Egypt braces for anti-Sisi protests

Cairo (AFP) –


Egypt braced Friday for a second weekend of protests, as anger stemming from economic hardship and alleged top-level corruption threaten to eclipse a long-standing ban on street rallies.

Last week's open defiance of President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi -- triggered by viral videos from exiled Egyptian businessman Mohamed Aly -- has surprised observers in a country where opposition of all stripes has been severely curtailed.

Elected president in 2014 after pushing predecessor Mohamed Morsi and his Muslim Brotherhood from power the previous year, Sisi is seen by many as one of the most authoritarian figures in the Middle East.

Aly has called for a "million-man march" and a "people's revolution" to unseat the uncompromising head of state.

The construction magnate accuses Sisi of building lavish palaces while taxpayers grapple with the impact of austerity under an IMF loan programme totalling $12 billion.

In recent days, security has been visibly stepped up, especially in Cairo's Tahrir Square -- the epicentre of the 2011 popular revolt that toppled long-time autocrat Hosni Mubarak.

That iconic location was key to last week's demonstrations, which broke out after a football match with protesters chanting "leave, Sisi!" and accusing him of heading a "military regime".

Alongside beefing up their presence on the streets, the security forces have also detained people they suspect of being key influencers of unrest -- journalists, human rights activists and lawyers.

Two local NGOs estimated on Thursday that around 1,900 people had been arrested in the past few days.

"Sisi has made it clear he intends to stay in power for quite some time -? and protests will not change that calculus for him," said H.A Hellyer, a senior fellow at the Royal United Services Institute in London.

The president "appears... convinced that any protests that go beyond a certain point would be destructive not only to his presidency, but the state more generally," he told AFP.

Further protests are therefore likely to be met with stiff resistance, Hellyer added.

In August 2014, just over a month after Sisi toppled Morsi, police dispersed two camps full of supporters of the Islamist leader in Cairo, killing about 800 people in clashes, according to official figures.

The government named the Muslim Brotherhood a "terrorist organisation" later that year, but the crackdown on opposition has extended to secular organisations and rights activists.

On Thursday, Aly posted a one-minute missive which included extracts from previous videos and footage from riots in 2011 and later, juxtaposed against declarations by Sisi.

But while the exiled critic's videos have gained huge traction -- shared millions of times online -- they have provoked fervent counter-attacks from the president's backers, using the hashtags #longliveSisi and #theywantchaos.

For those supporters, Sisi's six years at the helm -- including five as president -- have shown him to be a bulwark against the insecurity and political disintegration unleashed by the Arab Spring elsewhere, notably in Libya and Syria.