Lawyers say Egypt police arrested hundreds over protests

CAIRO (AP) — Egyptian security forces rounded up hundreds of people following small but rare anti-government protests, rights lawyers said yesterday, 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-Sisi 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 el-Sisi.

Yesterday, 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, a group outlawed and designated as a terrorist group in 2013 by the government, 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 el-Sisi’s rule.

“People fear the alternative. They don’t know what will be after el-Sisi. They don’t want another general. 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.