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Riot police fill streets as Egypt braces for austerity protests
(REUTERS): Riot police and armored vehicles filled the otherwise empty streets of central Cairo early on Friday as security forces built up a heavy presence in anticipation of popular protests over deteriorating economic conditions.
A little-known group calling itself Movement of the Poor has called for Egyptians to protest on Nov. 11 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 armored vehicles equipped with tear gas canister launchers, dozens of riot policeman and high-ranking officers. 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.
“Between you and me, this is good,” said Shenouda Ishak, a driver in Shubra. “I don’t think anything will happen but this security presence scares people and ensures nothing does.”
It was unclear if protests would go ahead on Friday as they 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, authorities are taking no chances. Dozens of people were detained in recent weeks for allegedly inciting unrest.
Protesters camped in Tahrir Square in an 18-day demonstration ended Hosni Mubarak’s 30-year rule in 2011. 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.
However many ordinary Egyptians and activists believe the heyday of street politics is over. After taking power, Sisi quickly crushed dissent and has applied a protest law so strictly that few dare to come out, despite rising public anger.
‘STREET ACTION LEADS TO BLOOD’
In recent weeks, the president has urged Egyptians not to protest and warned that there would be no going back on economic reforms, no matter how much pain they might cause.
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.
“Police have surrounded the entrances of Cairo, Giza, and Qalyubiya to prevent the terrorist group’s elements from sneaking into any potential demonstrations heeding these call dubious calls and creating chaos,” the state news agency said.
The interior ministry said on Thursday that it confiscated a cache of arms and ammunition hidden in a graveyard and house by the Brotherhood in Fayoum province, southwest of Cairo.
It also said it raided five bomb factories around the country on Wednesday, accusing a militant group of coordinating with the Brotherhood to attack police checkpoints on the eve of the protests.
Stung by street revolts that have made life worse rather than better, many people said they would stay home.
Reuters spoke to five activists who all said protests would achieve little and feared violence if they do materialize.
“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 Malek Adly, a human rights lawyer with the Egyptian Centre for Economic and Social Rights.
Sisi came to power promising economic reform and stability but problems have piled up. With a budget deficit of 12 percent and a looming funding gap, Egypt reached a preliminary deal with the International Monetary Fund in August for a $12 billion loan to support its reforms.
The IMF board is set to meet on Friday to decide on approving the bailout program. It will disburse an initial $2.75 million loan tranche on the same day if the package is approved.
Yet Egyptians feel clobbered by tax rises, soaring food price inflation and cuts in state subsidies.
Core inflation is almost at eight-year-highs, over 15 percent, as a foreign exchange shortage and a hike in customs duties bite hard in a country that imports everything from sugar to luxury cars.
Egypt raised electricity prices by 25-40 percent in August and introduced a 13 percent value-added tax approved by parliament in the same month.
The government has tried to win public support for the austerity measures with a billboard campaign and media blitz and also sought to expand social security schemes to shield the poorest from the effects of the rising prices.
But many Egyptians who would not qualify for such schemes complain they can no longer afford meat, while sugar shortages have driven fears of an impending food crisis.
In his speeches, Sisi has sought to persuade Egyptians that a collective sacrifice is necessary to save the country from financial ruin, even urging people to donate spare change, comments that drew online derision.
But he also warned that the army could be deployed within six hours in the event of street unrest.
Egypt foreign ministry slams Turkish President’s anti-Sisi remarks
Egypt foreign ministry spokesperson Ahmed Abu Zeid condemned the “irresponsible” statements by Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan during an interview with the Qatari news channel Aljazeera where he accused Egypt of “providing support to the Gulen movement.”
In statements on Friday, Abu Zeid said that Erdogan’s remarks are “continuation of confused and double standard policy, which characterize the Turkish government strategy in recent years.”
Erdogan accused the Gulen movement, which is led by Turkish cleric Fethullah Gulen, of masterminding the failed coup attempt in Turkey last July.
Abu Zeid added he was “shocked by Erdogan’s claims he was the guardian of democracy and freedom,” while the Turkish government had arrested hundreds of university professors, journalists, and dozens of MPs, and closed dozens of newspapers and laying off tens of thousands of public servicemen and military officers over their involvement in what Erdogan claimed a plotted coup against his regime.
Relations between Turkey and Egypt have been strained since the 2013 ouster of Egypt’s Islamist president Mohamed Morsi following a mass protest against his rule.
Police seize stash of weapons in 2 Muslim Brotherhood hideouts in Fayoum
Security forces in Upper Egypt’s governorate of Fayoum seized a stash of weapons that supporters of the Muslim Brotherhood were plotting to use ahead of planned anti-government protests, the interior ministry announced in a statement Thursday.
One of the hideouts were in a graveyard south of Fayoum and contained an RPG, 16 automatic and sniper rifles and over 4,000 bullets, while the other was in a house of a member of the outlawed group, according to the statement.
The ministry said it raided five bomb factories around the country on Wednesday, accusing a militant group of coordinating with the Brotherhood to attack police checkpoints on the eve of planned protests.
“The armed wing of the Muslim Brotherhood intended to use the weapons in terrorist attacks as they take advantage of economic conditions to incite protests,” according to the statement.
Egyptian policemen are on high alert around the clock to “foil plots sown against the state,” Assistant Interior Minister for Media and Public Tarek Attia was quoted by Youm7 Saturday.
Speaking at a cultural forum organized by the prison authority, Attia asserted that the interior ministry in collaboration with the Egyptian armed forces “stepped up security measures across the country and at key sites to face terror incitement called upon by evil forces to promote extremism and chaos and hinder Egypt’s development path.”
The remarks come ahead of online calls for protests on 11 November to spark a popular uprising over the country’s economic situation. However, no specific group has officially called for such protests.
Egypt blocks bank account of torture victims’ center – lawyer
An Egyptian rights group that treats torture victims was prevented on Thursday from accessing its funds and told that its account had been blocked, its lawyer told Reuters.
Taher Abu al-Nasr, who represents the Nadeem Center for the Rehabilitation of Victims of Violence and Torture, said an employee was not allowed to cash a cheque for the center and was told by a bank manager that the central bank had ordered its account suspended until it registers as a non-governmental organisation with the social solidarity ministry.
Nadeem says it is registered as a clinic with the health ministry and does not need to register as an NGO.
“We couldn’t cash a cheque today. We don’t know exactly what happened; whether our assets are frozen or our account is shut down or what. We will try to obtain the written order on Sunday when banks reopen,” Abu al-Nasr said.
Egyptian authorities deny allegations by human rights groups and activists that security forces round up people and torture them in secret detention centres.
Amnesty International condemned the move against Nadeem, saying the NGO provides hundreds of torture victims with vital services including counselling and legal assistance.
“This is yet more evidence of the Egyptian authorities’ chilling contempt of perceived critics. By freezing Nadeem’s financial assets the authorities are preventing the Center from carrying out their crucial work to provide care to survivors of horrific violence,” said Philip Luther, Research and Advocacy Director at Amnesty for the Middle East and North Africa.
The government had already ordered the closure of the center in February without providing an official reason. Health ministry sources at the time said it committed unspecified violations.
The center challenged the order in court and still operates.
Egyptian rights activists say they are facing the worst assault in their history amid a wider campaign to erase freedoms won in a 2011 uprising that ended Hosni Mubarak’s 30-year rule as president.
In October, an Egyptian court approved a freeze on the assets of five prominent human rights activists and three NGOs accused of receiving foreign funds to sow chaos.