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Egyptian Officials Say Some Detainees Freed After Crackdown

Protesters gather in central Cairo shouting anti-government slogans in Cairo, Egypt, Sept. 21, 2019.

Egyptian police have released some of those arrested in a crackdown following small but rare anti-government protests last month, officials said Tuesday, as the government moved to address economic grievances and prevent further unrest.

The scattered protests were a startling, if brief sign of popular discontent. Egypt has witnessed an unprecedented crackdown on dissent since President Abdel-Fattah el-Sissi came to power in 2014 - jailing Islamists as well as secular activists - while his government has put through austerity measures badly hitting the country's poor and middle classes.

Calls for demonstrations began over corruption allegations against the military and el-Sissi, levelled in a series of videos posted on social media by an Egyptian businessman living in self-imposed exile. El-Sissi, himself a former army general, dismissed the corruption allegations as "sheer lies."

Police rapidly dispersed the small street protests that followed on Sept. 20 in the capital Cairo, and several other cities, triggering a sweeping security clampdown.

More than 2,000 people, including rights lawyers, activists, journalists and several foreign nationals, were arrested in the past two weeks, according to right lawyers.

The country's general prosecutor, however, said last week his office questioned no more than 1,000 people over the protests. Many were ordered to remain in custody for 15 days pending investigations into claims they took part in activities of an outlawed group and disseminating false news on social media platforms, according to lawyers.

On Tuesday, the officials said that dozens of detainees were freed without charge over the past two days in Cairo, the Mediterranean city of Alexandria and elsewhere in the country, after authorities determined they had no ties to the protests or the outlawed Muslim Brotherhood group, which the government designated a terrorist group in 2013.

The officials requested anonymity because they weren't authorized to brief media.

The Egyptian Commission for Rights and Freedoms confirmed the release of dozens of the detainees.

Earlier this week, el-Sissi said he would do more to protect poor and middle-class Egyptians, in his first remarks on the economy following the protests.

He said measures were underway to "protect the rights of the people" hit hard by slashed subsidies and economic reforms.

On Tuesday, the supply ministry said it had returned 1.8 million people to its food staples subsidy program, which provides goods to more than 60 million out of the country's nearly 100 million people.

El-Sissi has made the economy the focus of his rule, with a hands-on drive for fiscal reform, improving infrastructure and the construction of new cities.

In exchange for a $12 billion loan from the International Monitory Fund, el-Sissi ordered steep hikes in the price of fuel, government services and utilities. Egypt secured the loan in 2016.

The austerity measures have taken a heavy toll on poor and middle-class Egyptians. The official statistics agency reported in July that one in three Egyptians is living in poverty.

The government has banned all unauthorized street protests and has blocked hundreds of websites, including some run by independent media and human rights groups.