Sisi says 'no reason for concern' ahead of planned protest

Crackdown over protests pushed by exiled businessman has seen nearly 2000 arrests but Egypt's president urges Egyptians not to believe claims made against him.

CAIRO - Egypt's President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi said Friday there was no cause for concern over protests against his rule that are planned for later in the day, as security forces tightened controls in the centre of the capital and closed off entrances to Tahrir Square.

"There are no reasons for concern. Egypt is a strong country thanks to Egyptians," he told reporters with a smile, shortly after his return from the UN General Assembly in New York.

He was greeted by religious dignitaries and a crowd of supporters upon his arrival at Cairo airport.

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."

Rare protests against Sisi's rule erupted last week in Cairo and other major cities, prompting a crackdown that has seen nearly 2,000 arrests, according to Human Rights Watch.

Those demonstrations broke out after a football match with protesters chanting "leave, Sisi!" and accusing him of heading a "military regime".

Egypt's public prosecutor on Thursday insisted that "not more than 1,000" had been questioned after participating in protests.

They were triggered by viral videos from exiled Egyptian businessman Mohamed Aly accusing the president of building lavish palaces while taxpayers grapple with the impact of austerity under an IMF loan programme totalling $12 billion.

In defiance of a years-long ban on demonstrations, Aly has called for further protests on Friday in Egyptian cities, where security forces have stepped up their presence in recent days - though government supporters are also planning rallies to show their backing for Sisi.

While the exiled critic's videos have gained huge traction -- shared millions of times online -- they have provoked fervent counter-attacks from the president's backers, using the hashtags #longliveSisi and #theywantchaos.

For those supporters, Sisi's six years at the helm - including five as president - have shown him to be a bulwark against the insecurity and political disintegration unleashed by the Arab Spring elsewhere, notably in Libya and Syria.

"The case does not deserve all" this attention, Sisi said in a video posted on his official Facebook page. "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," he added, without elaborating on this point.

"Do not listen to what they say. Do not believe them," he urged, without naming those responsible for calling the protests against him.

Heavy police presence

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 epicentre 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 centre.

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 stabilise 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, defence lawyers say.

In August 2013, just over a month after Sisi toppled Mursi, police dispersed two camps full of supporters of the Islamist leader in Cairo, killing about 800 people in clashes, according to official figures.

The government named the Muslim Brotherhood a "terrorist organisation" later that year, but the crackdown on opposition has extended to secular organisations and human rights activists.

In the years since only a few small groups have survived Sisi's crackdown on dissent, with successive waves of arrests scooping up hundreds of Islamist supporters and members of civil society, effectively neutralising any challenge to Sisi's rule.

A former general, Sisi has ensured lawyers, political activists, journalists and intellectuals who opposed his government today find themselves behind bars. Some have languished in jail for years, while others have fled abroad.