Egyptian protesters opposed to a 2016 agreement to transfer two Red Sea islands to Saudi Arabia clashed with police in downtown Cairo, just hours after a parliamentary committee approved the deal.
Witnesses said plainclothes policemen moved late on Tuesday to disperse dozens of protesters soon after they emerged from inside the headquarters of the Egyptian Press Syndicate, the Journalists’ Union, and gathered on the steps outside chanting anti-government slogans.
Before the violence broke out, the protesters were chanting slogans against Abdel-Fattah el-Sisi, Egypt’s general-turned-president. “Down with military rule,” they screamed.
They were on the steps for several minutes before police attacked them with witnesses saying the officers punched and kicked protesters and beat them with sticks.
The controversial agreement for Cairo to hand over two Red Sea islands to Saudi Arabia passed an Egyptian parliamentary committee on Tuesday, setting the stage for a vote in the house.
Parliament’s legislative committee agreed the treaty after heated debate, with opponents even interrupting one session with chanting.
The agreement passed with 35 lawmakers for and eight against, member of parliament Mostafa Bakry told AFP news agency.
Parliament’s defence committee will also examine the accord before it goes to a general parliamentary vote.
Courts had struck down the agreement, signed in April 2016, but a year later another court upheld it.
The government has said the Tiran and Sanafir islands were Saudi to begin with, but were leased to Egypt in the 1950s.
Opponents of the agreement insist the islands are Egyptian and argue that the accord violates the constitution, which bars the surrender of any territory.
The accord had sparked rare protests in Egypt, with President Sisi accused of having bartered the islands of Tiran and Sanafir for Saudi largesse.
The agreement was announced during a high-profile visit to Cairo in April 2016 by Saudi King Salman, during which the monarch announced a multibillion-dollar package of investments and soft loans to Egypt.
The government’s decision to take the April 2016 agreement to parliament came at a time when relations between Cairo and Riyadh had just emerged from months of tension over differences in approach to regional flashpoints like Syria and Yemen.
Over the past two months, Sisi visited Saudi Arabia twice.
Last week, the two regional powers joined allies the United Arab Emirates and Bahrain in cutting diplomatic ties with Qatar and closed their air, sea and land borders to the country, accusing it of supporting “extremists” and Iran, charges Qatar calls “baseless”.
The decision to cede control of the islands to the Saudis sparked street protests in April last year, the largest since Sisi took office via military coup in June 2014, and a parliamentary vote to ratify the deal is likely to lead to a fresh round of unrest and could set the legislative and judiciary on a collision course.a