Egyptian security forces have fired tear gas at protesters in an attempt to disperse the biggest demonstration in Cairo triggered by President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi’s decision to transfer two islands to Saudi Arabia.
In one of the clearest signs that Sisi no longer enjoys unquestioning support, thousands of people called for the fall of the government, chanting a slogan from the 2011 Arab Spring uprising.
Egyptian security forces detained about 50 protesters, according to two security officials. Police surrounded crowds at the press syndicate, site of the biggest demonstration.
Sisi’s government prompted an outcry in Egyptian newspapers and on social media last week when it announced a maritime demarcation accord that put the uninhabited Red Sea islands of Tiran and Sanafir in Saudi waters.
“The people want the downfall of the regime!” protesters cried outside the Cairo press syndicate, using the signature chant of the 2011 revolt against then president Hosni Mubarak, who later stepped down.
They also chanted: “Sisi – Mubarak”, “We don’t want you, leave” and “We own the land and you are agents who sold our land.” In other parts of Cairo, police fired tear gas at protesters, security sources said.
The US government, which sees Cairo as a critical Middle East ally, will continue to watch carefully the situation in Egypt, the White House said.
Saudi and Egyptian officials say the islands belong to the kingdom across the Red Sea and were only under Egyptian control because Riyadh had asked Cairo in 1950 to protect them.
Saudi Arabia and other wealthy Gulf Arab states showered Egypt with billions of dollars in aid and grants after Sisi toppled freely elected President Mohamed Mursi of the Muslim Brotherhood in 2013 after mass protests against him.
But a sharp drop in oil prices and differences with Cairo over regional issues such as the war in Yemen have raised questions over whether strong Gulf Arab support is sustainable.
Egyptians are eager for an economic revival after years of political upheaval, but the islands issue seems to have hurt their national pride, and prompted thousands to return to the streets to confront their leader.
There are no signs that Sisi’s rule is under immediate threat. But even local media, which once suggested he could do no wrong, have been attacking the president.