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Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 18 January 2019

Egypt restricts sales of reflective yellow vests to prevent protests

Cairo fears copycat rallies will be inspired by French movement before 2011 uprising anniversary

A protestor wearing a yellow vest (gilet jaune) throws a tear gas canister back at police during a protest in Paris last week. AFP
A protestor wearing a yellow vest (gilet jaune) throws a tear gas canister back at police during a protest in Paris last week. AFP

Egyptian authorities have quietly introduced restrictions on the sale of yellow reflective vests, fearing opponents might attempt to copy French protesters during next month's anniversary of the 2011 popular uprising that toppled autocrat Hosni Mubarak.

Security officials and retailers said industrial safety equipment dealers have been instructed not to sell yellow vests to walk-in buyers and to restrict business to wholesale sales to verified companies, but only after securing police permission. They were told offenders would be punished, the officials said, without elaborating.

Six retailers in a Cairo downtown area where industrial safety stores are concentrated said they were no longer selling yellow vests. Two declined to sell them, giving no explanation, but the remaining four said they were told not to by police.

"They seem not to want anyone to do what they are doing in France," one retailer said.

"The police came here a few days back and told us to stop selling them. When we asked why, they said they were acting on instructions," said another.

Both spoke on condition of anonymity for fear of reprisals.

Security officials said the restrictions would remain in force until the end of January. They said industrial safety product importers and wholesale merchants were summoned to a meeting with senior police officers in Cairo this week and informed of the rules.

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The officials, who have first-hand knowledge of the measures, spoke on condition of anonymity because they are not authorised to brief the media. Repeated calls and messages to seek comment from the spokesman of the Interior Ministry, which oversees the police, went unanswered.

The move showcases the depth of the Egyptian government's concern with security. In the past two years, Egyptian authorities clamped down heavily, deploying police and soldiers across the country, to prevent any marches to commemorate the January 25 anniversary of the start of the 2011 uprising. Scores were killed and wounded in clashes during the uprising anniversaries in years before that.

The yellow vests worn by French protesters have become the symbol of the wave of demonstrations that began in November against a rise in fuel taxes, but mushroomed to include a range of demands, including the resignation of French President Emmanuel Macron.

Egyptian media coverage of the unrest has emphasised the ensuing riots, looting and arson in Paris, echoing President Abdel Fattah El Sisi's frequent refrain that street action leads to chaos. He recently outright denounced for the first time the 2011 uprising, saying it plunged the country into economic and political turmoil.

Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi looks on with Arab delegations and Military Productions on the first day of Egypt Defense Expo, showcasing military systems and hardware in Cairo, Egypt, December 3, 2018. In this handout picture courtesy of the Egyptian Presidency. The Egyptian Presidency/Handout via REUTERS ATTENTION EDITORS - THIS IMAGE WAS PROVIDED BY A THIRD PARTY
Egyptian President Abdel Fattah El Sisi attends the Egypt Defence Expo on last week. Reuters

Egypt has almost banned protests, and the general-turned-president Mr El Sisi often warns that his tough hand ensuring stability is necessary, pointing to war and destruction in Syria, Yemen and Libya as the alternative. His emphasis on security has taken on added significance amid his ambitious programme to reform the economy, which has unleashed steep price hikes, hitting the middle-class hard.

Since Mr El Sisi rose to office in 2014, there have been no significant protests, but the government is constantly wary they could return, especially given that the 2011 protests erupted as part of a chain reaction, inspired by Tunisia's "Arab Spring" uprising.

Rights lawyer Gamal Eid said his Cairo-based Arab Network for Human Rights Information has seen a recent spike in small "social protests", with the privatisation of state-owned enterprises the main issue.

"The government here is talking up its achievements, but it fears a backlash because ordinary people have yet to tangibly benefit from the mega projects under way," said Mr Eid, who is banned by authorities from travelling, while his group's online site is blocked by the government.

Negad Borai, another rights lawyer, said the government could delay expected price hikes next year "to avoid protests inspired by what's happening in France".

Mr El Sisi led the military's 2013 ouster of a freely elected but divisive president. He was elected in 2014 and, earlier this year, won a second-term, running virtually unopposed. He has overseen the largest crackdown on critics seen in Egypt in living memory, jailing thousands of Islamists along with pro-democracy activists, reversing freedoms won in the 2011 uprising, silencing critics and placing draconian rules on rights groups.

Updated: December 11, 2018 12:54 PM

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