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Police In Cairo Use Tear Gas To Break Up Protests Against Egypt's Government


This is the sound of protesters out on the streets of Egypt.


UNIDENTIFIED PROTESTERS: (Chanting in foreign language.)

GARCIA-NAVARRO: It was a small but significant demonstration in Cairo, significant because of who they were out protesting against - Egypt's president, Abdel Fattah el-Sisi. He's been popular since he assumed power in the wake of the Arab Spring, and this could be a sign that that's changing.

Cairo security forces turned out in enormous numbers yesterday to shut down the gathering. The city is tense. We go now to NPR's Leila Fadel in Cairo to learn more. Hey, Leila.


GARCIA-NAVARRO: So you were out on the streets yesterday. Can you just describe the scene for us?

FADEL: Well, really it felt like all of Egypt's police were in the streets of Cairo yesterday, ready and waiting for any signs of protest and ready to shut them down. And the protesters were also ready. They were sort of gathering slowly, acting like nothing was going on.

And then it would be this sort of flash mob suddenly of protesting, getting out what they wanted to say before they knew that police would come and shut them down. So there was this real determination from people to protest against the government and against this president.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Tell me, why has this all kicked off now?

FADEL: Well, this all started over an issue of nationalism really, an issue of national pride, when Egyptian President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi announced that Egypt would be handing over two Red Sea islands to Saudi Arabia that Egypt says are actually Saudi territory.

And so people really saw that as an affront to their nationalism and to their territory. And Khaled Fahmy, an Egyptian historian and a critic of the government, said it's really quite a twist for a nationalist government to be defending ceding territory.

KHALED FAHMY: It's a very bizarre twist, whereby the ultra-nationalist pro-Sisi constituency that had been rallying behind him for the past two years, specifically on the grounds that he is protecting national security, these same people are today hoisting Saudi flags and claiming that these islands are actually Saudi islands. And the government is having severe crackdown on anybody who dares to say that these islands are Egyptian.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: What was the government's response to these protests?

FADEL: Well, in the days leading up to this, really the government was on the defensive, saying anybody who went out to protest was an enemy to the state. We saw security forces going into homes of activists, arresting them - Up to a hundred people arrested before yesterday's protest - And then on the day of, a determination to shut down any anti-government protests, anti-Sisi protests and an allowance of anybody out there in favor of the government to gather and to protest, despite it supposedly being illegal.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: You've been talking to people. Why are they saying that this is significant, and do they think that there'll be more of this?

FADEL: Prior to these protests, we never heard people directly say that this president must step down, that this is a void regime and they must go. There was no space, and there still is no space, for dissent. But now in these protests you're seeing a determination from people to actually go out. It may not be a majority.

We're actually not sure how big it is. But this determination to say actually not - Everything is not OK, that this is a time of extreme repression, there are all these bottled-up grievances against a government that many critics say is the most repressive regime in Egypt's modern history. It's a regime that has not allowed for any type of dissent and shuts it down immediately. And so now this is popping up and is something that is coming out. And many wonder if really you can put it back in.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: NPR's Leila Fadel in Cairo. Thank you so much.

FADEL: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.