US President Donald Trump says he is not concerned with the protests in Egypt as he threw his support behind Egyptian President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi, who has come under pressure.
“Everybody has demonstrations,” Trump said on Monday while meeting el-Sisi on the sidelines of the 74th session of the UN General Assembly in New York City.
“I’m not concerned with it. Egypt has a great leader. He’s highly respected.”
In a rare display of dissent, thousands of protesters on Friday and Saturday defied a de facto ban on demonstrations as they took to the streets in central Cairo and several other cities to call for el-Sisi’s departure.
In the port city of Suez, security forces on Saturday clashed with hundreds of protesters, firing tear gas and live rounds as they moved in to disperse the crowd.
On Monday, a rights group said more than 500 people had been arrested across the country since the protests began.
“The latest count of those arrested over the events since Friday in Cairo and other provinces has risen to 516,” the Egyptian Centre for Economic and Social Rights said in a statement.
The protests came in response to calls for el-Sisi to step down by Mohamed Ali, a building contractor and actor who accused the president and the military of corruption in a series of videos posted online.
From self-imposed exile in Spain, Ali has called for a “million-man march” on Friday and for protesters to fill all “major squares” of the country.
Discontent over the rising cost of living has been swelling in Egypt, where the government has imposed strict austerity measures since 2016 as part of a $12bn loan package from the International Monetary Fund.
Nearly one in three Egyptians live below the poverty line on less than $1.40 a day, according to official figures released in July. Other estimates put the figure higher.
El-Sisi has dismissed the corruption allegations as “lies” and “slander”. When asked about the demonstrations, the Egyptian president on Monday blamed them on “political Islam”.
A former army general, el-Sisi led the military removal of democratically elected Mohamed Morsi in 2013 and has since won back-to-back landslide elections after running virtually unopposed.
During his time in office, he has overseen a broad crackdown on dissent, including the jailing of thousands of dissidents and the effective banning of protests.
Human rights groups have long raised concerns about the el-Sisi government’s human rights record, but Trump on Monday insisted his Egyptian counterpart “has done some things that are absolutely amazing in a short period of time”.
“When he took over, it was in turmoil. But it’s not in turmoil anymore. I just wanted to say we have a long-term great relationship. It’s better than ever before,” Trump said.