CAIRO – Egyptian police on Thursday stormed the homes of political opponents of a disputed 2016 agreement to transfer control of two Red Sea islands to Saudi Arabia, arresting dozens in raids in Cairo and at least 10 provinces across the country, according to two rights lawyers.
Lawyers Mohammed Abdel-Aziz and Gamal Eid said the arrests were made in raids staged before dawn or shortly before or after sunset, when Muslims break their dusk-to-dawn fast during the holy month of Ramadan with a meal known as iftar.
The lawyers put the number of arrests until nightfall Thursday at between 32 and 40 and said those detained were mostly linked to secular democratic parties. The arrests came amid calls on social media for protests against the agreement to be held Friday at Cairo's Tahrir square, epicenter of a 2011 popular uprising that toppled the regime of longtime ruler Hosni Mubarak.
It was not immediately clear what kind of response the call for a protest on Friday would receive. A similar call, also over the islands, drew thousands last year, but police foiled their action by deploying in large numbers, beating up and arresting hundreds of protesters and activists. The call also comes at a time when most Egyptians are too preoccupied with making ends meet in the face of steep price hikes resulting from economic reforms that slashed the currency's value by more than half and removed fuel subsidies.
Still, the April 2016 protests were the largest in Egypt since Abdel-Fattah el-Sissi, a general-turned-president, took office in 2014, a year after he led the ouster of an Islamist president.
"The government has chosen more oppression rather than dialogue," said Eid, one of the two lawyers. "The arrests are meant to distract anyone who intends to protest tomorrow and sow confusion in the ranks of the opposition."
Meanwhile, eight people, including three journalists, who were detained during a small protest Tuesday against the islands transfer were released Thursday on bail, said the lawyers. They faced charges of disrupting public services and security and protesting without a permit.
Thursday's arrests came a day after a senior constitutional panel concluded that two courts which ruled to annul the transfer of the islands to Saudi Arabia had acted within their jurisdiction, defying parliament, which on Wednesday overwhelmingly backed the deal.
The panel's conclusion also signals the start of what could potentially be a destabilizing legal battle between the judiciary and the legislative branch of government.
The outcome of Wednesday's vote was a foregone conclusion since the legislature is packed by el-Sissi supporters, whose government insists the islands belong to Saudi Arabia.
The panel's report is meant as a guideline for the Supreme Constitutional Court, which is due to start hearings July 30 on whether the courts had acted within their jurisdiction when they ruled in June 2016 and in January this year to annul the deal. The panel's findings are not binding, but are rarely ignored.
El-Sissi must sign off on parliament's ratification of the agreement before the transfer of the islands can take place. It was not immediately clear whether the president would do that before the constitutional court meets next month.
Government supporters in parliament have insisted that the 596-seat chamber alone had the right to ratify or reject the agreement, signed during an April 2016 visit to Cairo by Saudi King Salman.
The government insists the islands of Tiran and Sanafir at the mouth of the Gulf of Aqaba were always Saudi but placed under Egypt's protection in the early 1950s amid Arab-Israeli tensions. Critics have linked the islands transfer to the billions of dollars in Saudi aid given to el-Sissi's government, saying it amounts to a sell-off of sovereign territory.
The government, loyal media and lawmakers have gone to great lengths to support Saudi ownership of the islands, a stand that many Egyptians have found to be unusual and vexing given the strategic value of the islands.
Tiran, a popular destination for Red Sea divers, controls a narrow shipping lane that leads to and from the ports of Eilat and Aqaba, in Israel and Jordan respectively. Egypt's unilateral closure of that lane was among the main reasons behind the outbreak of the 1967 Arab-Israeli war.
"It is the first time in history ... that a state volunteers to prove the right of another state to territory that is under its complete sovereignty and is linked to its national interest," prominent columnist Abdullah el-Sennawy wrote Thursday. "So much so, that some officials and lawmakers seemed more enthusiastic than the Saudis themselves" about the transfer of the islands.