Egypt’s President Abdul Fattah al-Sisi during a meeting held at the Pentagon in Washington, D.C., April 5, 2017. (DOD photo by U.S. Army Sgt. Amber I. Smith). Photo from Flickr user Secretary of Defense. CC BY 2.0
Following his formal rise to power in 2014, President Abdelfattah Sisi and his government have curtailed democratic freedoms, tightened the grip on press platforms, and limited the role of civil society.
His latest controversial exertion of power involves the transfer of ownership of the Tiran and Sanafir Red Sea islands to Saudi Arabia, a move that recently won parliamentary approval, despite some irregularities in the process.
Egypt’s sovereignty over the Tiran and Sanafir islands has been a public point of contention since Saudi Arabia’s King Abdelaziz Salman met with Sisi in 2016 in Cairo. The oil-rich kingdom pledged billions of dollars for aid and investment, signed a bilateral accord to establish an industrial zone in Egypt, and announced a series of agreements between the two countries.
Given Egypt’s struggling economy, the cash flow was purportedly a prime motive for Sisi and his retinue to lavish their Saudi ally with a substantial return: two islands in a strategic corner of the Red Sea.
The initial agreement provoked public outcry as many Egyptians took to streets, calling for Sisi to step down and accusing him of “selling” the lands. The protests — in and of themselves significant given the shrinking space for peaceful assembly under Sisi — appeared to work, and Egypt’s Administrative Court of Justice blocked plans to transfer the lands in June 2016.
That ruling was further backed up by Egypt’s Supreme Administrative Court in January 2017. An excerpt from the decision reads:
Finally, and as it has been settled for the court, that the sovereignty of Egypt over the islands of Tiran and Sanafir is indisputable, and the inclusion of the two islands within the Egyptian borders has been an issue of certainty. This comes as a result of its stable sovereignty from one hand, and from the other, the government did not submit any document or other evidence that prove otherwise.
However, this popular triumph did not last long. “The government has insisted, under Saudi pressure, to go ahead with the transfer, turning to Parliament after making a series of arrangements to ensure the deal will be passed,” independent newspaper Mada Masr explained.
Although the agreement required over 500 members of parliament of a total of 596 eligible voting incumbents to approve it, as Mada Masr noted, the landslide in question was, indeed, an easy job for the government.
On June 14, Egypt’s parliament backed the transfer plans. House of Representatives Speaker Ali Abdelaal declared, “I announce the House’s final approval of the maritime demarcation agreement with the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia signed on April 8, 2016.
Whipping the votes involved “current pressures, blackmail and major security threats to parliamentarians who were determined to reject the vote,” a parliamentary source told Mada Masr, on the condition of anonymity.
Pressing forward with the transfer of the islands despite the two court rulings and the vocal outrage of the people is a worrying signal of Sisi’s disregard for the judiciary and the people — as well as risky politics. Egypt is due for presidential elections in 2018, and his critics are painting him as abusing power and betraying the national will with this move. The islands could end up not only representing Egyptian sovereignty, but Sisi’s own legitimacy.
‘When you sell your land, when you sell your honor, then you are a traitor’
Egyptians outraged over the land deal called for marches on June 16 to protest against Sisi’s decision.
And on social media, Egyptians pressed their country’s right to the islands. The president of the Al Hayat party Michael Mounir published two photos from the congress library, dating back to 1897, showing Egypt’s maritime borders with Tiran and Sanfir included.
In a viral Facebook post, political satirist Bassem Youssef vented his revulsion to the government and its actions over Tiran and Sanafir, saying, in a excerpt:
I never imagined that I may write all these slurs, but I never imagined that we may be in such inefficacy, passivity, and helplessness, while the lands are being sold without a hitch. Fuck it! Is it normal that, this week, the parliament would be discussing relinquishing our lands to another country or not? Fuck this disgrace and humiliation
Youssef continued to voice his rage:
This generation has been helpless while seeing the land being sold in pieces, unable to do anything. Unfortunately, if anyone tries to do anything, he’s either destined to imprisonment or death. Damn our souls, everyone of us. And damn this age and this country and all of us.
Likewise, political activist and journalist Nourhan Hefzy wrote on her Facebook account:
Colonels and military officials do not seem to care that Tiran’s island strait will be an international maritime passage without any sovereignty from our behalf. Even after we fought for it, they do not think of securing us [Egyptians] from future battles; when did Israel become a friend? The one who should entirely bear responsibility is the army. They decided to let go so easily
The wave of rage extended to Twitter.
Many Egyptians, including human rights activists, journalists and politicians channeled their voices through a viral hashtag, namely “تيران_صنافير_مصرية” which translates to “Tiran and Sanafir are Egyptian”.
Journalist Amr Khalifa wrote on his Twitter account:
When you sell your land, when you sell your honor, then you are a traitor
Activist Hazem Amin tweeted a photo of former President Mohamed Morsi, who was overthrown in July 2013 by Sisi, saying:
One day we smeared you for intending to give up part of Sinai, which turned out to be untrue. Now, I do not know what to tell you. Who’s the traitor and who sold [the lands]!
Meanwhile, calls for mass protests across the country spread in a viral hashtags: “نازلين بكرة عشان” which translates as “We are going down tomorrow” and “سقطت شرعيتك يا سيسي” which means “your legitimacy has fallen, Sisi”.
Egyptian politician Amr Abdelhady wrote:
The rejection to sell Tiran and Sanafir is judicial and political, and we go down tomorrow to tell the world that the people reject the sale of the islands. I pray to God to bring Sisi’s life to an end as the latter brought Rabaa to an end
Activist Mohamed Emam tweeted:
If we don’t go down, the decision to sell will not be halted. Today’s bargain started with Tiran and Sanafir and the next one will be Sinai. Next Friday [we go]. Your legitimacy has fallen, Sisi
Another Twitter user posted a photo, calling on people to head to streets:
We shall head to streets on Friday. Rebel!