CAIRO — A group of teenagers arrested on their way to buy new school clothes. An illiterate shoeshiner picked up from the street. Eight people stopped while they were eating from a street food cart. And a 28-year-old financial auditor, who was walking to his car after dinner when police officers ordered him to stop.
These are among the latest political prisoners to overcrowd Egypt’s jails, arrested as President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi moved to quash the anti-government protests that first erupted across Egypt two weeks ago. The harsh crackdown — one of the largest waves of arrests in Egypt in decades — has ended the short-lived protest movement and put Mr. el-Sisi back in control, at least for now.
The most recent protest, called for Tuesday, did not even materialize.
Yet support for the president no longer seems impregnable. The sheer volume of arrests, combined with Mr. el-Sisi’s modest gestures toward addressing the protesters’ economic grievances, suggest a jittery government hastening to plug holes, analysts said.
“Egypt appears to be stable on the surface,” said Mohamed Zaree, the Egypt program director at the Cairo Institute for Human Rights Studies, “but right under its skin, it’s boiling up.”
Though some people have been released, at least 2,285 Egyptians remain detained in the crackdown that followed the first protests on Sept. 20, lawyers and monitoring groups said.
As many as 400 detainees are being questioned every day, so many that the central prosecutor’s office has had to bring in reinforcements from other prosecutor’s offices, lawyers said.
Police stations and prisons are so overstuffed that detainees are being housed in state security camps around greater Cairo, where there are not enough toilets to meet the growing need. Some prisoners have gone without food or water; virtually none have been allowed to speak to their families.
Many of those arrested had no apparent link to the demonstrations; one, a journalist, had written a pro-Sisi Facebook post hours before his arrest.
“He didn’t do anything wrong,” Zeinab el-Agroudy said of her brother, Ahmed el-Agroudy, 28, an auditor for a multinational company in Cairo who was on his way to his car after dinner when he was arrested on the night of the first protests. “He wasn’t part of anything going on, even though, even though it won’t be wrong that he was participating.”
In other cases, they were well-known opposition politicians, academics, lawyers or activists, including Alaa Abd El Fattah, one of the best-known faces of Egypt’s 2011 uprising, who was arrested on Sunday morning, just six months after being released from a five-year prison term. The police did not have to work hard to find him: Under the terms of his probation, Mr. Abd El Fattah had already been required to spend every night in prison, from 6 p.m. to 6 a.m.
Later Sunday, one of his lawyers, Mohamed el-Baqer, was arrested when he arrived to observe Mr. Abd El Fattah’s interrogation.
Clearly recognizing a threat, Mr. el-Sisi moved swiftly to rally his supporters, shift blame to government functionaries and mollify working-class Egyptians ground down under his economic policies and austerity measures, whose discontent over soaring prices and subsidy cuts is believed to be driving the protests.
Many of the protesters questioned by prosecutors cited economic grievances, the attorney general’s office said last week, when it acknowledged investigating about 1,000 people.
The government said this week that it would reinstate subsidies for staples like rice and pasta for 1.8 million Egyptians who had been struck from the program for having incomes deemed too high to qualify for them.
“Rest assured, as I am personally following up on these procedures,” Mr. el-Sisi wrote in a Facebook post, adopting a gentler tone than in the past, when he told Egyptians to toughen up. “I assure you that the government is totally committed to taking the necessary measures to uphold the rights of the humble.”
But these steps appear insufficient, said Amy Hawthorne, an Egypt expert at the Project on Middle East Democracy.
“They seem to display a recognition that there’s a lot of unhappiness out there in the public,” she said. “But the small gestures they’re making are far short of anything that would rectify the situation.”
Without more substantive reforms, analysts said, Mr. el-Sisi may not be able to maintain stability. Thanks to Mohamed Ali, a whistle-blower living in Spain whose videos about what he described as Mr. el-Sisi’s graft and hypocrisy helped kindle the protests, Mr. el-Sisi and his inner circle are firmly linked to corruption and waste in the minds of some Egyptians.
Even these concessions were paired with a firm hand. Security forces shut down central Cairo and swiftly dispersed demonstrators last Friday, when a second round of protests had been called.
Protesting has been illegal under Egyptian law since the military seized power from Mohamed Morsi, the country’s first democratically elected president, in 2013, the coup that led to Mr. el-Sisi’s presidency.
The crackdown was sweeping and often indiscriminate, lawyers said.
“The majority of people arrested are not politically active or aware, but just arrested from the street,” said Ragia Omran, a human rights lawyer who has been coordinating the legal effort to represent the detainees.
Some were arrested at home simply because they had protested in the past. Many were stopped at random by plainclothes police officers who searched their phones and social media accounts, then charged them with “misusing” social media, lawyers said. Many of those arrested were illiterate.
Mohamed Saeed, a lawyer at the Egyptian Commission for Rights and Freedoms, said the charges also included protesting without a license, spreading fake news and joining or funding an illegal organization.
With the government mostly silent on the identity and circumstances of those arrested, Egyptian monitoring groups and lawyers have been compiling their own unofficial lists, relying mainly on reports from families about missing relatives.
Lawyers said some families learned about relatives’ whereabouts only after going to the prosecutor’s office and asking lawyers coming out whether their names appeared on the official lists. Some families have yet to find out where their relatives were being held.
Mr. Saeed said the lawyers who had volunteered to represent the arrested were not always allowed to sit in on the interrogations, as permitted by law.
Ms. el-Agroudy said her family found out that her brother had been arrested only because some of his friends saw him being detained. She had protested in 2011, but her brother had not. He had no interest in politics, she said. Both sat out the latest protests.
For her, the episode was a forceful reminder of the costs — and, she said, the futility — of dissent.
“You know that nothing is going to change,” she said. “It is going to stay that way. I lost almost everything. The last thing I had and I couldn’t risk was my family. And now, I’m losing one of them and he did nothing. For nothing. In vain.”
But no one knows whether the clampdown will keep people quiet indefinitely. After all, Mr. el-Sisi’s repressive rule did not prevent the Sept. 20 protests.
Ali Mohamed, 19, had protested the first night and tried to do so again the next Friday, only to be stymied by road closings around downtown Cairo.
“It looks like the battle will take longer,” he said. “But I will go out. I will not be afraid. If you’re on the path of what is right and good, you will not be afraid.”
Ms. Hawthorne said Mr. el-Sisi’s response this week echoed the tactics of Hosni Mubarak, the Egyptian president to whom Mr. el-Sisi answered before Mr. Mubarak was toppled by the January 2011 uprising.
“He’s cracking down on the one hand, and making some very cosmetic gestures on the other,” she said, “but like the gestures that Mubarak took back in the day when it was clear people were unhappy, these measures failed in the long term to stabilize the situation.”