When several thousands of protesters erupted into deafening chants in Downtown Cairo Friday, they made all the right noises before the watching eyes of Egypt’s security forces in a scene seldom seen for long.
The demonstration, which was originally planned as a nationwide spectacle before an expected confrontation with police forces saw marchers divert their paths to the press syndicate, was a display of rare defiance for weary non-Islamist protesters who have been largely idle since Abdel-Fattah El-Sisi came to power in mid-2014.
They were primarily protesting against a decision by the government to hand over two Red Sea islands to neighbour and ally Saudi Arabia after the two countries signed maritime demarcation accords during a visit to Cairo by King Salman last week.
Sisi, backing an earlier statement by the cabinet, said Wednesday that the islands belong to Saudi Arabia. The accord must be ratified by parliament before taking effect.
Protesters argue that the two islands, named Tiran and Sanafir, fall under Egypt’s sovereignty and that any decision over their fate must be put up for public debate and a referendum.
While demands that Egypt backpedal over the accord constituted the biggest chunk of their incessant chants, protesters sounded optimistic for other reasons.
“Our message today is that we are still alive. No matter what happened over the past two years, we are still able to regroup and challenge injustice,” said Mohamed Masoud, a 23-year-old protester who joined others at the press syndicate.
Whether or not their demonstration could yield tangible results remains unclear, but they took solace from the fact that they were finally able to challenge, en masse, a much-criticised protest law.
There have been some protests over the past few months over incidents of police abuse, including against doctors, but Friday’s protest was different in the sense that it brought together disgruntled youth for a “matter of national pride,” protesters argue.
“We are back to the scene and they (the state) should fully know that we are not going to simply let them do whatever they want," Masoud added.
A restrictive protest law, which was passed in late 2013, and a fierce crackdown on dissent saw authorities round up scores of Islamist and liberal activists, effectively putting an end to street demonstrations.
Sisi, who admitted more than once that he has yet to reach out to angry youth, retains his popularity among many Egyptians but critics have grown more vocal in recent months, including some television presenters who are normally pro state.
A crumbling economy, an insurgency in North Sinai and incidents such as the killing of Italian student Giulio Regeni and the downing of a Russian passenger plane over Sinai increased pressure on Sisi as he approaches the second anniversary of his ascendancy to power.
He is unlikely to face an immediate threat, with some rival demonstrations that back him taking place in Egypt’s second biggest city Alexandria. But his adversaries believe they have at least managed to throw stones into a still pond.
“The fear barrier has been demolished,” the 6 April Youth Movement, which played a key role in the 18-day 2011 revolt which eventually saw autocratic leader Hosni Mubarak step down, said on its Facebook page.
Most protesters left the vicinity of the press syndicate after dusk fell and the remaining hundreds were dispersed with tear gas. Tens of demonstrators were detained nationwide, according to rights groups, but many were released in the early hours of Saturday.
That could be a sign authorities opted for a soft approach by their standards, but it remains to be seen whether this will be the case when protesters take to the streets again in a planned demonstration 25 April, which marks the day Israeli occupation forces completely withdrew from Sinai in 1982.
“We will be back; it’s not over yet,” yelled one protester as he left the scene.