An exiled businessman whose accusations of corruption sparked the most widespread protests in Egypt in years has called for further demonstrations, as the country’s autocratic president arrived in New York to meet with other world leaders.
The calls came after night time demonstrations over businessman Mohamed Ali’s allegations of corruption in the armed forces and heavy-handed rule of President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi erupted in several cities on Friday and Saturday, with scores arrested.
Video posted to the internet showed police in riot gear firing teargas charging at scattered protesters running through streets.
Protesters chanted “leave”, a slogan of the 2011 Arab Spring uprisings, and derided Mr Sisi as a “thief.”
One man who was purportedly recording protests with his phone from his apartment in the industrial city of Suez on Saturday posted a video saying the police were downstairs, coming to arrest him.
In addition to Suez, witnesses and social media postings described protests on Saturday in Mediterranean Sea city of Port Said, as well as Mahallah, a factory town that has traditionally been the heart of the country’s labour movement, and the southern Egyptian city of Naga Hamadi.
A day earlier, on Friday night, protests erupted in the capital, Cairo, including near the iconic Tahrir Square that was the flashpoint of the country’s 2011 uprising.
At least 274 people were arrested over the weekend in protests in Cairo, Egypt’s second largest city Alexandria, several Nile Delta provinces and other cities, according to the Egyptian Centre for Economic and Social Rights, an activist network.
The protests followed calls for demonstrations by Egyptian military contractor Mohamed Ali, a one-time actor who is now living in Spain, over his allegations earlier this month that Mr Sisi and his senior officers were abusing public funds to build palaces and hotels to enrich themselves.
Mr Ali called for another round of protests on Friday. “Sisi is of no use, his end is next Friday, God willing,” he said.
In recent days, another Egyptian activist had also posted a video alleging the involvement of Mr Sisi’s son, Mahmoud, in the lucrative business of smuggling goods into the Gaza Strip, as well as detailing human rights abuses by the armed forces in a battle against radical Islamist militants in the northern Sinai Peninsula.
“The toxic combination is economic hardship plus evidence of corruption,” Michele Dunne, a Middle East expert at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace and former US diplomat, told The Independent. “That’s where the Mohamed Ali came in, speaking openly about what people have suspected.”
Some Egyptian political insiders speculate that powerful factions hostile to Mr Sisi within the security forces had played a role in spurring the protests, or at least allowing them.
One Egyptian analyst and journalist with strong contacts within the security forces told The Independent he had been alerted days earlier by a former military intelligence official that a scheme was brewing, with discontent over Mr Sisi’s style and tactics alienating even those within the security apparatus.
Such machinations within the intelligence and security branches predated the 2013 protests that ousted Egypt’s elected Islamist president Mohamed Morsi.
“It would be crazy to consider what’s happening here to be an organic uprising,” said the analyst, who asked to remain anonymous.
“We’re speaking about a guy who’s come from nowhere and suddenly he’s giving orders and suddenly protests start. We’re seeing a fight between themselves, within the ranks of the senior generals and intelligence officials.”
But Egyptians have also been seething with anger against the ruling establishment for years, enraged by perceptions of widespread corruption, diminishing economic prospects, and stifled political freedoms. In 2018 presidential elections several candidates from within the armed forces sought to run against Mr Sisi, though they were eventually thwarted by a combination of threats and jailings.
“We’ve seen small waves of opposition building up to this,” said Ms Dunne. “There is opposition to him. Popular anger is high. Who are his friends? He’s got some people within the military who are benefiting, but the middle classes are hurting.”
One Cairo-based Egyptian activist described surging hostility towards Mr Sisi in marketplaces and businesses over both the country’s financial troubles and the president’s style, in which he often chastises Egyptians for not being frugal or hard-working enough.
“People cannot stand Sisi, and this has been happening for some time,” he said. “The difference here, though, is that I think that there’s a combination of internal rifts together with the public mood swing. And now internally, they can’t control the police or the army too much.”
Egyptian authorities sought to downplay the unrest. As the protests continued, Mr Sisi departed for New York to attend meetings at the annual United Nations General Assembly gathering.
His speech will focus on counterterrorism and combating extremism, according to an official close to local press accounts, as he attempts to lure US investments in private meetings with business leaders.
Gauging popular support for the protests remained difficult. Tightly controlled state and private television channels in Egypt described the protesters as children of imprisoned members of the Muslim Brotherhood, the outlawed Islamist political organisation whose elected president Mr Sisi deposed in 2013 when he took power.
One pro-government TV correspondent warned that the protest footage aired on international channels sympathetic to the Muslim Brotherhood was fabricated, and admonished viewers not to blindly heed protest calls.
The State Information Service, without mentioning the protests, urged international journalists not to disseminate news based on social media accounts and to “only publish what they observe themselves from their known, credible sources that must be confirmed by two other credible sources that have also observed the same incidents with their own eyes”.
Anwar Gargash, the foreign minister of the United Arab Emirates which strongly backs the Sisi regime, accused the Muslim Brotherhood of being behind the protests and spreading news about them and insisting that there is “genuine popular support for the Egyptian state and its institutions”.
Still, remnants of the political groups that once flowered in Egypt following the 2011 uprising which toppled longtime ruler Hosni Mubarak voiced support. “Sisi’s departure is no longer an impossible dream, but rather it has become closer than ever,” the Revolutionary Socialists Movement wrote in a Facebook posting, saying the demonstrations had “restored hope to the millions who were desperate.”
Egypt’s Social Democratic Party, which controversially supported the 2013 coup by Sisi before he cracked down on the group demanded citizens be allowed to “exercise their constitutional and legal right to peaceful demonstration”.
Those watching Egypt closely say Mr Sisi has been unable to broaden his base of his support, and his efforts to entrust duties to his son, has irked both the public and the elite. Under Mr Sisi he has increasingly also handing segments of the economy to allies, shutting out once-powerful oligarchs from lucrative sectors as varied as concrete production to pharmaceutical importation.
“He trusts very few people and that’s why he’s obviously handing power to his son,” said Amr Magdi, Egypt researcher at Human Rights Watch. “Such moves are not just unpleasant to ordinary people, but also to the people in power.”
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