Egypt defends austerity measures amid fears of unrest

CAIRO — Egypt's President Abdel-Fattah el-Sissi on Tuesday defended austerity measures aimed at reviving the economy, amid fears of public anger that may have motivated the arrests of activists and bloggers in recent weeks.

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

El-Sissi said late Tuesday in televised comments that the government spends some $18.6 billion a year on subsidies to cover fuel, food and electricity. Each family receives an average of about $60, he said.

El-Sissi said he refused to postpone "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," he said. "We have to pay the price together."

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

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

Egypt's economy is still recovering from the unrest following the 2011 uprising that toppled longtime ruler Hosni Mubarak.

The austerity measures have included slashing fuel and electricity subsidies, imposing a value-added tax and floating the currency. The measures have won praise from economists and business leaders but have come as a heavy blow to poor and middle-class Egyptians.

The latest cuts risk sparking popular anger and possibly even protests, which have been extremely rare since Egypt banned all unauthorized demonstrations nearly five years ago. A decision to raise the price of metro tickets sparked small demonstrations last month.

The government has waged a sweeping crackdown on dissent since el-Sissi led the overthrow of a freely elected but divisive Islamist president in 2013. In recent weeks the government has intensified the crackdown, arresting a number of well-known activists and bloggers.

Those arrested include 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.

Mokhtar Mounir, a human rights lawyer, said the detained activists face charges linked to their use of social media.

"There is a trend to frighten and silence critics on social media in order to prevent the circulation of any account that contradicts the government's account," he said.

Political analyst Moustafa Kamel el-Sayed said the arrests were linked to the coming subsidy cuts.

"The arrests appear selective and focus on certain figures who continue writing and blogging on social media. They were concerned that those people may call for protesting against the expected price hikes," he said.

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

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