Anger in Egypt as Red Sea islands’ handover looms

Sunday 15/01/2017
A 2016 photo shows Egyptians reacting at the high administrative court as a judge announces the postponing of a court ruling in the case of two Red Sea islands to January 16th, 2017, in Cairo. (AFP)

Cairo - Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi’s move to re­fer to parliament an agree­ment that would hand over two uninhabited Red Sea islands to Saudi Arabia jeopard­ises the country’s stability and goes against the public’s wishes, critics said.
“By referring the deal to parlia­ment for approval, the government proves its total disrespect of the will of the people,” rights advocate Khalid Ali said. “This amounts to voluntary abdication of a piece of our country’s territory.”
Ali and other activists filed a law­suit to stop the transfer of Tiran and Sanafir islands, which lie at the en­trance of the Straits of Tiran, which connects the Read Sea to the Gulf of Aqaba, to Saudi ownership.
Cairo stated in April 2016 that the islands are in Saudi territorial wa­ters, although Egypt has had a mili­tary presence on Tiran to protect the nearby Straits of Tiran. Riyadh handed control of the islands to Egypt in 1950 as a bulwark against Israel.
The government referred the deal to parliament on December 29th, al­most seven months after signing the agreement in Cairo in the presence of Saudi King Salman bin Abdulaziz Al Saud.
It is expected to take parliament weeks at least to act on the deal, Deputy Parliament Speaker Sulei­man Wahdan said.
“Can you face your constituents on the streets after approving this deal?” lawmaker Ahmed al-Tantawi asked his colleagues during a recent debate on the private Dream televi­sion network. “Approving the deal will be a betrayal of the confidence of the people.”
Protests against the deal have taken place in Cairo and on social media, a position backed by thou­sands of people who said there was no mandate for Sisi or his govern­ment to hand control of the islands to Saudi Arabia.
Former presidential candidate and leftist politician Hamdeen Sa­bahi said he expected public anger to snowball.
“Egyptians will get out on the streets to protest the deal, even if they all go to jail,” Sabahi said. “Sisi does not have the right to give up sovereignty over these islands.”
Sisi has been under pressure from the Saudis to offer them something tangible in return for the billions of dollars in aid since the overthrow of Islamist president Muhammad Morsi in 2013.
Riyadh has started measures to punish Cairo for not reciprocat­ing in some way. The Saudis have suspended oil shipments and post­poned billions of dollars in promised investments and finally by cement­ing ties with Ethiopia, the country that is constructing a dam on the Nile River, Egypt’s only source of water.
A former career diplomat, who requested anonymity, warned the island dispute could cost Sisi his job and spark a new popular uprising.
If parliament rejects the deal, the diplomat said, Sisi can go to the Sau­dis and tell them: “Look, I did eve­rything to give the islands to you but [the lawmakers] are against this.”
If parliament approves the deal, however, the diplomat added, Sisi can circumvent public anger, which would then be directed at legisla­tors.
Mustafa al-Fiqqi, a former diplo­mat, said he expected Saudi Arabia to resort to international arbitration if parliament rejects the deal.
“This is why it is necessary to set­tle this issue peacefully,” Fiqqi said. “Egypt and Saudi Arabia need each other, particularly now.”