Protests in Egypt over Red Sea islands transfer

Thousands marched in Cairo on April 15 to protest President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi's decision to turn two disputed islands over to Saudi Arabia. Crowds chanted slogans such as "Sisi – Mubarak," "We don't want you, leave," and "The people want the downfall of the regime"—the iconic slogan of the Arab Revolution. Security forces responded with tear-gas; at least 25 were detained and are being held on charges of violating Egypt's controversial anti-protest law. More protests are planned for this weekend, and on April 22 security forces carried out pre-emptive arrests of noted activists in an apparent effort to head them off. Cafes in downtown Cairo were raided and activists seized from their homes, prisoners' rights group Freedom for the Brave said in a statement on Facebook. Pre-emptive arrests were also reported in Alexandria and in Gharbeyyia governorate.

The islands of Tiran and Sanafir, located at the southern entrance to the Gulf of Aqaba, will be formally demarcated as lying in Saudi waters under a treaty announced last weekend following King Salman bin Abdulaziz al-Saud's visit to Egypt. While the islands have changed hands several times over the centuries, the Saudi government most recently handed them over to Egypt in 1950, because at the time Egypt had the military capability to protect them from Israel. In 1967, Egypt blocked the Strait of Tiran, a move that prompted Israel to launch that year's Middle East war. In its 1979 peace deal with Israel, Cairo pledged to respect freedom of shipping through the Strait, a commitment that Saudi Arabia says it will uphold when it takes over the islands. The port of Eilat, on the Gulf of Aqaba, is Israel's only access to the Red Sea. Israeli Defence Minister Moshe Yaalon confirmed that the Saudis, who have no formal relations with Israel, are to abide by the terms of the peace deal. (Egypt Solidarity, April 22; Egypt Daily News, Egypt Independent, April 18; EuroNews, April 15)