CAIRO (AP) — An Egyptian coalition of rights groups said Tuesday that police arrested nearly 250 people during the previous day's protests in Cairo against the government's decision to hand over two Red Sea islands to Saudi Arabia.
Amnesty International condemned the arrests, the latest criticism of Egypt's human rights record under President Abdel-Fattah el-Sissi by a leading international advocacy group.
Rights lawyers Gamal Eid and Mohammed Abdel-Aziz — both members of the Front for the Defense of Egyptian Protesters — told The Associated Press all those detained were in custody by midnight Monday when the front made its last tally. Many of the detainees are held inside security forces' bases, according to the two lawyers.
The number of those still held could be lower since police have been intermittently releasing the detainees, they said. It's unclear if anyone has been referred to prosecutors or formally charged with a crime.
Interior Ministry spokesmen declined to comment or say how many people were arrested.
On Tuesday, some two dozen people gathered outside the Press Syndicate in downtown Cairo to protest against the detention of journalists the previous day — 11 were arrested and later released — and what they called the police siege of the syndicate. "Where are you, freedom? El-Sissi is standing between you and us," they chanted as riot police stood by watching.
Thousands of police were deployed across much of Cairo on Monday to stifle plans for mass demonstrations against el-Sissi's policies, particularly the transfer of the two islands. Faced with the police's overwhelming numbers, protesters resorted to staging flash demonstrations, drawing tear gas and birdshot from the riot police.
Monday's arrests, mostly in Cairo, followed the detention of nearly 100 people in pre-dawn house raids and roundups at cafes in downtown Cairo, a popular hangout for young, pro-democracy activists.
Those arrested include Ahmed Abdullah, the head of the Egyptian Commission for Rights and Freedoms, an NGO that, according to the Italian news agency ANSA, offered consultancy assistance to the lawyers of the family of an Italian doctoral student who was abducted, tortured and killed in Cairo earlier this year.
ANSA said the family of Giulio Regeni, whose death poisoned Egypt's close relations with Italy, was distraught over the news of Abdullah's arrest. He was arrested at his Cairo home on Sunday.
Amnesty, meanwhile, criticized the arrests and the use of violence against protesters in a statement Tuesday.
"The Egyptian authorities appear to have orchestrated a heavy-handed and ruthlessly efficient campaign to squash this protest before it even began," said Magdalena Mughrabi of the group's Middle East and North Africa section. "Mass arrests, road blocks and huge deployments of security forces made it impossible for peaceful demonstrations to take place."
Egypt says the islands of Tiran and Sanafir at the mouth of the Gulf of Aqaba off the southern coast of Sinai belong to Saudi Arabia, which placed them under Cairo's protection in 1950 because it feared Israel might attack them. News of the Saudi-Egyptian agreement broke during a visit to Egypt this month by Saudi Arabia's King Salman as the kingdom announced a multi-billion-dollar aid package to Egypt. The timing fueled charges that the islands were sold off.
Already, the issue of the islands has sparked the largest protests since el-Sissi assumed power in June 2014, when on April 15 some 2,000 protesters gathered in downtown Cairo to shout slogans against el-Sissi for giving up the islands, calling on him to step down. El-Sissi has dismissed the controversy and insists Egypt has not surrendered an "inch" of its territory.
Pro-el-Sissi media, both state-run and private, had in the run-up to Monday waged a campaign of incitement against rights activists opposed to the agreement on the islands. Their narrative, according to Eid, head of the Arabic Network for Human Rights Information, led to a series of minor attacks by el-Sissi supporters targeting protesters.
However, Eid and Abdel-Aziz, founder of the Al-Haqanya rights group, said police appeared to exercise relative restraint in handling Monday's demonstrations.
"There were no deaths and no injuries and that is new for the Interior Ministry," said Abdel-Aziz.
Associated Press writers Frances D'Emilio in Rome and Maggie Michael in Cairo contributed to this report.