Riot police stand ready ahead of Cairo protests

Calls for demonstrations gain traction online after fresh austerity moves hit households

CAIRO • Riot police and armoured vehicles filled the otherwise empty streets of central Cairo early yesterday as security forces built up a heavy presence ahead of popular protests over deteriorating economic conditions.

A little-known group calling itself Movement of the Poor has called for Egyptians to protest yesterday against deepening austerity.

The calls had been made since August, but gained traction on social media last week after Egypt raised fuel prices and floated its currency - a move welcomed by bankers but bemoaned by ordinary people as the latest blow to their diminishing spending power in a country that relies on imports.

Tahrir Square was empty save for armoured vehicles equipped with tear gas canister launchers, dozens of riot policeman and high-ranking officers. The authorities shut down the Sadat metro station to prevent demonstrators from reaching the square famed for its political protests. There was a similarly heavy security presence in other areas of Cairo, such as the Shubra district, and other major cities across the country including Alexandria, Suez, and Minya.

The protests have won little support from prominent activist and opposition groups, though they have been backed by the outlawed Muslim Brotherhood.

But in a country where street politics helped unseat two presidents within two years, the authorities are taking no chances. Dozens of people were detained in recent weeks for allegedly inciting unrest.

State media reported that police were surrounding the entrances of Cairo and other cities to ensure that members of the Brotherhood did not sneak in.

Protesters camped in Tahrir Square in an 18-day demonstration ended president Hosni Mubarak's 30-year rule in 2011.

The Arab Spring unrest of 2011 cost the region's economies an estimated US$614 billion (S$866 billion) of growth because of regime change, continuing conflict and falling oil prices, according to the United Nations Economic and Social Commission for Western Asia.

When Egyptians took to the streets again in mid-2013 to end a year of Brotherhood rule, they looked to general-turned-president Abdel Fattah al-Sisi to restore stability. After taking power, Mr Sisi quickly crushed dissent and has applied a protest law so strictly that few dare to come out, despite rising public anger.

Reuters spoke to five activists who all said protests would achieve little and feared violence if they do materialise.

"The revolutionary bloc is reticent to protest. We now know that any street action leads to blood. There is no result we can achieve with this regime," said Mr Malek Adly, a human rights lawyer with the Egyptian Centre for Economic and Social Rights.

REUTERS

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on November 12, 2016, with the headline 'Riot police stand ready ahead of Cairo protests'. Print Edition | Subscribe