CAIRO, April 13 (Reuters) - President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi sought to staunch an uproar on Wednesday over Egypt’s unexpected decision to transfer two Red Sea islands to Saudi Arabia, saying he would not give up a single grain of Egyptian sand to Riyadh or anyone else.
But showing that public criticism has stung, he beseeched his audience not to broach the subject again and silenced one person who attempted to ask him a question.
In an impromptu two-hour policy speech to a group of parliamentarians, ministers and senior editors in the presidential palace, Sisi reiterated the official view that the islands had always been Saudi and that Egypt had only been looking after them.
“Egypt does not sell its land to anyone and it does not take anyone’s land,” he said. “I brought you here to reassure you about the man you entrusted with your land and honour. I did not take the issue personally ... Please let’s not talk about this issue again.”
Though he appeared calm and adopted an avuncular tone for the most part, the former general silenced an audience member who tried to ask a question at the end of his speech, saying: “I did not give anyone permission to speak.”
State television severed live broadcast quickly afterwards.
Egyptian media has been in uproar since the government announced on Saturday the signing of a maritime demarcation accord that puts two islands at the southern entrance to the Gulf of Aqaba in Saudi waters.
Saudi and Egyptian officials say Tiran and Sanafir belong to the kingdom and were only under Egyptian control because Saudi Arabia’s founder asked Egypt in 1950 to protect them.
The islands are uninhabited but strategically located and the move caused consternation among Egyptians who say they have been taught at school that the islands are theirs.
Calls for protest against the move have gathered thousands of supporters on Facebook. A group of 11 people protested against the transfer of the islands earlier this week and five of them were briefly detained.
The demarcation accord requires parliamentary ratification and Sisi stepped in to calm tempers after the move faced criticism even from the chairman of the state-owned mass circulation Al Ahram newspaper.
“Tiran and Sanafir... Egyptian forever,” wrote Ahmed al-Naggar on his Facebook page. (Reporting by Omar Fahmy; Editing by Richard Balmforth)