By Jared Malsin and Amira El-Fekki – The Wall Street Journal –
Demonstrators defy government crackdown to make first sizable showing since 2016, as Sisi grapples with corruption allegations
CAIRO—Egypt braced for more unrest this week after two nights of protests resulted in hundreds of arrests in the most significant political challenge in years to President Abdel Fattah Al Sisi, who is facing corruption accusations.
The protests that unfolded on Friday through Saturday in Cairo, Alexandria and other cities were the first sizable antigovernment protests since 2016, defying a government crackdown aimed at crushing political dissent. Mr. Sisi’s government has rounded up dissidents, censored hundreds of websites, and outlawed unauthorized street protests in a bid to stamp out public criticism.
The protests are expected to continue, with a call for a million-person march on Friday.
“It’s a turning point in Egypt’s contemporary affairs,” said Rabab El Mahdi, a political scientist at the American University in Cairo. “It’s like zero to 100 very quickly,” she said.
The crowds were relatively small, estimated in the hundreds, but were notable for openly calling for Mr. Sisi’s removal. At least 220 people were arrested, according to the Egyptian Commission for Rights and Freedoms, a Cairo-based human-rights group.
On Saturday night, police fired tear gas at crowds that gathered in the city of Suez where protesters chanted “Sisi leave!” during some three hours of protests, witnesses said. In Cairo, crowds of protesters faced off with riot police near Tahrir Square, the iconic center of the 2011 Arab Spring uprising that ousted former President Hosni Mubarak.
The latest unrest followed new corruption allegations against Mr. Sisi that have captured public attention in Egypt.
A man who identified himself as a former government contractor called for the protests, accusing Mr. Sisi of graft in a series of online videos recorded in self-imposed exile in Spain and posted to Facebook and YouTube. The man, Mohamed Ali, accused Mr. Sisi of building lavish residences for himself and wasting public funds on projects including a luxury hotel on the outskirts of Cairo.
Mr. Sisi has denied wrongdoing, but admitted new palaces are under construction using public money, saying they are meant not for himself but for the Egyptian people.
The videos have struck a chord with the Egyptian public, drawing hundreds of thousands of views and sparking a renewed debate around allegations of corruption in Egypt’s military-dominated economy. Mr. Sisi’s government is spending the equivalent of billions of dollars on megaprojects, including a new administrative capital under construction in the desert outside Cairo.
Many Egyptians are frustrated with a lack of political freedom and declining standard of living in the country after Mr. Sisi’s government devalued Egypt’s currency and raised the prices of basic goods and services including fuel, electricity and subway tickets. The changes are part of austerity called for under a $12 billion loan from the International Monetary Fund agreed upon in 2016.
“There’s a lot of angry energy, frustration over six years, and it hasn’t found a way to come out at all. This is the first time it just explodes in the face of the government since 2013,” said Mohamed Lotfy, head of the Egyptian Commission for Rights and Freedoms.
Hundreds heeded Mr. Ali’s call to protest, first taking to the streets on Friday evening after a nationally televised soccer match and then again on Saturday. Egyptians have also unleashed a flood of tweets and other online messages urging protests and calling for Mr. Sisi to go. More than a million tweets were posted on those topics last week, according to Twitter.
Mr. Ali has called for a million-person march on Friday demanding Mr. Sisi’s removal. “Friday is the ultimatum for Sisi to leave,” he said in a video released on Saturday night.
Mr. Sisi, who flew to New York on Friday to attend the United Nations General Assembly, has yet to comment on the protests. Egyptian Foreign Minister Sameh Shoukry dismissed the demonstrations as the work of hostile foreign media channels in a call to an Egyptian news talk show from New York.
“These calls are not welcomed internally,” he said, referring to the calls for demonstrations.