Tens of thousands rallied on Friday to show their support for Egyptian President Abdel Fattah El Sisi, as police undertook a coordinated operation in the capital Cairo and elsewhere in the country to prevent demonstrations against his five-year rule.
The rallies in Cairo and a string of cities across Egypt were meant to counter protests against Mr El Sisi, but the police operation involving thousands from the security forces meant that only dozens managed to stage demonstrations that were quickly dispersed, mostly in the outskirts of Cairo and three southern provinces.
Mr El Sisi has set the day’s tone early on Friday when he told reporters there was no reason for concern. He also warned against “deceitful” attempts to discredit his rule.
Hundreds of his supporters rallied to greet him on his return on Friday morning from New York, where he attended UN General Assembly meetings. They hoisted his picture and waved Egyptian flags.
"There are no reasons for concern. Egypt is a strong country thanks to Egyptians," Mr El Sisi told reporters at the airport.
The president's comments came as thousands of his supporters later rallied in a Cairo suburb, chanting “we are with you” and also waving Egyptian flags. Similar but smaller rallies were held elsewhere in Egypt to express support for the 64-year-old General-turned-president.
In Cairo, authorities closed off roads leading to the central Tahrir Square, where small anti-government protests were staged last Friday. They also closed four central metro stations in the area.
There were no signs of any protests in central Cairo on Friday, but security officials said several small demonstrations in the Giza province, which neighbours Cairo, and three southern provinces were staged on side streets. They said the protests, which involved small numbers, were quickly dispersed and an unspecified number of arrests were made.
The protests on September 20, which were staged in Cairo as well as several northern cities, were also small and quickly dispersed. Police arrested about 1,000 people in connection with the protests, Egypt’s top prosecutor said.
Those detained were being questioned and their mobile phones examined for political content, the prosecutor's office said in a statement issued late on Thursday. Prosecutors are also looking at footage of the protests from security cameras. Detainees found not to have taken part will be released, it said.
While there are no clear leaders of the protest movement, it appears they were held in response to a call by a businessman living in self-imposed exile in Spain. A contractor and actor, Mohammed Ali accused the government of corruption in a series of online videos that went viral, and has urged Egyptians to protest again this Friday.
Mr El Sisi has dismissed the accusations as “lies”.
While attending the UN General Assembly in New York earlier this week, the Egyptian leader said “political Islam”, a phrase widely used to refer to the outlawed Muslim Brotherhood group, was behind last week’s protests.
The prosecutor’s office said last week’s protests took place in five provinces and that some of those detained had said they took part because of their “poor economic conditions”. Others were accused of being criminals, members of the Muslim Brotherhood or were opposed to the government.
The statement said security forces had exercised maximum self-restraint in dealing with the protesters, who hurled rocks and broken glass at them and hit them with firecrackers.
Earlier on Thursday, the government said it would “firmly” and “decisively” deal with any attempt to destabilise the country, a stern warning that coincided with a call by the exiled businessman for more protests on Friday.
The warning by the Interior Ministry, which oversees domestic security, came with the deployment of a large number of policemen in Cairo’s downtown area around Tahrir Square, where protests were held last week. Police at the square - the birthplace of the 2011 uprising that toppled longtime ruler Hosni Mubarak - and nearby streets have been conducting random checks on motorists and pedestrians and their mobile phones. Similar measures were put in place in other major cities.
Pro-government entertainment celebrities have meanwhile been posting videos online expressing their support for the president and accusing the Brotherhood, which the government designated a terrorist group in 2013, of being behind last week’s protests.
Television talk show hosts have been warning of the country plunging again into the sort of turmoil and violence that engulfed Egypt in the years that followed the 2011 uprising.
“The Interior Ministry appeals to citizens to adhere to the law and rules on maintaining public order,” a ministry statement said. “It will deal decisively and firmly with any attempt to shake stability and social peace.”
Mr El Sisi led the military intervention in 2013 to remove President Mohammed Morsi, a Brotherhood stalwart, amid mass demonstrations against his divisive, one-year rule.
Mr El Sisi was elected to office the following year and has since worked to dismantle the outlawed Brotherhood. Most of the group’s leaders and thousands of its supporters are now in jail, facing legal proceedings on a wide array of criminal charges.
The outlawed Brotherhood, founded in Egypt in 1928, endorsed last week’s protests and is calling on its supporters to take to the streets again.
The latest developments in Egypt come amid internal complaints against rising prices resulting from an ambitious reform without which, according to the government, Egypt could have faced economic meltdown. The programme, which began in 2016, has been praised by investors and international financial institutions.