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Repression Risks Fueling Egypt Instability, Analysts Warn

An Egyptian police van blocks a street leading to Cairo's Tahrir square, Sept. 27, 2019, in anticipation of anti-government protests.
An Egyptian police van blocks a street leading to Cairo's Tahrir square, Sept. 27, 2019, in anticipation of anti-government protests.

Egypt is reeling after a tense weekend of sparse anti-government protests for the second week in a row, which analysts say could bring more repression under President Abdel Fattah el-Sissi.

Despite a heavy security presence in the capital, small-scale protests erupted in Cairo's Warraq island district after Friday prayers and in southern Egypt.

But the crowds were much thinner than the week before, when viral videos by an exiled disgruntled businessman accusing Sissi and the military of deep-seated corruption tapped into simmering discontent at people's economic woes.

"I doubt the Sissi administration is in any serious trouble, even if the protests show that high levels of repression have not been sufficient to deter open dissent," said Yezid Sayigh, a senior fellow at the Carnegie Middle East Center in Beirut.

Yet he cautioned that current uncertainty is riddled with challenges for Sissi.

"The real problem for the administration ... is that it has emptied the political arena so completely of interlocutors (such as political parties or business groups) that it lacks social allies outside the state apparatus," he told AFP.

"This makes it brittle. Its dependence on repression will produce diminishing returns over time, as Egypt's social problems worsen," he added.

Following the first wave of protests on September 20, Sissi — who has already overseen a crackdown since the start of his rule in 2013 — moved quickly to quash dissent.

Around 2,000 people were rounded up in just seven days.

"The unprecedented wave of arrests of activists, intellectuals, and also ordinary protesters... made a lot of people re-think what might happen to them if they did participate," said Youssef el-Chazli, a fellow at Brandeis University's Crown Center for Middle East Studies.

Calls for a "million-march" on Friday from the businessman and actor Mohamed Aly failed to materialize on the ground.

Egyptian social media — an active virtual turf war between Sissi detractors and supporters, has gone back to focusing on soccer and other mundane topics.

Cairo's Tahrir Square, the flashpoint of the 2011 revolution, has returned to its ordinary, hectic pace with traffic milling around.

But a police presence is visible throughout the capital.

As the crackdown continued, AFP journalists on Friday saw police stopping and frisking citizen

randomly, detaining some, searching phones and impounding vehicles.

The state has learned since 2011 that any group or protest can pose a threat and should be monitored, Chazli said.

"Obviously, this doesn't bode necessarily well for the future of democratic development and protection of civil and political rights in the country."

Pro-Sissi rallies

In another show of force, pro-Sissi supporters were out in large numbers on Friday.

Returning from the UN General Assembly in New York, Sissi greeted a crowd of enthusiastic supporters at Cairo Airport telling them there was "no reason for concern".

In eastern Cairo, more than 1,000 people were bused to a stage where a concert took place in support of Sissi waving flags and carrying placards with nationalistic slogans near the tomb of the former president Anwar Sadat.

The site was pointedly just meters from the site of the largest massacre in modern Egyptian history at Rabaa Mosque in 2013 when Egyptian troops killed around 800 Muslim Brotherhood supporters in a single day.

"The post-2013 regime has been, since its inception, very reliant on 'popular legitimacy' and scenes of chanting and dancing crowds," said Chazli.

"It was important to have people in the street supporting the president, in bigger numbers than those protesting him."

In state-media such as the Al-Ahram newspaper on Sunday, the message was about the government's complete control, with one article headlined "Stability encourages investment".

Across the dailies, plenty of ink was dedicated to lambasting the outlawed Muslim Brotherhood movement of Islamist former president Mohamed Morsi, who was ousted by the military in 2013.

Samir Ragheb, a retired brigadier-general and head of the Arab Foundation for Development and Strategic Studies, told AFP the protests "were designed to foment chaos only for a few minutes".

Authorities had been initially surprised, but they have learnt from previous security lapses, when millions went out in 2011 to topple long-time autocrat Hosni Mubarak, he noted.

Ragheb dismissed the idea protests may break out again but highlighted there is a general sense of frustration among Egyptians mostly with the severe government-imposed austerity measures.

"There's a difference between suffering economically and being angry about it. You can't just protest outside the law," he added.

If the most impoverished classes rise up then "no one will be able to stop them, even the military and
police," he said.

Daily life has slowly resumed with the start of the working week on Sunday, although police forces are out on the streets in parts of the capital.

But with the continued political clampdown and the economic squeeze "it's hard to imagine protests will completely stop, unless maybe for a short while," Chazli said.