CAIRO – Egyptian police and protesters opposed to a disputed 2016 agreement to transfer two Red Sea islands to Saudi Arabia clashed late Tuesday in downtown Cairo, just hours after a parliamentary committee approved the deal.
Witnesses said plainclothes policemen moved to disperse dozens of protesters soon after they emerged from inside the headquarters of the Journalists' Union in downtown Cairo and gathered on the steps leading down to the street, chanting anti-government slogans. They were staging a sit-in protest inside the building, according to the witnesses.
They said the policemen punched and kicked protesters and beat them with sticks.
Before the violence broke out, the protesters were chanting slogans against Abdel-Fattah el-Sissi, Egypt's general-turned-president. "Down with military rule," they screamed. They were on the steps for several minutes before police attacked them.
Police officials later said an unspecified number or arrests were made but that all those detained were later released.
The officials spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to speak to the media. The witnesses insisted on anonymity because they feared reprisals.
The planned transfer of the islands sparked the biggest protests of el-Sissi's presidency when the agreement was announced in April 2016. Critics say parliament, which is packed with his supporters, is defying a final court ruling that struck down the transfer in January.
Parliamentary approval is nevertheless expected and pro-el-Sissi lawmakers say the chamber has a constitutional right to ratify any international agreement.
Tuesday's vote in the legislative and constitutional committee — 35 for, 8 against — approved both the content of the agreement and the legality of its referral to parliament for ratification.
The vote, by show of hands, came on the third day of an often raucous debate by committee members, with rival lawmakers accusing each other of treason and working for foreign governments. At times the shouting gave way to pushing and shoving.
Hours later, a plenary session referred the agreement to the defense and national security committee, which will study the document and make a recommendation on whether the house should ratify or reject it.
The government says the islands of Tiran and Sanafir were always Saudi but were placed under Egypt's protection amid Arab-Israeli tensions in the 1950s. Critics have linked the 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 announcement of the agreement, during a visit to Cairo by the Saudi king in April 2016, was followed by the largest anti-government protests since el-Sissi took office in 2014. Hundreds of demonstrators and activists were arrested, with most later released.
Shortly before Tuesday's vote, a small group of lawyers opposed to the agreement protested amid tight security outside the downtown Cairo offices of the lawyers' union. Some chanted slogans against the surrender of the islands, while others held placards saying "bread, freedom, these islands are Egyptian" __ a play on a popular slogan used during the 2011 uprising that toppled longtime autocrat Hosni Mubarak. The same slogan was chanted by the protesters outside the Journalists' Union.
"We are prepared to die or be arrested for our land," said one lawyer, Amr Khashab. On Twitter, the hashtag "Tiran and Sanafir are Egyptian" topped the trending list in Egypt.
Associated Press writer Menna Zaki contributed to this report.