CAIRO (AP) – Egyptian security forces have rounded up dozens of activists, journalists, and lawyers ahead of demonstrations called for April 25 against President Abdel-Fattah el-Sissi’s policies, including the transfer of two Red Sea islands to Saudi Arabia, lawyers and witnesses said Friday.
Rights lawyer Ahmed Abdel-Naby said that dozens were arrested in cafes in downtown Cairo and from their homes. Ragia Omran, another rights lawyer, said in a statement that there is an “organized campaign” targeting activists in Cairo and several provinces.
The lawyers said the whereabouts of many of those arrested were unknown for hours as police denied the arrests, before the detainees surfaced in police stations the following day.
A youth group called Revolutionary Socialists says a top member, Haitham Muhammadeen, was arrested when security forces raided his home late Thursday.
Mahmoud el-Sakka, a young journalist, wrote on his Facebook page that special forces raided his home and told his family he is a wanted man, threatening more raids unless he turns himself in.
“We are not afraid even if they snatch our souls,” he said. “This is only because we are saying we will not put our land up for sale.”
A young cartoonist for the daily Al Masry Al Youm, who goes by the pen-name Makhloof, said he was arrested while in a cafe for no reason but was released after one hour. “It was a frustrating experience but not so brutal … We know we will be taken as it is just a matter of time.”
The Interior Ministry’s spokesman did not respond to requests for comment.
Rights groups took to social media to circulate hotlines for legal assistance. Activists posted instructions on deleting social networking accounts from mobile phones to ensure online safety and privacy.
The arrests come more than a week after thousands demonstrated against el-Sissi, chanting “leave” and denouncing what they see as autocratic policies, including the transfer of the islands. The protests were among the largest since el-Sissi assumed office in 2014, and featured slogans used in the 2011 uprising that toppled longtime leader Hosni Mubarak.
The protesters, including politicians and activists, called for more demonstrations on April 25, a national holiday that commemorates the withdrawal of the last Israeli troops from the Sinai Peninsula in 1982 under the Camp David peace agreement.
A petition titled “Egypt is not for sale,” which calls for a reversal of the decision on the islands and supports the protests, was signed by more than 300 Egyptian novelists, lawyers and activists.
The decision to transfer the two islands, which was concluded in secret and announced earlier this month during a visit by Saudi King Salman, has infuriated many Egyptians, who have accused the government of trading land for aid and investment from the oil-rich kingdom. The government insists the two islands, Tiran and Sanafir, always belonged to Saudi Arabia but were placed under Egyptian protection in 1950 because Riyadh feared they would be attacked by Israel.
The demonstrations appear to have alarmed the government of el-Sissi, who as military chief led the overthrow of Islamist President Mohammed Morsi in 2013 amid mass protests against his rule. The government has since waged a sweeping crackdown on Islamists and other dissidents, jailing thousands and outlawing unauthorized protests.
In recent days, el-Sissi has warned of plots aimed at “toppling the state from the inside.”
The daily Al-Shorouk published a report on Thursday quoting an unnamed official as saying that el-Sissi ordered authorities to prevent the April 25 protests. The newspaper pulled the report after the presidency issued a denial and warned the press against publishing false news.
El-Sissi has faced a growing tide of criticism as the economy has failed to recover from years of unrest. The vital tourism sector was dealt a major blow by the crash of a Russian passenger plane in Sinai in October, likely caused by a bomb smuggled on board. The local currency has slid in recent weeks, driving up the price of basic goods.
That has led el-Sissi to turn to wealthy Gulf benefactors, who showered Egypt with billions of dollars in aid after Morsi’s overthrow. Just days after the Saudi monarch’s visit, the United Arab Emirates pledged $4 billion to aid the Egyptian economy, half in the form of investment and half in central bank deposits to boost Cairo’s foreign reserves.