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Egypt Is on Edge as Security Tightens Over Protests

CAIRO — The plainclothes security men stood every few yards along the bridge over the Nile, T-shirts tight across their muscled chests, guns at their hips, stopping young men to ask for identification and look through their phones. They were delivering a message that did not need to be spoken aloud.

Since a handful of surprise protests against President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi flared around Egypt last weekend, the largest since he came to power in 2014, the government has tightened its grip, arresting nearly 2,000 Egyptians, packing Cairo and other protest hot spots with security personnel and blocking news websites.

It is a crackdown harsh even by the standards of the Sisi era, when Egyptian jails have swollen with his political opponents, elections are predetermined and the opposition has been all but silenced, making shows of dissent extremely rare.

But no one knows if it will be enough to deter a second round of demonstrations that the protests’ original instigator, a self-proclaimed whistle-blower living in exile, has called for Friday.

“I just couldn’t help myself. I had to protest, I had to let out my anger,” said Mostafa, 20, a student who attended the protest in Cairo last Friday and, like most of those interviewed, declined to give his full name for fear of being arrested. “I’m sick of living in a fascist state, of being repressed politically and economically. These were supposed to be the best years of my life.”

But he planned to stay away from any protests this Friday and was urging people he knew to do the same, afraid they might get arrested.

“I see a black future, even if a revolution erupts,” he said. “Last Friday was the first time I truly felt scared. I don’t know if that just means I’ve grown up, or if the situation really is that terrifying.”

Egyptians interviewed this week were on edge. They said they were struggling under Mr. el-Sisi’s economic policies, which have left a third of Egyptians in poverty, according to a July report by the country’s official statistics agency. Yet they dreaded a return to the turmoil that many remember from the protests that toppled their leaders in 2011 and 2013. Some were fed up with Mr. el-Sisi’s zero-tolerance government, yet terrified of defying it.

Like many who demonstrated last weekend, Mohamed Shaaban, 17, who sat thumbing his phone on Tuesday at the stand where he sells flat bread in the Cairo neighborhood of Dokki, was young, male and poor, with little to look forward to.

He said he often loses more than he makes from his stall. Yet he said he had told people he knew not to protest this Friday.

“I don’t want any of this nonsense,” he said, recalling the chaos that followed the 2011 Arab Spring protests, when his bread stall was upended and shattered. “I saw people getting arrested in front of my own eyes,” he added. “I’m afraid for myself and my friends.”

He said he had already been stopped and searched by security personnel several times since the protests.

Some young dissenters and Egypt analysts contended that no matter the turnout this Friday, the fact that people dared to chant for Mr. el-Sisi’s ouster at all, at great personal risk, had deflated the president’s appearance of absolute control.

“Whatever happens, the train has left the station already,” said Ali Mohamed, 19, a protester whose parents took him to participate in the 2011 protests as a child. “It’s been revealed that people are against Sisi. They’re just repressed.”

Even veteran opposition leaders, however, were wary of a street uprising. Egyptians have brought down two presidents in the last decade — Hosni Mubarak in 2011, and Mohamed Morsi, the country’s first democratically elected leader, in 2013 — only to end up ruled by a general whose government is more repressive than Mr. Mubarak’s.

“I think we need to learn our lesson that it’s not enough just to call for the removal of the president without knowing the alternative,” said Khaled Dawoud, a journalist and the former head of Egypt’s liberal Constitution Party, in an interview on Saturday. “There’s definitely wide dissatisfaction, but we don’t know what the alternative is. I’m not going to support ‘get rid of Sisi’ or ‘get out Sisi’ — what am I getting afterward?”

His caution made no difference. On Wednesday, a prominent lawyer reported that Mr. Dawoud had been arrested.

So had Hassan Nafaa, a political-science professor at Cairo University, and Hazem Hosny, a political scientist who had helped a retired general try, futilely, to challenge Mr. el-Sisi for the presidency in 2018. The arrests also swept up Mahienour el-Massry, a prominent human rights lawyer, and six foreigners accused of espionage, mostly for taking pictures in downtown Cairo.

The Egyptian Center for Economic and Social Rights, a monitoring group, said Thursday that it had documented 1,915 arrests in the past week. Lawyers said many of those detained were taken at random from the street and had no apparent connection to the weekend protests.

Protesting was made illegal under Egyptian law in the wake of Mr. Morsi’s overthrow. Pro-government media has branded the protesters Islamists and warned that foreign agitators are fomenting trouble.

“This is all no more than a bunch of saboteurs, with insidious motives,” said Hussein Kamal, a retired senior intelligence official. “People should know better than to believe anything they hear. The president has many achievements and he’s doing the best he can.”

For Mr. el-Sisi, the memory of past chaos may be just as potent a deterrent as fear of arrest. He promised stability and security; many Egyptians say he has delivered.

“Is it better to have some patience until things get better,” said Muhammad Ali, 75, a doctor sharing a late-afternoon water pipe with a friend in Dokki on Tuesday, “or to revolt, and turn into another Syria or Iraq?”

In a government-run garden in the working-class neighborhood of Imbaba on Tuesday, two women stewed about the upcoming protests. Would one of them have to close her store, losing badly needed revenue? Would rioters tear up roads and looters target businesses, as some did on the fringes of the 2011 protests?

“We’re going to go back to where we started,” said a mother of four, quietly, her face tight under a lilac head scarf, who, like her friend, did not want to be identified. “Right now, I can finally walk around freely, without fear. If something happens, I’m going to go back to that state of fear.”

Her friend, the business owner, recalled the upheaval of previous uprisings. “You want schools to be suspended and life to come to a halt?” she said. “You’re going to make parents too afraid to send kids to school?”

But for Mr. Mohamed, a student from the working-class neighborhood of Boulaq el-Dakrour across the Nile from central Cairo, attending the 2011 protests as a child had convinced him that revolution would someday answer his hopes for a democratic, civilian-led government.

“2011 taught people that dictators eventually leave,” he said Monday. “No one is accepting the status quo. Many of them, they believe they have rights and they have the ability to change things.”

On the wall of his small living room was a collage of action shots from January 2011: Mr. Mohamed protesting, his sister protesting, his mother staring down a phalanx of riot police, arms flung wide in defiance.

His mother, Sabah Fawaz, 58, had been so desperate to join the protests that she wept from frustration when her recent heart surgery forced her to stay home.

“Life is beyond difficult now,” she said. “I keep praying people will go out and protest. It’s our right to live in dignity. It’s our right not to eat out of dumpsters or sleep in the street. It shouldn’t be people who eat from dumpsters versus people who eat imported food.”

The family lives on Ms. Fawaz’s dead husband’s pension of about $ 25 per month, plus her daughter’s wages from her waitressing job and whatever her son can make during summers.

It is only rarely enough; rent alone is about $ 43 a month. They eat meat barely once a month. Ms. Fawaz relies on the pharmacist for advice on treating her heart disease instead of a doctor, which she cannot afford.

Mr. Mohamed planned to go out again Friday, whatever the risks.

“I’m not worried, because I believe in the cause,” he said. “If I’m hurt, then it’ll be in defense of something I believe in, and I don’t think violence will ever change those ideas.”

Source: NYT > World News

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