On Friday, one of Egypt’s most prominent rights lawyers and activists was arrested for ‘inciting protests’ against a recently signed border demarcation agreement between Egypt and Saudi Arabia.
The agreement requires the Egyptian government to hand over sovereignty of two strategic Red Sea Islands to Saudi Arabia. Malek Adly’s detention was part of a wave of arrests in Egypt as the government cracked down on protests against President Abdel-Fattah el-Sisi’s decision on the islands. Critics and dissidents, like Malek, are arguing that the two islands belong to the state of Egypt, and are accusing President Sisi of “selling Egyptian land” in return for Saudi aid.
Protests erupted on the Friday that followed the official signing of the agreement, April 15, and again on April 25, which coincided with the country’s Sinai Liberation day. On April 25th, approximately 2,000 protesters rallied together to denounce the surrender of the Tiran and Sanafir Islands to Saudi rule. The arrangement took many Egyptians by surprise, as it was orchestrated during the Saudi King’s visit to Egypt during which several multi-billion deals were struck. Adly has been accused of calling and organizing the April 25th protests and was arrested late Thursday near his home in Cairo’s Maadi district. He was then taken to the Shubra al-Kheima police station based on a decision made by the public prosecution.
He will be held in custody for 15 days while waiting for an investigation into a list of serious allegations including, “working to overthrow the regime, belonging to one of the associations or organizations that seek to disrupt the provisions of the constitution, inciting protests, broadcasting false news, and possession of publications inciting against the state.” According to lawyers who are following the case, Malek has pleaded not guilty to all of the charges.
Malek is among a group of lawyers who filed a lawsuit over the case of the islands. He is also best known as a member of the April 6 Youth Movement that crucially facilitated the uprising that overthrew President Hosni Mubarak from power in 2011, and has also appeared on TV talk shows where he has publicly criticized the island’s handover.
Why have the islands caused so much controversy and public backlash against President Sisi’s decision to cede control?
Sanafir and Tiran are small islands about 4 kilometres apart in the Red Sea. Tiran sits at the mouth of the Gulf of Aqaba, on a strategically critical stretch of water called the Strait of Tiran, which is used by Israel to access the Red Sea. Both islands are uninhabited, apart from Egyptian military personnel and multi-national peacekeepers since 1982. However, the islands are positioned such that whoever controls them, controls the Gulf of Aqaba.
Sisi and his government have defended the decision, saying that the two islands have always been Saudi territory and that Egypt only has control over them after the Saudi Kingdom asked Cairo to protect them from Israel in 1950.
Egyptian troops have been stationed on the islands since 1950 at the request of Saudi Arabia. However, dissidents have also expressed objection to the way Mr. Sisi ceded the control of the islands back to Saudi, saying that it was anti-constitutional.
Renowned public figures have since called for Adly’s release as the news of his arrest went viral. Journalist and editor-in-chief of the Al Bedaiah news website, Khaled al-Balshy has protested via social media that Adly was arrested for simply saying that the two islands are Egyptian. Also, the U.K.-based Egyptian novelist and political commentator Ahdaf Souief criticised the arrest on her Facebook page with the emotive statement, “Malek Adly, lawyer, activist, indefatigable, smart, consistently on the side of the downtrodden and unjustly treated, new dad – arrested, charged with plotting to overthrow the regime, and now being questioned.”
Adly is one of the thousands who have been killed or jailed by Sisi since he led the overthrow of President Mohammed Morsi as commander-in-chief of the armed forces in 2013. Local and international human rights activists are now saying that the situation in the country is dire as more than 1,000 people, mostly Islamists, have been killed and a further 40,000 are believed to have been jailed following a major crackdown on dissent. Amnesty International has declared that Egypt has reverted “back to a police state.” The Human Rights Watch have further reported that Egypt is currently in the midst of a human rights crisis, perhaps “the most serious in the country’s modern history.”
The international community and other non-state institutions need to continue putting pressure on Sisi and his repressive government. Adly’s future and the future of thousands of other people who have protested against the injustice of their government’s authority and actions deserve to be freed. Therefore, those who can speak without the fear of being persecuted need to raise their voice in solidarity to criticize the savage actions of the Egyptian government.