CAIRO (Reuters) - Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi’s speech on Wednesday was meant to staunch uproar over the transfer of two islands to Saudi Arabia, but his reprimand to an audience member ignited a furor over free speech.
Parliamentarians, ministers and senior editors were invited to the presidential palace, where Sisi tried to reassure them that he had not sold the Red Sea islands of Sanafir and Tiran.
But the impromptu, televised two-hour address lasted so long one MP had to excuse himself to use the bathroom. At the end, he tried to ask a question and was silenced by Sisi, who retorted: “I did not give permission for anyone to speak.”
State television severed live transmission immediately after the outburst, which stunned viewers and set off a social media frenzy over the encroachment on free expression in Sisi’s Egypt.
The hashtag “speech does not need permission” trended on Twitter, with Egyptians mocking the fact that Sisi had invited people to a debate in which only he aired his views.
“This is a country, not a school and those are two islands not two cheese sandwiches,” tweeted one commentator, reflecting what some Egyptians see as the government’s casual handling of a sovereignty issue.
Egyptian media has been in uproar since the government announced on Saturday the signing of a maritime demarcation accord that puts the uninhabited islands in Saudi waters.
Tiran and Sanafir lie between Saudi Arabia and Egypt’s Sinai peninsula, at the narrow entrance to the Gulf of Aqaba leading to Jordan and Israel. Saudi and Egyptian officials say they belong to the kingdom and were only under Egyptian control because Saudi Arabia asked Egypt in 1950 to protect them.
The furor has put Sisi, who once enjoyed widespread support, under renewed pressure.
Once-fawning newspaper editors no longer hide their disappointment as a crackdown on dissent has spread from the Muslim Brotherhood to liberal and secular activists.
Critics say the government has mishandled a series of crises from police abuses to an investigation into the killing of an Italian student in Cairo.
About 30 people protested outside the press syndicate as Sisi spoke, some of them chanting “the man who sold the land should go”.
The demarcation accord requires parliamentary ratification and many Egyptians are furious that parliament was not consulted in advance of the accord.
Even the chairman of state-owned mass-circulation Al Ahram newspaper condemned the government’s handling of the issue.
“Tiran and Sanafir... Egyptian forever,” wrote Ahmed al-Naggar on his Facebook page on Tuesday night, adding that he would publish a column on the topic the next day.
The column did not appear in Wednesday’s newspaper.
Though he appeared calm and adopted an avuncular tone, Sisi’s choice of words suggested criticism had stung a leader once so popular bakeries sold cakes emblazoned with his face.
“I brought you here to reassure you about the man you entrusted with your land and honor. I did not take the issue personally ... Please let’s not talk about this issue again,” he said.
Mohamed Koloub, the silenced MP, said he was not offended and Sisi had listened to his question off air. “I asked how MPs can communicate more directly and cooperate with the presidency,” he told Reuters.
Additional reporting by Ali Abdelatti and Amr Abdallah, writing by Lin Noueihed; Editing by Dominic Evans