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Scores arrested in Egyptian crackdown on anti-government protests

Crowds chant 'Down with military rule' before being dispersed with tear gas in Giza's Dokki district, with many journalists among those detained
Egyptians shout slogans as they demonstrate against the government in Dokki (MEE contributor)

Sporadic demonstrations broke out across Egypt on Monday, following a call for protests from anti-government groups, with hundreds arrested including numerous journalists.

Security forces used tear gas to disperse a gathering of several hundred anti-government demonstrators who congregated in al-Mesaha Square in Dokki, a district of Giza city in Greater Cairo, after the original location of the demonstration was blocked.

Protesters chanted “Leave leave leave!” and “Down with military rule!” against the government of President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, who seized power in a military coup in July 2013 as well as in protest against the decision earlier this month to cede control to Saudi Arabia of the Red Sea islands of Tiran and Sanafir, near South Sinai.

Scores of people were arrested after the protest was suppressed, around 10 minutes after it began. 

The Front for the Defence of Egyptian protesters, a rights group, told the Associated Press that by Monday at midnight at least 237 people, mostly in Cairo, but some in Giza, had been arrested. 

Among those detained was journalist Jenna Le Bras, an occasional contributor to Middle East Eye's French website.

Le Bras said she and others were taken to Dokki police station but she was able to leave. Other journalists with whom she was detained were also later released, she said on Twitter.

“They arrested so many,” said an anonymous MEE source, suggesting it was more than a hundred people in total.

“They surrounded the protesters from every side.”

“Now there are arbitrary arrests,” said another eyewitness to the events, interviewed by a second anonymous MEE source.

Police began running after people and “arrested people who were standing, including some journalists,” the source said.

The source added that police “grabbed people and held them in stores and inside a mosque, and now they have besieged the Karama party,” referring to the headquarters of the left-wing political party, which is based in Dokki.

Karama - dignity in Arabic - was founded by opposition leader Hamdeen Sabahi, the only candidate to run against Sisi in the 2014 presidential elections who has filed a lawsuit over the island deal. 

According to Freedom for the Brave, an initiative that provides support for detainees, 168 people were arrested after security forces dispersed other protests in Giza.

The April 6 movement reported that the marches in Giza were quickly dispersed using tear gas and rubber bullets.

“These demonstrations are the beginning of an upcoming waves of protests. The regime won’t fall of course from one demonstration but it is the first drop of a shower,” one news reporter who witnessed Monday's protests told MEE, adding that the people had “broken their silence”.

“What’s for sure is that the barrier of fear has been broken,” she said.

The original decision by the government to cede the Red Sea islands sparked protests on 15 April, with thousands of demonstrators protesting near the journalists syndicate.

Scores of journalists were arrested on Monday, including Stefan Sigurd Weichert from Ahram weekly and Harald Christian Hoff, a freelancer from Norway.

Ahead of the planned protests, Egypt’s interior minister Magdy Abdel Ghaffar warned that there would be no tolerance of attempts to “undermine the country's security," and urged people not to respond to "calls inciting chaos".

Monday’s demonstrations took place on the 34th anniversary of Sinai Liberation Day, which saw the Sinai Peninsula returned to Egyptian control after it was captured by Israel during the 1967 Six-Day War.

Numerous political parties and organisations, including the April 6 Movement, the Revolutionary Socialists and the Muslim Brotherhood, put out a call for demonstrations on Monday over the ceding of the islands.

Pro-Sisi demonstrations took place in Egypt without interference from the security services.

Supporters held up banners and pictures of Sisi as well as the Saudi and Egyptian flags and pictures of Saudi King Salman.

"We gave the two islands to King Salman, and we will give him the Pyramids and the Great Sphinx - if he wants," said one pro-Sisi demonstrator in a video released on Twitter.

Outrage over the “selling” of the Red Sea islands to Saudi Arabia has been the main focal point of popular mobilisation in recent weeks and the timing of Monday’s protests on a date emphasising the re-establishment of Egyptian territorial sovereignty has been noted.

The Muslim Brotherhood on Sunday released a statement calling for protests, warning that the Egyptian government would be willing to return control of the Sinai Peninsula to the “Zionist enemy” again, referring to Israel.

“The military coup leaders who profaned Egyptian land, Egyptian honour, trampled the Egyptian citizen's dignity, and smeared the history, culture and tradition of this dear homeland, have escalated their crimes against humanity, and their callous spilling of innocent blood, and practised all forms of repression throughout Egypt since the treasonous coup,” said the statement.

“The only solution now is to defeat and end this illegitimate coup, to reinstate democratic legitimacy, and put right all the ruinous coup's injustices and crimes.”

The Egyptian and Saudi governments have insisted that the islands always belonged to the kingdom and were only controlled by Egypt because Riyadh had asked Cairo in 1950 to protect them.

Since the July 2013 coup that toppled Egypt's democratically elected President Mohamed Morsi, former field marshal Sisi has presided over the arrest of thousands of opposition activists and a severe crackdown on public expression with numerous laws introduced to curb freedom of assembly.

On Monday, a group of 17 Egyptian human rights organisations released a statement calling for the release of protesters and the protection of demonstrators on the 25 April marches.

"The undersigned organisations have consistently called for the repeal of the protest law and urge the interior ministry to cease violating the right of peaceful assembly," read the statement, released on the website of the Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights.

"They further call on the prosecution to stop using trumped-up charges to harass activist and political dissidents and to cease using pretrial detention as a punitive measure.

"We hold the state responsible for protecting the lives and safety of demonstrators on 25 April."

MEE is not disclosing the names of its sources in Egypt because of concerns for their safety.

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