Hundreds of people gathered outside No. 10 on Wednesday evening to demand that the prime minister confront Egyptian president Abdel Fatah al-Sisi on his record of alleged human rights abuses.
Words: Mariya Savova, Subeditor: Corey Armishaw
Sisi is due to arrive in London for his first official visit in the UK today. He and David Cameron are expected to discuss issues, such as trade, terrorism and the conflict in Libya.
In the meantime, protesters were quick to react and organised demonstrations in Whitehall. They claimed that Sisi is presenting a false face to the public and were aiming to “make the Egyptian president famous for his crimes”.
The protest organisers accused Abdel Fatah al-Sisi of reintroducing dictatorship to Egypt, limiting free speech and administering a regime in which tens of thousands of his political opponents have been put in jails and rumours of torture, disappearances and rape have been widespread.
— Mariya (@MimiSavova) November 4, 2015
Among the chants that rang out during Wednesday’s two-hour demonstration were: “Sisi, you’re not welcome on our streets”, “British values where are you?”, “David Cameron can’t you see? Sisi killed democracy”. At one point, two open-top buses filled with pro-Sisi supporters passed by and provoked the two opposing groups to shout at each other in Arabic.
At the demonstration we spoke to Omaima Halawa, one of the sisters of Ibrahim Halawa, a 19-years-old Irish student who remains in an Egyptian prison. She said: “He’s been denied basic rights such as attending trial and defending himself. He’s been in a mass trial with over 490 defendants, which has been delayed for over two years, because every time there’s a defendant who’s not attending. We’re asking Britain why is it inviting the man who put my brother in jail?”
Another demonstrator, Nisrine Feki, a London student originally from Tunisia, told Voice of London: “I’m here as an individual who cares about human rights. We’re all here because we’re opposing one thing and that’s David Cameron’s invitation to president Sisi. Sisi is a dictator, he’s an authoritarian ruler and he’s sent people to prison just because they have a different view. If David Cameron is so pro-democracy, why is he accepting someone who’s caused so much controversy and killed democracy in Egypt?”
Ahead of his visit Sisi gave an interview for the BBC in which he defended Egypt’s sweeping security laws, claiming that he is taking the country on a path to democracy. The interview was condemned by speakers at Wednesday’s demonstration.
Some of the students who marched against fees and cuts also stayed to support those protesting against Sisi’s visit in London. A student representative took to the stage to say: “Today I marched as a student, in Egypt students are imprisoned.”
Ahead of the protest, Sameh Shafi, coordinator of Stop Sisi, one of the biggest protest groups participating, told The Guardian: “I think the British politicians and everyone here need to understand that his only selling point – that he’s a military man who brings stability – is the exact opposite of what’s happening [in Egypt].” Shafi also told BuzzFeed News that Sisi is against “everything Britain stands for.”
Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn also condemned the prime minister’s decision to welcome Sisi to No. 10, saying that the Egyptian president’s visit threatens UK’s national security.
Kate Allen, director of Amnesty International UK, has joined calls for Cameron to confront president Sisi on his record of alleged human rights abuses: “President al-Sisi’s arrival in the UK is a key test of whether David Cameron is prepared to do more than roll out red carpets for authoritarian leaders,” she said.
Since former president Mohamed Morsi was overthrown in a military coup, led by Sisi, in July 2013, tens of thousands of people in Egypt have been detained. Some of them include perceived supporters of the banned Muslim Brotherhood group, as well as journalists, human rights activists and other alleged government opponents. Since president Abdel Fatah al-Sisi came to power hundreds have been sentenced to death after mass trials in courts. Seven death sentences have already been carried out.
The former army chief was invited by the prime minister in June and opposition to his visit has been increasing ever since. A broad coalition of Egyptian and British groups, as well as shadow chancellor, John McDonnell has called for the UK government to withdraw its invitation to Sisi. The Cabinet Office, however, has defended the planned talks, claiming that “the stronger our working relationship, the more able we are to have necessary and frank discussions about issues on which we disagree”.
The meeting between David Cameron and Abdel Fatah al-Sisi is scheduled for this morning. Demonstrators are gathering again outside Downing Street today at 10am.
The protest in pictures
Photos: Mariya Savova