Hamas chief Ismail Haniyeh has ordered senior members of the Gaza-based terror group not to publicly comment on rare protests held in Egypt Friday against President Abdel Fattah el-Sissi.
Haniyeh sent an audio message to Hamas leaders telling them not to address “any matter connected to Egypt” whatsoever.
“Everyone must obey and promise this,” he said in the message, according to Israel’s Ynet news site.
Hamas and Egypt have worked to repair ties in recent years following the 2013 coup that brought Sissi to power.
Hamas, which has historic links to Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood, enjoyed warm relations with Egyptian president Mohammed Morsi, a top Brotherhood figure who was overthrown by the military after a divisive year in power.
The Egyptian government tightened an Israeli-Egyptian blockade on Hamas-ruled Gaza shortly thereafter, but since then there have been signs of a thaw in relations.
Hosni Mubarak, the longtime Egyptian ruler whose deposal led to Morsi coming to power in Egypt’s first and only democratic presidential election, has claimed Hamas sent hundreds of fighters across the Gaza border during the 2011 uprising.
Hamas has denied the claim.
For most of the past decade, Egypt has been a quiet partner with Israel in a blockade on Hamas-ruled Gaza, stifling the economy and largely blocking its 2 million people from moving in and out of the territory. Israel maintains the blockade to prevent Hamas, which is openly committed to destroying Israel, from importing weapons.
Egypt, however, has recently moved closer to Hamas and tried unsuccessfully to reconcile it with Fatah, the political party of Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas that was violently ejected from the Gaza Strip by the Islamist terror group in 2007.
Cairo has also served as a key mediator between Israel and Hamas amid periodic outbursts of fighting between the two since the start of often violent protests along the Gaza border in March 2018.
Earlier this year, Egypt reportedly agreed to permanently reopen the Rafah border crossing with Gaza in exchange for Hamas reining in clashes with Israeli troops along the border.
Friday’s protests in the capital Cairo and other Egyptian cities marked a rare public rebuke of Sissi and saw crowds chanting slogans and holding up placards calling for him to step down.
At least 74 were arrested overnight, a security source told AFP, with plainclothed police patrolling sidestreets of downtown Cairo.
The country effectively banned protests under a 2013 law and a state of emergency is still in full effect.
Police fired tear gas and deployed forces in Tahrir Square — the epicenter of the 2011 revolution that unseated long-time autocrat Hosni Mubarak.
The protests came on the back of an online call put out by Mohamed Aly, a disgruntled exiled Egyptian businessman, demanding Sissi be toppled.
The construction contractor has been posting videos from Spain that have gone viral since early September, accusing Sissi and the military of rampant corruption.
The president flatly denied the allegations last week at a youth conference and sought to assure Egyptians that he “was honest and faithful” to his people and the military.
In his latest video posted early Friday morning on his growing social media accounts, Aly urged Egyptians to head to the streets after a highly anticipated football match between Cairo powerhouses Al Ahly and Zamalek in the Super Cup.
Thousands shared footage on social media documenting the demonstrations that sprang up in several cities including sizeable crowds blocking traffic in Alexandria, Al-Mahalla, Damietta, Mansoura and Suez.
Many users commented on the curious absence of military personnel and speculated about internal political squabbles between various Egyptian security agencies.
Under the rule of general-turned-president Sissi, authorities have launched a broad crackdown on dissidents, jailing thousands of Islamists as well as secular activists and popular bloggers.
At the same youth conference where he denied graft allegations, he also warned of the dangers of protesting — a position he has repeatedly taken.
He has regularly invoked security and stability as hallmarks of his reign in contrast to the situations in regional hot spots such as Iraq, Libya and Syria.
But with his government imposing strict austerity measures since 2016 as part of a $12 billion loan package from the International Monetary Fund, discontent over rising prices has been swelling.
Nearly one in three Egyptians live below the poverty line on less than $1.40 a day, according to official figures released in July.
Human Rights Watch urged authorities on Saturday to “protect the right” to protest peacefully as well as demanding that those arrested be released.
Sisis flew to New York on Friday night where he is scheduled to address the United Nations General Assembly next week.
The president’s office did not comment on the protests, when asked by AFP on Saturday.