CAIRO — Egypt's president on Wednesday sought to defuse a storm stirred up by his government's declared intention to hand over control of two strategic Red Sea islands to Saudi Arabia, arguing that he did not surrender Egyptian territory.
President Abdel-Fattah el-Sissi also reiterated Cairo's position that Egyptian security forces had nothing to do with the torture and killing of an Italian doctoral student abducted in Cairo, an incident that has poisoned ties with Italy. Rome recalled its ambassador to Cairo in protest of what it called a lack of cooperation by Egyptian authorities in the investigation.
Egypt's government maintains that the islands of Tiran and Sanafir at the mouth of the Gulf of Aqaba belong to Saudi Arabia, which asked Egypt in 1950 to protect them from Israel. Israel captured the islands in the 1967 Middle East war, but handed them back to Egypt under their 1979 peace treaty.
"We did not surrender our rights, but we restored the rights of others," el-Sissi said in comments broadcast live. "Egypt did not relinquish even a grain of sand."
"All the data and documents say nothing except that this particular right is theirs. Please let us not talk about this subject again," he added. "There is a parliament that you elected which will debate the accord. It will either ratify or reject it."
El-Sissi went on to complain over what he termed as the Egyptians' chronic distrust of their leaders, saying it was pushing the country to "national suicide."
"You don't believe that there is a single patriotic man in the foreign ministry, the army or the intelligence agency? They are all bad people who are ready to sell off their country?" he said in a rhetorical question.
Cairo's decision to transfer custody of the islands to Saudi Arabia was announced when Saudi King Salman visited Egypt earlier this week. During his stay, Salman pledged billions of dollars in aid and investment to Egypt, tempting critics to link the generous Saudi aid to the transfer of the islands.
About two dozen activists staged a noisy protest over the islands' case outside the journalists' union in downtown Cairo, carrying banners that asserted Egyptian ownership of the islands. Others took to social media networks to dismiss the president's comments as unconvincing.
Some of the criticism in recent days has focused on el-Sissi, who acknowledged Wednesday that negotiations with the Saudis over the fate of the islands were conducted in secrecy to avoid unwanted media attention.
Critics are calling for a referendum on the transfer, arguing that a legislature packed with el-Sissi's supporters — who gave Salman a tumultuous welcome when he addressed the chamber on Sunday, complete with standing ovations, chants of adulation and poems of praise — can hardly be expected to give the agreement serious consideration, let alone reject it.
El-Sissi on Wednesday also denied that Egypt's security agencies were behind the killing of Giulio Regeni, the Italian scholar who disappeared on Jan. 25. The day was the five-year anniversary of the uprising that toppled Hosni Mubarak and police were out in force to prevent demonstrations. Regeni's body was found nine days later with signs of torture.
"As soon as the death of that young man was announced, people among us said it was the work of Egyptian security agencies ... what happened is that evil folks in our midst did this," he said. The president also blamed the Egyptian media's handling of the case for the crisis in Egypt's "very distinguished" relations with Italy.
El-Sissi has in the past accused unidentified parties of seeking to isolate Egypt and undermine its government by engineering Regeni's death.
Italy is Egypt's biggest trading partner in the European Union and the two countries have been coordinating on their handling of the rise of Islamic militants in Libya, Egypt's western neighbor and Italy's former colony.
El-Sissi said Egypt, whose economy has suffered from years of unrest, could have taken advantage of the chaos in oil-rich Libya and invaded it to avenge the killing there last year of 21 Egyptian Christians by Islamic State militants.
"We cannot invade our friends there and usurp their land. It could have happened, but we said 'no,'" added el-Sissi. "That's what my late mother had taught me: never covet what belongs to others."