CAIRO — Police fired tear gas and birdshot on Monday to disperse hundreds of demonstrators calling on President Abdel-Fattah el-Sissi to step down over his government’s decision to surrender control over two strategic Red Sea islands to Saudi Arabia.
The violence in Mesaha square in Cairo’s Dokki district took place as thousands of police and soldiers were deployed Monday across the Egyptian capital ahead of the planned demonstrations over the islands, a thorny issue which has already sparked the largest protests since el-Sissi assumed power nearly two years ago.
Following the arrest of dozens of activists and journalists in recent days, riot police backed by armored vehicles on Monday took up positions in Cairo’s Tahrir Square, the epicenter of Egypt’s 2011 uprising, They also deployed on the ring road, downtown and at a square where hundreds of Islamist protesters were killed when security forces broke up their sit-in in August 2013.
Many of the protest organizers’ gathering points were sealed off by police, including the doctors’ and journalists’ unions in central Cairo. Pedestrians near the Press Syndicate were stopped by police, who asked for IDs and about their destination before turning many of them away. Minivans loaded with plainclothes policemen were also deployed in the likely flashpoints.
The sheer number of policemen on the streets and fear of arrest prevented protesters from gathering, forcing them to trickle out from designated gathering points to assemble elsewhere. Fearing another round of unrest after years of turmoil, many city residents and shopkeepers were hostile toward the protesters on Monday.
However, a group of some 500 protesters led by prominent activists managed to gather at the mostly residential Mesaha square. Their chants of “leave, leave” directed at el-Sissi, echoed across the square, along with “bread, freedom, the islands are Egyptian.” Police in full riot gear arrived 10 minutes later and immediately fired tear gas and birshot. The protesters fled and later regrouped in smaller groups at nearby streets.
From their apartments’ balconies, the square’s pro-el-Sissi residents shouted “traitors” at the protesters below and pelted them with water.
Later, plainclothes policemen were seen kicking and slapping protesters they arrested. Truckloads of protesters were also seen in police custody.
“Giving up our land is the final straw,” said one protester, 16-year-old Youssef el-Agouza. “He (el-Sissi) has crossed all lines.”
The military said in a video released late Sunday that troops were deployed to protect “vital and important installations” and deal with anyone who tries to “harm the people’s interests or attempt to ruin their happiness” on Sinai Liberation Day, a national holiday marking the completion of Israel’s withdrawal from the peninsula in 1982.
Egyptian warplanes roared over Cairo to mark Monday’s anniversary, but the military kept a low profile on the ground except for areas near military headquarters and the presidential palace. The Interior Ministry said police were out in force to protect “peaceful” citizens who wish to celebrate. Several dozen people waving Egyptian flags celebrated with music and dancing in the upscale district of Mohandiseen. Several hundred el-Sissi supporters also gathered outside the seldom-used Abdeen presidential palace to celebrate the liberation of Sinai.
El-Sissi on Sunday urged citizens to defend the state and its institutions from the “forces of evil,” an apparent reference to the planned protests.
Monday’s demonstrations are the second wave of protests this month against the decision to give up control of the islands at the mouth of the Gulf of Aqaba. On April 15, about 2,000 people protested in downtown Cairo over the islands.
That protest was the largest against el-Sissi since he assumed office in 2014, nearly a year after leading the military ouster of the Islamist Mohammed Morsi, Egypt’s first freely elected leader. Chants of “leave,” and “the people want to bring down the regime” rang out in the downtown area on that day, harkening back to the 2011 uprising that forced autocrat Hosni Mubarak to step down after nearly 30 years in power.
As was the case for the April 15 demonstrations, the Muslim Brotherhood, the now-banned Islamist group from which Morsi hails, called on its supporters to take part in Monday’s demonstrations.
Authorities have detained dozens of activists in recent days, with the arrests continuing until just hours before the planned demonstrations. Freedom for the Brave, an activist group, says nearly 100 people have been arrested since last week. On Monday, at least three journalists were arrested downtown, according to Khaled el-Balshy, a member of the Press Syndicate’s board. All three were released several hours later.
Egypt says the islands of Tiran and Sanafir, off the southern coast of the Sinai Peninsula, belong to Saudi Arabia, which placed them under Cairo’s protection in 1950 because it feared Israel might attack them.
The announcement came during a visit to Egypt this month by the Saudi monarch, King Salman, as the kingdom announced a multi-billion-dollar package of aid and investment to Egypt, fueling charges that the islands were sold off.
“Egypt needs the truth revealed to its people: Through dialogue, not suppression, with documents, evidence and maps, not security raids and random detentions,” prominent columnist Abdullah el-Sinnawy wrote in Monday’s edition of the Al-Shorouk daily.
“It’s difficult to resolve a crisis like this one with the fist of security, no matter how tough it is.”
El-Sissi insists that Egypt has not surrendered an “inch” of its territory and has demanded that people stop talking about the issue.
But the Egyptian leader has also faced mounting criticism about other issues, including the ailing economy and the abduction, torture and killing of an Italian graduate student in Cairo earlier this year. That incident has poisoned relations with Italy, one of el-Sissi’s staunchest EU supporters and Egypt’s biggest European trade partner.
Egyptian authorities have denied any involvement in the student’s killing.