Anger in Egypt as Red Sea islands’ handover looms
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.”