Egypt’s president told supporters not to worry about calls for further protests against his rule on Friday, as security forces tightened controls in the center of the capital and closed off entrances to Tahrir Square.
Protests broke out on Sept. 20 in Cairo and other cities following online calls for demonstrations against alleged corruption by President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi and the military.
Sisi, who has been in New York for the past week attending the United Nations General Assembly, returned to Cairo on Friday morning, where he was greeted by religious dignitaries and a crowd of supporters.
Asking them why they were up so early on a Friday, the first day of Egypt’s weekend, he said: “The situation isn’t worth it. You need to know that the Egyptian people are very aware… Don’t worry about anything.”
Sisi also appeared to repeat his earlier rejection of allegations of corruption posted online by Mohamed Ali, a former contractor and actor, in the run-up to the protests. Ali’s videos have attracted a wide following.
“This is an image being painted as was done before, comprised of lies and defamation and some media working to present an image that isn’t true. We’re really strong, the country is really strong with (because of) you,” he said in a video posted on his official Facebook page.
Since last weekend’s protests, authorities have carried out a campaign of mass arrests which rights monitors say has seen at least 1,900 people detained. Egypt’s public prosecutor said on Thursday that “not more than 1,000” had been questioned after participating in protests.
Ali has called for new protests this Friday, though government supporters are also planning rallies to show their backing for Sisi.
The protests have unnerved investors and led to a pro-Sisi campaign in Egypt’s strictly controlled media.
Security forces have stepped up their presence in main squares in major cities and have been checking mobile phones for political content.
On Friday morning, roads leading to Tahrir Square in central Cairo, the epicenter of protests that led to the overthrow of former President Hosni Mubarak in 2011, were closed to traffic, There was a heavy police presence around the square and at some junctions in the city center.
Sisi came to power after leading the overthrow of Islamist former President Mohamed Mursi in 2013 following mass protests against Mursi’s rule.
Sisi said on Friday that at some point he would request a show of mass support in which Egyptians would “go out in their millions”.
Sisi has overseen a broad crackdown on dissent that has extended to liberal as well as Islamist groups, and which rights groups say is the most severe in recent memory.
Sisi’s backers say the crackdown was needed to stabilize Egypt after the turmoil that followed the country’s 2011 uprising.
Several hundred of those detained in the past week have been placed under investigation for charges including using social media to spread false news, undermining national security, joining a banned terrorist group, and protesting without a permit, defense lawyers say.