Rare protests against President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi erupted in central Cairo and several smaller Egyptian cities on Friday night when hundreds of young people, responding to online requests for protests against government corruption, shouted "Below Sisi "and" Leave now ".
The protests, though small, came as Mr. el-Sisi flew to New York to attend the United Nations General Assembly next week – and were unusual because they did.
El-Sisi, who came to power in a 2013 military takeover, cemented his rule through a severe crackdown that silenced critics, restricted freedom of expression and crushed any appearance of democratic politics. Even the slightest dissent was met with harsh punishments and long prison sentences.
Police fired tear gas to disperse some groups on Friday, but other protesters continued to clash with police in the early hours of Saturday.
At least four people were arrested near Tahrir Square, where Egyptians gathered to expel President Hosni Mubarak during the Arab Spring in 2011, said the Egyptian Commission on Rights and Freedoms, which monitors the status of detainees.
Human rights groups regularly denounce El-Sisi as one of the most severe leaders in the Middle East. The crowded prisons are full of political detainees, hundreds of websites have been blocked and the country's press has been widely bribed by security services.
Still, El-Sisi met little resistance from Western allies, including President Trump, who last week called him "my favorite dictator. "
The protests on Friday were prompted by a call from Mohamed ali, a contractor who worked with the military and appeared on Facebook videos alleging massive waste of public funds under the command of el-Sisi and his close advisers.
In the latest video, shot by Ali from Spain, where he lives in exile, he asked Defense Minister Mohamed Zaki to arrest Mr. el-Sisi.
Hundreds of young Cairo residents answered the call for protests on Friday night, flooding the streets after a soccer match between two popular Egyptian teams. Witnesses and video recordings suggested that the protests were not centrally organized, seeming to come from spontaneous gatherings of angry young people, many working class, chanting anti-Sisi slogans.
In one place, the protesters denounced el-Sisi as "the thief".
Pro-government television stations tried to minimize the turmoil. Broadcasting from Tahrir Square, an anchor said a small group had gathered to take selfies before leaving the scene. Other channels insisted that the situation was calm.
But videos posted online showed that limited protests also erupted in Egypt's second city, Alexandria, in Suez, the Red Sea, and in Mahalla el-Kubra, a textile factory town 110 kilometers north of Cairo, known for its labor activism. .
Limited protests against Sisi took place in Cairo in 2016, after the president ceded two Red Sea islands, Tiran and Sanafir, to Saudi Arabia. But since then, life has become much more difficult for ordinary Egyptians.
Food prices rose when El-Sisi introduced a severe austerity diet, cutting fuel and some food subsidies as part of an International Monetary Fund [IMF] bailout he took to resolve a currency crash in 2016.
Egypt's official statistics agency reported in July that 33% of Egyptians lived below the poverty line after years of austerity measures, up from 28% in 2015 and 17% in 2000.
El-Sisi was re-elected president in 2018 after an imperfect vote in which he faced no serious opposition. A referendum this year on constitutional changes to extend his government has been approved. But at least three million Egyptians voted against the measure.
Previously, Egyptian security services reacted to much smaller protests, increasing repression, usually in the form of mass arrests that saw critics being arrested for months or years. Analysts anticipated a similar reaction to Friday's protests.
However, some said it looked as though a corner, however small, had been turned towards El-Sisi.
The protests on Friday night were "first for the Sisi regime," said Professor Rabab el-Mahdi, a political scientist at the American University in Cairo. The relatively restrained police response "may be a decision to let off steam," she said. “This was typical of the Mubarak regime. But it is not typical of Sisi.