Egypt president defends austerity measures

Egypt's President Abdel-Fatah al-Sisi on Tuesday defended his government's latest austerity measures aimed at rebuilding the country's ailing economy, amid a wave of arrests since his re-election.

The government raised the price of electricity and tap water as part of an economic reform programme designed to qualify for a three-year $12bn bailout loan from the International Monetary Fund, which Egypt secured in 2016. A new round of fuel subsidy cuts is expected soon.

Al-Sisi said late on Tuesday in televised comments that the government spends a total $18.6bn, in subsidies to cover fuel, food and electricity, annually. Each family receives an average of $60, he said.

Al-Sisi was speaking at an outdoor iftar, a feast marking the end of the daily dawn-to-dusk fast during the holy month. His comments came hours after the government announced it would slash electricity subsidies, pushing up the charges by an average of 26%.

Electricity Minister Mohamed Shaker said on Tuesday that electricity charges for factories would rise by 41.8% and for households 20.9%. The new charges will take effect in July, he said.

Al-Sisi said he was insisting on not postponing "necessary reforms" to improve the economy. He urged Egyptians to be patient as the reforms take effect.

"All challenges and difficulties could be easy if we endure them. ... We have to pay the price together," he said.

Egypt's economy is still recovering from a costly 2011 popular uprising that toppled longtime ruler Hosni Mubarak and was followed by years of political instability. The tough austerity measures have included slashing fuel and electricity subsidies, imposing a value-added tax and a currency floatation. The measures, which none of al-Sisi's predecessors dared implement, have hit poor and middle-class Egyptians especially hard.

Egypt has intensified its crackdown on dissent since al-Sisi's re-election in the March vote in which he faced no serious challengers.

The crackdown has led to a wave of arrests of well-known activists and human rights campaigners. Among them are blogger Wael Abbas, pro-democracy activist Shady el-Ghazaly Harb, young comedian Shady Abu Zeid and activist Amal Fathy. They all face an array of charges including disseminating false news and belonging to an outlawed group.

Security officials have linked the latest arrests to a new round of fuel subsidy cuts. The authorities are concerned that activists help agitate people to protest against the government decisions to slash subsidies like the rare protest against a decision to hike fares on Cairo's subway system weeks ago, the officials said.

"All of us know that there will be a wave of high prices as part of the economic reform programme," one official said. "They (arrested activists) used to agitate people mainly through social media when the government takes such decisions."

Another official accused the detainees of being "either (outlawed Muslim) Brotherhood members or cooperating with them." Both officials spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorised to talk to media.

The European Union and human rights groups have voiced concern over the latest wave of arrests and called for the detainees to be released.

Al-Sisi won more than 97% of the vote in the March election, with turnout of more than 40%. He faced no serious challenger, after a string of potentially strong candidates withdrew under pressure or were arrested.

His sole opponent, little-known politician Moussa Mustafa Moussa, was a supporter of the president and joined the race at the last minute to spare the government the embarrassment of a one-candidate election.

Al-Sisi was first elected in 2014, nearly a year after leading the military overthrow of Egypt's first freely elected president, the Islamist Mohammed Morsi, amid mass protests against his divisive rule.

Since then, authorities have waged a sweeping crackdown on dissent, jailing thousands of Islamists as well as many of the prominent secular activists behind the 2011 uprising that toppled longtime autocrat Hosni Mubarak.

Unauthorised protests have been banned, and hundreds of websites, including those of rights groups and independent media, have been blocked.

Egypt says such measures are needed to restore stability after years of unrest and to combat the Islamic State-led insurgency in the Sinai.

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