Feb 8, 1:51 PM EST

Giant red carpet for Egypt leader's motorcade sparks uproar


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AP Photo/Belal Wagdy

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CAIRO (AP) -- Egyptian President Abdel-Fattah el-Sissi is facing criticism after a massive red carpet was laid over public roads for his motorcade during a trip to open a social housing project in a Cairo suburb, where he preached austerity.

Images of the giant red carpet prompted a wave of ridicule on social media, with a hashtag mocking the carpet trending in Arabic. A local newspaper devoted much of its front page Monday to the incident.

"How is the president asking us to tighten our belts while the 4 kilometer (2.5 mile) red carpet says otherwise?" read a headline in Al-Maqal newspaper, whose editor-in-chief, Ibrahim Eissa, is one of Egypt's most prominent TV commentators.

El-Sissi, who as military chief led the overthrow of an elected Islamist leader in 2013, has staked his legitimacy on reviving the economy after years of unrest, including by trimming costly state subsidies, a theme he touched upon at Saturday's event.

He said the state spends around 40 million pounds ($5.1 million) a day to provide clean water, with only part of the cost passed on to consumers.

"One (cubic) meter of water that reaches you costs me this much, and you are taking it by that much, and the state is unable to continue this way," el-Sissi said in a televised conference.

The military provided a rare public response to the furor over the carpet. Brig. Gen. Ehab el-Ahwagy explained on several talk shows Sunday night that the carpet was not purchased by el-Sissi's administration and had been used for more than three years on similar occasions.

"It gives a kind of joy and assurance to the Egyptian citizen that our people and our land and our armed forces are always capable of organizing anything in a proper manner," el-Ahwagy told prominent TV talk show host Amr Adeeb.

"It is laid out in a way to beautify the general area, so it gives a good impression of the celebration that is being broadcast to the whole world."

El-Sissi's promises to bring stability have come amid heavy clampdown on dissent. Thousands of Islamists and a number of prominent secular activists have been imprisoned. Unauthorized protests have been banned.

On Monday, hundreds of soccer fans nevertheless held a rally inside a Cairo park to commemorate the deaths of 22 people killed in clashes last year between the police and fans of the Zamalek football club. The fans set off firecrackers and waved banners as large numbers of security forces were deployed outside the park.

The rally came one week after a similar gathering by fans of Egypt's top football club, Al-Ahly, commemorating the 74 people killed in a soccer riot in 2012 in the Suez Canal city of Port Said.

Egypt's hardcore soccer fans, known as ultras, played a major role in the protests that roiled the country during and after the 2011 uprising that toppled longtime autocrat Hosni Mubarak.

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