Egyptian anger at the government’s handover of two islands in the Gulf of Aqaba to Saudi Arabia is palpable. “The outrage of the Egyptian activists and bloggers is utterly unjustified,” said one man in a café, sarcastically. “The islands of Tiran and Sanafir were not relinquished, they were gifted to our Saudi brothers for their largesse.”
His friend echoed such cynicism. “Abdel Fattah Al-Sisi is definitely an honest man and this is an expected move. You’ve got the memory of a goldfish. Did you forget that he once said, ‘If I’m worthy to be sold, I won’t hesitate?’ He was put ‘on sale’ on eBay but nobody valued him.” What was he to do? “He needs money, so why not to sell some of his father’s orchard?”
Clearly, the Egyptian president’s decision to hand over two strategic, uninhabited islands to the Saudi government is not entirely popular. The transfer of the islands at the mouth of the Gulf of Aqaba is in return for a pledge of colossal investment that might revive the shattered Egyptian economy.
Historically, an ex-Egyptian diplomat pointed out, Tiran and Sanafir were under the Egyptian sovereignty even before Saudi Arabia was founded. This hasn’t stopped pro-regime media rhetoric claiming that the islands happened to be Saudi territory under temporary Egyptian protection since a request from King Abd Al-Aziz Ibn Saud in 1950.
“Egypt did not occupy the two islands, but did so at the request of Saudi Arabia,” explained Saudi Foreign Minister Adel Al-Jubeir. “Official documents from both countries do not reveal any dispute about the Saudi ownership of both islands. However, some people are good at fishing in troubled waters.”
When General Abdul Monaim Said spoke in Cairo last week, he insisted that the two islands are Egyptian. Farcically, a day after the agreement was reached he changed his mind and proclaimed brusquely that they are, in fact, Saudi Arabian territory.
Sarcastic comments have filled social media, even amongst regime supporters. Well-known satirist Bassem Youssef tweeted, “Roll up, roll up, Egyptian islands will cost you a billion, the pyramids will cost you two billion and a couple of statues thrown in as a gift.” Other activists tweeted that Riyadh has formal documents “proving” that the name of the sphinx was originally “Abu Lahab” who was one of the most prominent opponents of Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him) in the Arabian Peninsula; as such, critics mock, the Saudis have the full right to claim that the ancient sculpture also belongs to them. I want my rights is a blockbuster Egyptian film in which an old man rebukes the famous Egyptian protagonist “Hani Salamah” for wanting to sell his homeland to the highest bidder. That scene from the film, along with clips of Sisi’s speeches and cartoons showing him swapping the islands for a sack of rice have been circulated; the hashtag #Awadsoldhisland went viral.
Critics have had a field day pointing out that the “deep state” in Egypt and its pet media accused ousted President Mohamed Morsi of plotting to give up parts of the Sinai Peninsula to Hamas and sell the sphinx and the pyramids to Qatar. Such media commentators are silent now, unable to breathe a word against the deal with the Saudis.
Furthermore, the Egyptian constitution that was drafted after Al-Sisi’s military coup, explicitly criminalises the ceding of Egyptian territory; the president swore to respect and comply with the articles and clauses of that constitution.
Al-Sisi’s impatience to receive the “Gulf rice” was heard in the leaked conversation with his office manager, Brigadier General Abbas Kamil. They were recorded arguing about how to funnel money from the Gulf monarchies and Sisi is heard saying clearly, “They – the Gulf countries – have money like rice.” He has succeeded is getting more sacks of rice, but at what price?
The Saudi motives and timing of the deal are perplexing. Some Saudi bloggers and analysts are promoting their country’s policies toward the Egyptian regime as part of the efforts to revive the Sunni coalition in the face of Iran’s expansionism that might tempt Sisi to align with Tehran’s axis in Iraq, Syria and Lebanon. His regime is renowned for its Machiavellian opportunism; this might have forced the Saudis to take any step just to prevent Sisi and Egypt from falling into Iran’s embrace.
However, it is no secret that Riyadh has been backing Sisi’s regime financially and diplomatically since his military coup in 2013 that deposed the first democratically-elected President, Mohamed Morsi. It’s a move that can’t be understood except as support for autocracy and dictatorship in the Arab world regardless of the pretexts and justifications.
The apparent price for the two islands is enormous investment in Egypt along with a bridge connecting the two countries and two continents. It would, presumably, facilitate the pilgrimage to Makkah and develop industrial facilities. The pro-regime media in Egypt presents the bridge as a step towards Islamic union by erasing artificial borders and easing transport links.
It is worth mentioning that the same project was proposed to President Morsi but he was vehement in refusing to give up even a grain of Egyptian sand no matter what the price. Even his predecessors received the same proposal several times but the bridge was not built. Now, though, it appears to have been Sisi who initiated the revival of the Saudi scheme and him who tempted Riyadh to accept his gift of the islands.
The idea of controlling the strategically-placed islands appeals to the Saudis, particularly in light of the apparent success of their coalition in Yemen, which has given them control of the Mandeb Strait, which separates Djibouti and their southern neighbour. Controlling the entrance to the Gulf of Aqaba means that Riyadh will have almost full control of the Red Sea, from the Mandeb Strait to the Suez Canal.
Egyptians have bought neither the reasoning of Saudi Arabia nor the pro-government media. They believe that Sisi has given their islands in exchange for a fistful of dollars and Saudi blessings for his totalitarian policies. The latter have led to mass detentions, violations of human rights, forced disappearances and extrajudicial killings. The people of Egypt are convinced that the price of the two islands will not resurrect the failing economy. They know that pumping billions of dollars into an utterly failed system run by the army will just make the generals richer and bring the country to the verge of bankruptcy.
Since the military coup, Egypt’s economy has struggled, and Sisi’s regime has cracked down harshly on dissent, curtailing freedom of expression and protests; the generous Saudi donations would fund more of the same. When five young people attempted to stage a protest in central Cairo against the handover of the Egyptian islands, they were arrested immediately.
Furthermore, such a crucial deal would never have seen the light of day without the green light from Israel, which was consulted even before the agreement was mooted. According to Israeli analysts, without any unpredictable geopolitical changes the deal is satisfactory and blessed by the government in Tel Aviv as long as it maintains Israel’s military privileges and respects the terms of the Camp David accords with Egypt. These preserve the right of the Israeli air force and civilian jets to use the airspace over the two islands.
The other vital issue for Israel is embodied in the sensitivity of the islands, which sit in the middle of the only direct sea passage from Israel to the Red Sea and markets in Asia. That is why Camp David denied Egypt the right to have a military presence on the islands. Naturally, the same prohibition will apply to Saudi Arabia.
Questions remain, not least in Egypt, about the extent to which the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia will continue to support a discredited regime which has failed to bring about any stability or economic progress. King Salman’s agenda for his recent visit to Cairo has disappointed many who were looking for a change in favour of the Egyptian people’s rights and honour.
The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.