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Why the opposition to the Saudi-Egypt deal?

Saudi Arabia's recent deals with Egypt have attracted a whole host of harsh criticism from an assortment of commentators, analysts and political groups. Although the agreements between the two Arab countries also include investment and energy deals, the controversy has primarily surrounded Egyptian President Abdel Fatah Al-Sisi's alleged relinquishing of Egyptian territory to the Saudi monarchy. However, it is absolutely vital to acknowledge one glaring fact amidst all of the emotion stirred up by this deal – Al-Sisi cannot hand over Egyptian islands that are not even Egyptian.

The reactions that we have seen are emotional in nature and rely upon analyses that sometimes draw upon Arab (or even Egyptian) nationalism and other times lean on arguments surrounding Egypt's sovereignty and its constitution. Whilst I have already writtenabout how the deal benefits the Arab world as a whole by not only helping Saudi Arabia to balance against Iranian expansionism but also by bridging the Arab Maghreb with the Mashriq and all the economic opportunities that come with such developments, I believe it is important to highlight that critical statements released by Egyptian political actors, including the Muslim Brotherhood, sadly fall short of the mark.

It is beyond doubt that Al-Sisi is acting only in his own interests and clearly looking to receive material benefits from such a deal, and so the Muslim Brotherhood claimed that he had sold the islands for a "fistful of dollars". Whilst the Brotherhood raised important points about other resources that Al-Sisi has squandered, including gas exploration and extraction rights in the Mediterranean, they are woefully wrong about the status of the Red Sea islands of Tiran and Sanafir being Egyptian "property". King Salman is merely reclaiming islands that were leased to Egypt by his late father, King Abdulaziz, in 1950 in order to bring the islands under Egyptian protection against Israel, something the Egyptians failed to do when the Israeli military twice occupied them throughout the 1950s and 1960s.

To describe the islands leased to Egypt as "Egyptian" is as much a fallacy as describing Hong Kong as "British" while it was leased to the British until 1997. I understand the arguments that treaties signed between the British and Ottoman empires in the early 20th Century designated the islands as a part of the de facto British protectorate of Egypt. However, this argument falls flat in the face of the anti-colonial and anti-imperialist rhetoric employed by not only Arab nationalists, but also Islamist groups.

Since the foundation of the modern, nominally independent, Egyptian and Saudi Arabian states, the islands have been recognised as being under the dominion of the Saudi kings. If we are to believe the anti-colonial discourse of those referring to colonial treaties when arguing against the restoration of the administration of the islands to the Saudi authorities, then we must question why they fail to acknowledge that treaties signed between two empires should have less legal weight than documents signed between two independent, sovereign states? In legal terms, agreements made by extant states supersede agreements made between a now extinct Caliphate and a British Empire that has long since been supplanted by the United States.

Naturally, I sympathise with the Muslim Brotherhood and how the Saudis under King Abdullah unforgivably worked hand-in-glove with Al-Sisi in order to establish him as Egypt's latest in a long line of dictators. I have criticised and argued against both Saudi Arabia's support for the illegal overthrow of Mohamed Morsi as well as subsequent death sentences handed out by the new Pharaoh that I argued had sentenced democracy to death in Egypt. However, I can only conclude that, as a result of their anguish, the Muslim Brotherhood are perhaps suffering from a knee-jerk reaction and scoring political points against Al-Sisi with the Egyptian public who perhaps do not know that the islands, whilst administered by their country, never actually belonged to Egypt.

There are also those who have the gall to raise constitutional arguments against the Saudi-Egypt deal. Hamdeen Sabahi, for instance, described the return of the islands to Saudi Arabia as a breach of the constitution, stating: "The two islands are considered Egyptian property and the constitution…prevents any authority from ceding any parts of Egyptian territory." Apart from his lack of understanding of diplomatic conventions and treaties, Sabahi is not in any position to be raising any moralistic objections to Al-Sisi's decision making, and is assuredly not in any position to be talking about the constitution.

After all, Sabahi was a part of the plot against Egypt's only democratically elected and legitimate leader and worked alongside the likes of known lackeys to dictators, Amr Moussa and Mohamad ElBaradei. Not only do they have the blood of thousands of innocent Egyptians on their hands, but they singlehandedly revolted against any constitutional notion of elected legitimacy and the presidency, itself a constitutional office. If we want to talk about constitutionalism, perhaps the only thing we ought to be discussing regarding the constitution and characters like Sabahi is to what extent they committed treason against Egypt, and how they should be brought before an impartial court to face justice. Sadly, and through their collusion with Al-Sisi, they made sure that the Egyptian courts now work only for the executive leadership rather than the people.

Of course, there is a lot to find reprehensible about Saudi foreign policy during the days of King Abdullah that amount to crimes against the Egyptian people. However, King Salman is not his brother, and so far he has not shown an inclination towards persecuting the Muslim Brotherhood or their sympathisers beyond Egypt's borders, unlike Abdullah. Also, basing arguments against this deal purely because of a personal distaste for Al-Sisi and his many criminal activities is not an excuse for being short-sighted about how this deal can be a tremendous gift to furthering the cause of Arab unity and brotherhood, as well as providing exceptional economic and labour opportunities between Africa and the Arabian Peninsula.

In short, Al-Sisi has committed plenty of other crimes we can criticise him for without the need to invent baseless reasons to brand him for what he is – a traitor to the Egyptian peopl

The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.

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