Police vehicles are seen in central Cairo as protesters gather, shouting anti-government slogans, Sept. 21, 2019.
Police vehicles are seen in central Cairo as protesters gather, shouting anti-government slogans, Sept. 21, 2019.

CAIRO - The streets of Cairo were jammed on Saturday morning, as police checkpoints were erected across the city.

Hundreds of armed soldiers and police officers in riot gear patrolled Tahrir Square, one of the locations where protests broke out Friday night and the epicenter of previous demonstrations that led to the fall of former Presidents Hosni Mubarak and Mohammad Morsi.

Activists celebrated the demonstrations as a breakthrough after years of fear of police retaliation and called for continued protests against the government of President Abdel-Fattah el-Sissi.

Small groups of protesters gather in central Cairo shouting anti-government slogans, Sept. 20, 2019.

People were on the streets Friday night in at least three cities, carrying signs with slogans such as "Go away Sissi!" and "The people demand the fall of the regime!"

In Cairo, gunshots were heard and tear gas was fired. By Saturday night, 166 families had told human rights workers that a relative had been arrested, according to the Egyptian Center for Economic and Social Rights.

Pro-government news outlets blamed "terrorists" for the demonstrations, saying they were part of a larger plot to overthrow the government.

The demonstrations began after Mohammad Ali, a former contractor and actor now living in Spain, began posting videos accusing el-Sissi and the military of squandering billions of Egyptian pounds on corrupt business deals and luxurious castles.

Sixty percent of Egyptians are "poor or vulnerable," according to the World Bank, and the gap between the rich and poor is expanding.

Nour Khalil is a lawyer and human rights defender who believes the protests in Egypt have made people less afraid of standing up to the government. Cairo, Sept. 21, 2019. (H. Elrasam/VOA)

"No one knows what will happen, or exactly how angry Egyptian people are, or where this anger will lead them," Nour Khalil, a human rights lawyer, said in his Cairo office. "But I am certain this time is different from the past. Yesterday, the fear barrier melted down."

But for many Egyptians, mass protests over the past eight years have had devastating consequences, leaving them with little hope that popular pressure will lead to positive change.

Um Essam, 74, is a widow who like many people believes that further protests will simply lead to more young men jailed indefinitely. Cairo, Sept. 21, 2019. (H. Elrasam/VOA)

"I think protesting is not good," Um Essam, 74, said in her Cairo home. "Things will become more expensive. Young men will go to jail and no one knows when they will get out."

In other parts of Cairo, some residents are more hopeful, saying governmental change may do something to alleviate the deep poverty.

"We were all surprised yesterday when people went out on the streets," said Mostafa, 28, in the abandoned bakery where he lives with five cousins. The cousins, who sell small fruits, moved to Cairo to escape even deeper poverty in their village.

Mostafa, 28, lives with his cousins in an abandoned bakery and says he believes a new government could help alleviate the crushing poverty in Cairo. Sept. 21, 2019. (H. Elrasam/VOA)

By Saturday evening, police in downtown Cairo were stopping pedestrians, searching through bags and mobile phones and demanding to know where people were going. In the past few years, other fledgling protest movements have ended quickly in a similar fashion.

Human rights organizations said thousands of Egyptians are already in jail for protesting peacefully. The last major demonstrations in Egypt, calling for the reinstatement of Morsi in 2013, ended in a hail of gunfire that killed up to 1,000 people.

Ghareb, 34, escaped dire poverty in the countryside to sell fruit in Cairo from an abandoned bakery with six cousins. He says, "I don't care if Sissi stays or goes. I just want stability and to run my business." Sept. 21, 2019. (H. Elrasam/VOA)

One cousin at the old bakery, Ghareb, 34, said further protests would likely result in more arrests and violence, not the fall of the government.

And even if it were safe to hold demonstrations, Ghareb said, Egypt would face an uncertain future if the president did step down.

"If Sissi went away, who else would fill the position?" he asked.

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