Egyptian Police Block Protests Over Red Sea Islands Transfer

  • Security personnel fire tear gas, arrest demonstrators
  • Decision has cost El-Sisi `nationalist card,' analysts say

Egyptian security personnel firing tear gas swooped down on small groups of protesters and arrested at least 10 people in a stark display of the government’s intolerance for new demonstrations over the ceding of two Red Sea islands to Saudi Arabia.

Forces had already rounded up dozens of activists and journalists from Cairo cafes and their homes ahead of demonstrations planned for Monday, claiming they were plotting to stoke unrest. Security personnel deployed by the thousands around the capital to block another round of rallies over the islands, whose handover has provoked the biggest show of domestic opposition to President Abdel-Fattah El-Sisi since his 2014 election.

Police fired tear gas to clear two small protests in Cairo’s sister city of Giza where several hundreds had gathered, according to a police official and a witness who spoke on condition of anonymity for fear of reprisal. At least four people were arrested at one of the protests, and six others were detained outside the offices of the Journalists’ Syndicate in the capital, authorities and state media reported.

The quick break-up of the gatherings in Giza and the small turnout reflected authorities’ determination to avoid a repeat of April 15 demonstrations that drew thousands. El-Sisi urged Egyptians on Sunday to stand alongside authorities in securing state institutions, vowing that efforts by “evil” forces to destabilize the country, still struggling to recover from the 2011 ouster of longtime leader Hosni Mubarak, would fail.

“We have paid a high price to get where we are now, and we will not let anyone harm Egypt’s security, stability and institutions,” El-Sisi said in a televised speech.

The unrest over the islands and subsequent government crackdown are making it harder for El-Sisi to project an air of stability to lure sorely needed investments and contain a foreign currency crisis that’s hammered business activity and threatens to further raise prices. 

Investors Wary

The stock market was closed on Monday, the 34th anniversary of the withdrawal of the last Israeli troops from Egypt’s Sinai peninsula. On Sunday, shares fell for a third day despite a promised $2 billion deposit from the United Arab Emirates, with some investors keeping an eye on Monday’s protest. The EGX30 index has gained 11 percent since the beginning of 2016, making it the 12th-best performing of 93 equity gauges tracked by Bloomberg.

The decision to return the islands, announced during a recent visit to Cairo by the Saudi monarch, gave rise to an “Egypt not for sale” movement that united dozens of political groups and youth organizations. The protests built on growing dissatisfaction with the state of the nation’s economy and other grievances that have been simmering over the past year, analysts said.

Chants of “leave” erupted during the April 15 demonstrations, echoing the calls that preceded the toppling of Mubarak and his successor, Islamist President Mohamed Mursi. 

El-Sisi was “the embodiment of strong nationalism and even to some of his supporters he looks weak, a supplicant to Saudi Arabia,” said Hani Sabra, head of the Mideast practice at the New York-based Eurasia Group.

His standing “will continue to erode unless he can deliver on the economic front,” Sabra added. “He has lost the nationalist card, and success on the economic front is much harder to achieve.” Egypt has said it is returning what rightfully belongs to Saudi Arabia under a demarcation of maritime boundaries between the two countries.

El-Sisi was elected as the man who could rescue Egypt from chaos following Mubarak’s ouster. He used that goal to crack down on Islamists after Mursi was pushed from power in 2013. Economic woes, a hard currency crisis and allegations of repression are calling that image into question.  

Struggling Economy

Foreign reserves, while constant for the past few months at about $16.6 billion, are still more than 50 percent below their December 2010 level. Tourism revenue, which had revived slightly last year, plunged again after a suspected bombing brought down a Russian passenger plane over Sinai.

Allegations of police brutality and intolerance for dissent are mounting. The death of an Italian graduate student earlier this year, which Italian media have suggested was the work of Egyptian security personnel, is testing ties between the nations. In the past two months, policemen have been accused twice of killing civilians over disputes. The crackdown on Islamists, which has killed hundreds and jailed thousands of others, has widened to include other critics of the government.

While the April 15 protests were about the islands, “with all the arrests it’s different” now, said Nermeen Sakr, a 28-year-old programmer. “It’s as if the government doesn’t want us to even have an opinion.”