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Egypt’s president, Abdel Fatah al-Sisi, has been criticised at home and abroad for agreeing to transfer two Red Sea islands to Saudi Arabia that have been controlled directly from Cairo for more than 60 years.


The deal on Tiran and Sanafir paves the way for the construction of a bridge linking Saudi Arabia to Sharm el-Sheikh, at the tip of the Sinai peninsula. It was announced at the weekend during a visit by King Salman of Saudi Arabia.


The agreement, which the government said had been negotiated over six years, immediately became embroiled in the polarised politics of Egypt and the geopolitical rivalries of a bitterly divided Middle East.


Egyptian newspaper Al-Ahram described “a huge wave of controversy and confusion” as five people who protested against the decision were arrested at the weekend before being released on Monday. The agreement is subject to a vote in parliament, but critics insisted that a referendum should be held.


Thousands of Twitter users accused Sisi of selling the islands. #Tiran_Sanafir became the top trend in Egypt on the site, with more than 28,000 tweets posted in relation to the decision.

The uninhabited islands, once the border between the Ottoman empire and British-controlled Egypt, are strategically important because of their location on the sea route to the ports of Aqaba in Jordan and Eilat in Israel. Egypt’s blockade of the Strait of Tiran in 1967 was one of the main triggers for the Arab-Israeli war, also known as the six-day war.


Generations of Egyptian schoolchildren have been taught that the islands – known for their fishing and diving – were Egyptian, and legal experts question the legitimacy of the agreement. But authorities in Cairo insisted that they had always been Saudi territory, despite being under Egyptian control since 1950.


The row generated jokes and cartoons on social media as well as angry criticism of Sisi, relating to his overthrow of the Muslim Brotherhood president Mohamed Morsi in 2013. “When Sisi sells the islands they are Saudi, but if Morsi had done that, they would have been described as Egyptian,” read one post on Facebook.


Twitter users circulated grainy footage of the former Egyptian president Gamal Abdel Nasser warning of any violations of the Tiran waters, which he said were Egyptian. One cartoon showed Sisi swapping the islands for a sack of rice.


“Roll up, roll up, the island is for a billion, the pyramid for two and a couple of statues thrown in for free,” the satirist Bassem Youssef tweeted. The former presidential candidate Hamdeen Sabahi called on Sisi and Salman to rescind the accord.


The Muslim Brotherhood said the islands had been handed over “for a fistful of dollars, or in exchange for support for government policies sanctioning murder, detentions, violations, forced disappearances and extrajudicial killings”.


Media outlets in Iran, which is deeply hostile to Saudi Arabia, are also portraying the agreement as Sisi “selling” the islands to the conservative monarchy. Tehran and Riyadh are on opposite sides of the wars in Syria and Yemen.


Adel al-Jubeir, the Saudi foreign minister, said: “Egypt did not occupy the two islands, but entered them on a Saudi request. History and documents of both countries have not shown any disagreement on the Saudi identity of both islands. But some are trying to fish in troubled waters.”


Egypt sent troops to Tiran and Sanafir in the mid-1950s in response to a Saudi request to protect them from Israeli invasion. Israel occupied them in 1967, but evacuated the islands in 1982 in line with the peace treaty with Egypt.


Salman ended a five-day visit to Egypt on Monday by signing a $1.5bn (£1.1bn) investment in housing in the Sinai region as well as an agreement to finance five years’ of Egypt’s petroleum needs at an optimal 2% interest rate.


The bridge, to be named after Salman, will facilitate pilgrimages to Mecca and promote local industry, and is likely to pass through the islands. Saudi newspaper Alriyadh described the project as the realisation of a great vision that would “join the two continents of Asia and Africa by connecting Saudi Arabia to Egypt over the water”.


Salman, speaking in parliament, said the two countries would work together to create a pan-Arab defence force, an Egyptian idea first suggested last year but apparently overtaken by Riyadh’s announcement of an anti-terrorist coalition of Islamic countries.


On Monday, the Saudi king flew on to Ankara, where he is attending an Islamic summit as part of efforts to promote a rapprochement between Egypt and Turkey following strained relations over Turkish support for the Muslim Brotherhood.