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Egypt seals off Cairo's Tahrir Square, thwarting protest

Egypt's President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi, right, meets with Secretary-General Antonio Guterres during the 74th session of the U.N. General Assembly, at U.N. headquarters, Wednesday, Sept. 25, 2019. (AP Photo/Jason DeCrow)

CAIRO (AP) — Egyptian security forces on Friday sealed off Cairo's Tahrir Square, the epicenter of the so-called Arab Spring uprising in 2011, thwarting a possible protest in the capital against the country's president.

The closures came amid a harsh security clampdown following rare demonstrations in several cities last weekend, all of which were broken up by police. Lawyers say more than 2,000 people have been arrested since then, though Egypt's general prosecutor claims his office has questioned no more than 1,000 people over the latest protests.

Street demonstrations have been almost completely silenced in recent years by draconian measures imposed under President Abdel-Fattah el-Sissi, a former general.

The demonstrations erupted over corruption allegations leveled earlier this month against the military and el-Sissi. Those allegations were made by an Egyptian businessman living in self-imposed exile who said he had worked with the military for 15 years. El-Sissi warned Friday against "deceitful" attempts to discredit his rule.

Riot police barricaded streets and bridges leading into Tahrir Square, where hundreds of thousands had gathered in 2011 to demand the ouster of longtime ruler Hosni Mubarak. Several subway stations in the downtown area were closed, purportedly for maintenance.

The government effectively banned all public protests in 2013, shortly after el-Sissi led the military's overthrow of an elected but divisive Islamist president, amid mass protests against that president's brief rule.

Earlier this month, self-exiled contractor Mohamed Ali posted inflammatory videos accusing the president and some military commanders of misuse of public funds to build presidential palaces and a tomb for the president's mother. The allegations came as economic reforms and austerity have squeezed Egypt's lower and middle classes badly. Ali had renewed his call for Egyptians to take to the streets Friday, the first day of the weekend, but as of 9:15 p.m. local time none had taken place in Cairo.

El-Sissi arrived Friday morning at Cairo's airport from New York, where he had been attending the U.N. General Assembly at the time the protests broke out.

"It is all based on lies, distortion and fabrication. You should be aware of that," he said. Hundreds of his supporters rallied to greet him, raising his picture and waving Egyptian flags. Later in the day, thousands of el-Sissi's supporters rallied in east Cairo in what appeared to be a state-orchestrated demonstration, raising banners reading "No to terrorism" and "We stand with you."

The recent crackdown on political activists has elicited strong criticism from human rights advocates.

U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights Michelle Bachelet expressed concern over "the lack of due process" following the arrests, referring to reports that those detained were denied legal representation and charged with "serious offenses".

Human Rights Watch also said Friday that Egypt's authorities should respect the right of peaceful assembly by allowing protests and should release all those arrested.

"The nationwide crackdown on protests suggests that President Abdel-Fattah el-Sissi is terrified of Egyptians' criticisms," said Sarah Leah Whitson, the group's Middle East and North Africa director.

Since Ali posted his first video, state-run media have responded by linking him to the outlawed Muslim Brotherhood group and accusing him of instigating chaos.

"They won't let you achieve any success or enjoy anything; we are at war with them," said el-Sissi, alluding to the Muslim Brotherhood. The group was banned after the 2013 overthrow of late president Mohamed Morsi, who hailed from the group. Since then, the group's members have either been jailed or forced into exile.

Separately on Friday, security officials and medical sources said militants attacked a security checkpoint, killing eight troops and a civilian and wounding three troops and a civilian in restive northern Sinai Peninsula.

The officials, who asked to remain anonymous because they were not authorized to brief the media, said the militants attacked with automatic rifles and grenades in the small town of Dir el Abd. Officials said warplanes hunted down the militants and struck their vehicles and motorcycles, leaving at least 15 dead.

El-Sissi condemned the attack, saying on Facebook that Egypt will triumph in the "battle against terrorism."

In a statement posted on a jihadist website, the Islamic State in Sinai claimed responsibility for the attack, putting the death toll among security forces at 15, including an officer.

Egypt's military said Friday at least 10 troops, including an officer, have been killed or wounded in clashes with militants in recent operations in restive northern Sinai Peninsula. It said forces have killed at least 118 suspected militants.

Egypt has been battling Islamic militants in the Sinai Peninsula for years but the insurgency escalated after the military overthrow of Morsi.