.

    El-Sisi, who came to power after leading the military overthrow of then-President Mohamed Morsi in 2013, has rejected Ali's allegations. He has overseen a broad crackdown on dissent that has extended to liberal as well as Islamist groups and has effectively banned protests.

    Morsi, the country's first democratically-elected president, died in June. He had been in custody since he was deposed as the president.

    Human Rights Watch said on 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.  

    In the first official acknowledgement of the protests, the attorney general's office said "not more than 1,000 protesters" had been questioned by prosecutors. Detainees included a Dutch national and a Palestinian belonging to the Islamic Jihad group, they said.

    It said prosecutors had orders to "inspect the social media accounts and pages of those detained".

    The Egyptian Center for Economic and Social Rights said 96 minors were among the 1,915 people who have been arrested between last weekend and early on Wednesday.

    Eight human rights groups issued a statement demanding the immediate release of political activists and the lifting of restrictions on freedom of expression.

    "The protests also are a reaction to the president's accumulated policies since his assumption of office, which have achieved neither political nor economic stability," the statement read.

    Meanwhile, state-run local media have launched a campaign to discredit protesters as traitors who seek to instigate chaos.

    The president's backers have also called for a counterdemonstration with pro-Sisi television ONE telling supporters to gather at the Hisham Barakat Square in Cairo "to show them the love Egyptians have for their country and their leader".

    SOURCE: Al Jazeera and news agencies