CAIRO — Egyptian security forces fired tear gas on Friday while thousands gathered in downtown Cairo chanting "leave, leave!" while protesting President Abdel-Fattah el-Sissi's decision to hand over two Red Sea islands to Saudi Arabia, in the first significant wave of street protests since the former army chief became president in 2014.
Riot police first cracked down on protesters in Cairo's twin city of Giza, where demonstrators had gathered at two prominent mosques after Friday prayers and started marching toward Tahrir Square downtown.
Many carried signs reading, "Land is Honor" and denouncing the surrender of the islands. Others chanted, "The people want the fall of the regime" and "Down with military rule!"
After police fired tear gas, the protesters ran in all directions, according to videos posted online by activists. Several photojournalists covering the protests were briefly detained near al-Istiqama mosque in Giza, according to witnesses at the scene who spoke on condition of anonymity because they feared for their own safety.
Egypt's state news agency quoted an unnamed official as saying that the protesters were members of the banned Muslim Brotherhood group and that they chanted "anti-regime slogans." The official said police responded with tear gas after protesters threw rocks at them.
Another demonstration of nearly 2000 protesters gathered at the stairs of the Press Syndicate downtown, a few meters from a collection of armored vehicles and hundreds of police in full riot gear who sealed off the surrounding streets. The protesters there chanted, "They sold our lands to the Saudis." Except for a handful of bearded men and female protesters wearing full-face veils, there was little sign of an organized Islamist presence among the demonstrators
"If we give up the lands now, there will be more future concessions for him to stay in power, for few more months," said Alaa Morsi, one of the protesters, echoing a widely-held notion that el-Sissi essentially sold Egyptian territory in exchange for much-needed Saudi financial support, to shore up his rule.
What infuriated many was the secretive nature of the deal and particularly its timing. It was announced at the same time the Saudis were pledging billions of dollars of loans, causing critics and even some former el-Sissi supporters to accuse the president of a desperate and humiliating territorial sell-off.
El-Sissi has defended his decision on the islands and tried to defuse the storm stirred up by the decision.
The 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.
In response, Egyptians have taken to social networking sites including Facebook and Twitter, posting numerous old maps to prove Egypt's ownership of the islands.
Though relatively small in number, the protests come at a time of public tension and tight security, underscoring increasing public discontent at el-Sissi's rule since he was elected president in the summer of 2014. A year earlier, as army chief, he led the ouster of Islamist President Mohammed Morsi following mass protests against Morsi's rule. El-Sissi also led the military's crackdown on thousands of Islamists who staged sit-ins and rallies across Egypt to demand Morsi's reinstatement. Thousands were imprisoned and hundreds killed in the crackdown.
El-Sissi is Egypt's fourth president in six years, after millions of Egyptians revolted against the longtime autocratic President Hosni Mubarak and his police state in 2011. Hailed by his supporters at the time as the country's savior, el-Sissi has faced a series of crises in recent months including a surging Islamic insurgency in the Sinai Peninsula, a declining economy, and deeply disenchanted youth and democracy advocates who see him as another version of Mubarak.
Away from the capital, el-Sissi once again defended his decision to give up the islands to the Saudis, saying that they always rightfully belonged to Saudi Arabia and were only temporarily placed under Egyptian protection.
Speaking to a number of carefully-chosen youth in an under-construction Red Sea resort city, he promised to turn Egypt into a new economic and culture powerhouse. El-Sissi acknowledged in his lengthy speech that he kept the talks over the islands secret in order to avoid public debate which he perceived as harmful to Egyptian foreign relations.
El-Sissi still retains a large base of support among Egyptians who fear for their security, and see him as the only protection against an Islamist takeover and state disintegration. At a small rally Friday in the Mediterranean coastal city of Alexandria, dozens of supporters carried posters with photographs of the president and chanted, "We love you, el- Sissi!"
The calls for the Friday protests in Cairo prompted the Interior Ministry to beef up security in Tahrir Square, shutting down the Tahrir subway station and positioning dozens of police vehicles mounted by masked riot police around the square and the surrounding area.
Earlier, the state MENA news agency quoted an unnamed ministry official as saying police were "encircling" all the strategic routes into the capital. The official said the precautions would prevent "infiltration of the terrorist group" bent on causing chaos — a reference to Morsi's outlawed Muslim Brotherhood.
The Islamist group, which has been declared a terrorist organization, had joined calls by secular and leftist groups for mass demonstrations over the islands issue.