Egyptian authorities quelled a significant repeat of anti-government protests on Friday, deploying security forces and blocking roads while state-backed rallies praising President Abdel-Fattah El-Sisi painted last week’s unrest as a plot against the nation. Thousands of Egyptians gathered in locations including eastern Cairo from mid-afternoon, many waving the national flag or placards of El-Sisi’s image. As pop and movie star Mohamed Ramadan took the stage later on, local broadcasters tweeted hashtags such as “No to chaos” and “We are 100 million Sisi.”
The choreographed action, given lavish coverage by local TV, was the flip-side to the no-holds-barred crackdown after last weekend’s rare anti-Sisi protests. Since then, nearly 2,000 people have been detained and some social media throttled. By Saturday morning, there’d been no significant protests.
Arriving home from the UN General Assembly on Friday, El-Sisi blamed prior unrest on a social-media campaign by his enemies.
“The Egyptian people are more aware of how the picture is presented to fabricate reality and to fool people. What happened before will not happen again,” he told well-wishers at the airport. “So don’t worry about anything.”
The Sept. 20 protests, though small, were unusual under El-Sisi, who deposed an elected Islamist president after demonstrations in 2013 then enacted a sweeping assault on dissent. It hinted at potential discontent in the nation of 100 million, where measures to revive the economy introduced in 2016 have fueled inflation and driven more people into poverty.
“This regime has a shelf-life, and it was always a question of how long that shelf life was,” said Crispin Hawes, director of Idrisi Advisors, a London-based analysis firm.
Security forces took no chances, on Friday blocking the roads leading to Cairo’s Tahrir Square, the epicenter of the 2011 revolt that ended Hosni Mubarak’s 30-year rule. Young men were subjected to spot searches of their mobile phones for social-media posts backing the protests.
At least 1,915 people have been detained, the Egyptian Center for Economic and Social Rights said. The general prosecutor announced that about 1,000 are being questioned for attending earlier protests, some of whom cited their economic plight while others claimed to have been inspired by online coverage.
In a familiar twist, authorities blamed foreign conspirators for fomenting discontent, arresting at least six foreigners, including two Turks, a Palestinian and Dutchman, whose recorded statements were aired on a popular talk show.
As Friday’s rallies drew near a close, Egypt’s army released a statement listing what it said were its recent successes in its battle with an Islamist militant insurgency in North Sinai, including the killing of 118 extremists. It also mentioned the death or wounding of an officer and nine soldiers in a clash, without giving details.
The recent unrest had an unlikely spark: a series of viral videos by Mohamed Ali, an ex-contractor and sometime-actor in self-imposed exile in Spain who’s made wide-ranging corruption allegations involving lavish palaces and hotels built for top officials.
Authorities have dismissed the claims in the videos, which have been widely shared in Egypt even amid questions over Ali’s motivations. El-Sisi has acknowledged the economic pressures on Egyptians but urged patience as he forges “a new country.”
Even if protests don’t immediately recur, “what’s happening now is interesting and has the possibility of changing political dynamics,” Michael Hanna, a senior fellow at the U.S.-based Century Foundation said on Twitter.
“Perhaps much more important than people marching in the streets is the expansion of the political imagination, which is what happened incrementally between 2000-2011,” he said. “But it’s also that possibility that the regime seeks to crush.”
Were unrest to repeat, one option for the government could be to give ordinary people some respite from economic austerity by easing subsidy cuts or increasing cash payments from social programs, Hawes said.
Unless protests are really widespread “they will feel that the stick and a very small bit of the carrot should be enough,” he said.