CAIRO (AP) — Egypt’s declared intention to hand over control of two strategic Red Sea islands to Saudi Arabia has kicked off a storm of vociferous opposition, laced with stinging satire, and dealt a blow to the pride of many Egyptians at a time when they feel their country is vulnerable and under attack from all sides.
The announcement that a team of Egyptian experts has concluded that the islands of Tiran and Sanafir at the mouth of the Gulf of Aqaba were inside Saudi territorial waters has taken Egyptians by surprise, raising criticism by some that the move amounted to a territorial sell-off to the oil-rich Saudis at a time when Egypt’s battered economy needs all the help it can get.
Others charged that President Abdel-Fattah el-Sissi was running the country without transparency or accountability.
The agreement must be ratified by parliament, a 596-seat chamber packed with the president’s supporters whose adulation for Saudi Arabia went on display Sunday when King Salman addressed the legislature. He was received with a standing ovation and his six-minute address was repeatedly interrupted by applause. Lawmakers also recited poetry praising the Saudi monarch.
“The government surprised 90 million Egyptians with a decision that we grew up accustomed to its opposite. That’s what made it worrisome and horrifying,” author and analyst Ibrahim Eissa said on his TV show about the declaration that the islands were Saudi.
Tiran is the larger of the two islands and is closer to Egypt’s southern Sinai coast. It is associated in the mind of many Egyptians with their country’s four wars against Israel between 1948 and 1973, a time of nationalistic fervor and patriotism. More recently, Tiran has become a popular destination for tourists.
Hardly anyone in Egypt had thought of Tiran, the better known of the two islands, as anything but Egyptian territory for generations. But the government now says that Saudi Arabia in 1950 merely placed the islands in Egypt’s custody to defend them against possible attack by Israel. Now, according to that narrative, Riyadh is able to defend the island and is simply taking its own territory back.
News of the expected loss of the islands broke at a particularly vulnerable time, as the country is reeling from a string of public blunders and a host of seemingly intractable problems.
Egypt’s economy is ailing after five years of turmoil, an insurgency by Islamic militants has proved resilient and the vital tourism industry has been battered. The crash last October over the Sinai Peninsula of a Russian airliner, killing all 224 people on board, in a suspected terror attack has cut off the flow of Russian tourists who normally frequent the Red Sea resort of Sharm el-Sheikh. Mostly desert Egypt is also gripped by fear over the likely reduction of its vital share of the Nile waters as a result of the construction by Ethiopia of a large dam on the river.
More recently, the country’s image abroad has taken a beating over the case of an Italian doctoral student whose torture and killing drew attention to the widespread culture of abuse of Egypt’s police. Giulio Regeni’s body, bearing torture marks, was found on a suburban Cairo road February 3, nine days after he disappeared. Italian media and Regeni’s family have cast suspicion on the Egyptian police, but the Interior Ministry has consistently denied involvement.
Italy recalled its ambassador in Egypt on Friday to protest what it said was Cairo’s lack of cooperation in the Regeni investigation.
Khaled Ali, a prominent rights lawyer and a former presidential candidate, has filed a court case to demand that the Egyptian-Saudi agreement on the islands be annulled on the grounds that it violated Egypt’s constitution.
Critics also took to social media networks to denounce the deal, creating the hashtag “Awad Sold His Land,” an allusion to the villagers’ taunts in a popular 1960s radio play of a man who sold his plot of farmland — an act that in the past was equated with dishonor in rural Egypt.
“Here, here, Pasha, one island for a billion, a pyramid for two and I will throw two statues on top,” Egypt’s best known political satirist, self-exiled Bassem Youssef, tweeted, mimicking the shouts of Egyptian street hawkers selling souvenirs to foreign tourists.
Curiously, the pro-el-Sissi media has gone to great lengths to prove, even justify, Saudi Arabia’s claim to the islands. In the same vein, a Foreign Ministry statement lauded the decision as the fruit of “more than six years of hard and long work.”
“Egypt has not surrendered a single square inch of its territory under any condition,” the top state newspaper Al-Ahram said in its Monday editorial. “But it will be unreasonable to deny our brothers their right to holding on to their own territory when all documents prove their ownership.”
The two islands control entry to the Gulf of Aqaba and the ports of Eilat and Aqaba in Israel and Jordan, respectively. Tiran lies about four miles (six kilometers) from Sharm el-Sheikh. Israel captured the islands in the 1967 war but returned them to Egypt after the two nations signed a peace treaty in 1979.
Under the terms of the treaty, Egypt cannot station military forces on the islands and is committed to ensuring free navigation in the area’s narrow shipping lanes.