CAIRO — Egyptian security forces rounded up hundreds of people, following small but rare anti-government protests, rights lawyers said Monday, as authorities moved to take harsh preventive measures against more unrest.
Hundreds of protesters took to the streets in several Egyptian cities, including the capital, Cairo, over the weekend, calling for President Abdel-Fattah el-Sissi to step down.
All protests were quickly broken up by police. But they marked a startling eruption of popular dissent, which has been almost completely silenced in the past years by draconian measures imposed under Sissi.
On Monday, lawyers Malek Adly and Khaled el-Masry said security forces had arrested at least 400 people in Cairo and elsewhere across the country.
El-Masry said prosecutors questioned at least 220 people over claims that they took part in activities of an outlawed group, disseminating false news, misuse of social media platforms and taking part in unlicensed protests. Under Egyptian law, the accusations could land them in jail for years.
Prosecutors did not immediately elaborate or offer evidence.
After Friday’s demonstrations, the Muslim Brotherhood, which the government has outlawed and designated as a terrorist group in 2013, voiced in a statement its support for the protesters and urged people to take to the streets to “end the military rule.”
Police have been heavily deployed in main squares and streets in across Cairo.
There were calls for more protests in the coming days on social media, from where Friday’s demonstrations took its cue.
Saeed Sadek, a political scientist at the al-Ahram Canadian University in Cairo, however, doubted whether there was wide popular support for fresh protests challenging Sissi’s rule.
“People fear the alternative. They don’t know what will be after Sissi. They don’t want another general. They don’t want the Islamists taking over. They don’t want chaos, they don’t want a civil war,” he said.
False information about the protests has appeared on social media, including videos purporting to be live events that were actually of mass protests from Egypt’s years of unrest between 2011 and 2013. But social media has also been vital for getting out authentic videos of protests, since they are the only platform not fully controlled by the government.
Over the past couple of days, internet users reported difficulty accessing Facebook Messenger and other news websites such as the BBC.
Netblocks, a group monitoring internet activity, said network data showed disruption to Facebook Messenger, Facebook image CDN servers, as well as BBC News and other news sites in Egypt with two leading providers from Sunday.
It said the affected sites were previously unrestricted and social media platforms are not generally blocked in Egypt.
The government effectively banned all public protests in 2013 shortly after Sissi led the military’s overthrow of an elected but divisive late president, Mohammed Morsi, who hailed form the Muslim Brotherhood, amid mass protests against his brief rule.
Since then, anyone who dared take to the streets was quickly arrested and received years-long prison sentences.
The new protests emerge from an online campaign, led by an Egyptian businessman living in self-imposed exile who has presented himself as a whistleblower against corruption. His calls for demonstrations come at a time when Egypt’s lower and middle classes have been badly squeezed by years of economic reforms and austerity measures.
The businessman, Mohammed Ali, has put out a series of viral videos claiming corruption by the military and government.
Sissi dismissed the corruption allegations as “sheer lies.” However, he said he would continue building new presidential residences for the good of Egypt. “I am building a new country,” he said.
Sissi and government officials have argued that the military is the only institution that can efficiently lead mega-projects aimed at stoking the economy. The president has repeatedly warned that protests risk causing chaos that would disrupt efforts at repairing the country.