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Rare protests against President Abdel-Fattah el-Sissi occurred in central Cairo and several smaller Egyptian cities Friday night as hundreds of young people, responding to online calls for demonstrations against government corruption, chanted "Down with Sissi" and "Leave now."

The protests, although small, occurred as el-Sissi flew to New York to attend the United Nations General Assembly this week -- and they were unusual for taking place at all.

El-Sissi, who came to power in a 2013 military takeover, has cemented his hold through harsh repression that has silenced critics and curtailed free speech. Dissent has been met with harsh punishments and long prison sentences.

On Friday, the police fired tear gas to disperse some groups, but other protesters continued to clash with the police into the early hours of Saturday.

Dozens of people were arrested, including at least two journalists, according to the Egyptian Center for Economic and Social Rights. No casualties were reported.

At least four people were arrested near Tahrir Square, where Egyptians gathered to oust President Hosni Mubarak during the Arab Spring in 2011, said the Egyptian Commission for Rights and Freedoms.

Human-rights groups regularly denounce el-Sissi as one of the harshest leaders in the Middle East. Prisons are filled with political detainees, hundreds of websites have been blocked, and the country's press has been largely suborned by the security services.

Still, el-Sissi has met with little resistance from Western allies, including President Donald Trump, who earlier this month referred to him as "my favorite dictator."

The protests Friday were prompted by a call from Mohamed Ali, a building contractor who had worked with the military and has been appearing in Facebook videos alleging widespread squandering of public funds under el-Sissi and his close aides.

In one recent video, recorded by Ali from Spain where he lives in self-imposed exile, he called on the defense minister, Mohamed Zaki, to arrest el-Sissi. He urged Egyptians to take to the streets and demand the president's ouster Friday.

Hundreds of young Cairo residents heeded that call, flooding the streets Friday evening after a soccer match between two popular Egyptian teams. Witnesses and video recordings suggested the protests were not centrally organized, appearing instead to come from spontaneous gatherings of angry young people, many from working-class backgrounds, chanting anti-Sissi slogans.

In one place, protesters denounced el-Sissi as "the thief."

Pro-government television stations tried to play down the turbulence. Broadcasting from Tahrir Square, one anchor said that a small group had gathered to take selfies before leaving the scene. Other channels insisted the situation was calm.

But videos posted online showed that limited protests also started in Alexandria, in Suez on the Red Sea, and in Mahalla el-Kubra, a town of textile factories 70 miles north of Cairo that is known for its labor activism.

Limited anti-Sissi protests occurred in Cairo in 2016 after the president ceded two Red Sea islands, Tiran and Sanafir, to Saudi Arabia. But since then, life has gotten harder for ordinary Egyptians.

Food prices have soared as el-Sissi has introduced harsh austerity, slashing subsidies to fuel and some foodstuffs, as part of a bailout from the International Monetary Fund that he took to solve a currency crash in 2016.

Egypt's official statistics agency reported in July that 33% of Egyptians were living under the poverty line after years of austerity measures, up from 28% in 2015 and 17% in 2000.

El-Sissi was re-elected president in 2018 after a vote in which he faced no serious opposition. A referendum this year on constitutional changes to extend his rule was passed. But at least 3 million Egyptians voted against the measure.

Previously, Egypt's security services have reacted to much smaller protests by ratcheting up repression, usually in the form of mass arrests that have seen critics cast into jail for months or years. Analysts anticipated a similar reaction to Friday's protests.

Nonetheless, some said it appeared that a corner, however small, had been turned for el-Sissi.

Information for this article was contributed by staff members of The Associated Press.

A Section on 09/22/2019

Print Headline: Hundreds of Egyptians protest leader el-Sissi; dozens reported arrested

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