Egyptians furious over islands handover to Saudi Arabia

Egyptians furious over islands handover to Saudi Arabia
A settlement of maritime border demarcation between Egypt and Saudi Arabia has infuriated Egyptians, leading to protests, lawsuits, and angry reactions on social media.
6 min read
11 Apr, 2016
Some Egyptians have accused Sisi of selling off territory for investment [The New Arab]

An agreement signed between Egypt and Saudi Arabia over two disputed Red Sea islands has provoked angry reactions from Egyptian citizens, social media users and MPs.

Part of multi-billion dollar agreements and memoranda signed during a landmark visit by Saudi King Salman bin Abdul Aziz to Cairo, the agreement paves the way for the transfer of sovereignty over the strategically located islands of Tiran and Sanafir from Egypt to Saudi Arabia.

"This enables both countries to benefit from the exclusive economic zone for each, with whatever resources and treasures they contain," the Egyptian cabinet said in statement on Saturday.

The statement said that the determination that the two islands fall within Saudi regional waters was the culmination of a six-year process of studies and eleven rounds of negotiations between the two sides.

According to the Egyptian government, the two uninhabited islands are Saudi but have been in Egypt's custody for protection since 1950.

Egyptian political scientist and columnist Amr Hamzawy said on Twitter that the cabinet's statement was "accurate", but blamed the government for failing to address the public opinion with "transparency".

Translation: We have the right to reject the lack of transparency in the Egyptian government's dealing with the maritime border demarcation agreement. We also have the right to reject how the government kept the public opinion in the dark.

However, many critics cited an agreement reached between Egypt and the Ottoman Empire in 1906 that awarded sovereignty over the islands to Egypt.

Samer Shehata, an associate professor of Middle East studies at the University of Oklahoma, told The New York Times that regardless of the legal situation, the "optics of this move are terrible", referring to the transfer of the two islands.

"Here you have Salman coming to Egypt, pledging billions of dollars in aid and investment, and in exchange these islands are handed over," Professor Shehata added.

"It seems to many Egyptians that the president is selling land for Saudi riyals."

It seems to many Egyptians that the president is selling land for Saudi riyals.
- Samer Shehata

Egyptian MP Haitham Hariri told The New Arab that Sisi's signing of the deal was "invalid", as the decision to hand the sovereignty of land over must be ratified by the Egyptian parliament first.

Hariri added that the historically Egyptian islands should not be sold off to satisfy Saudi Arabia or even in return for grants in the form of projects and investments.

Along with other MPs, Hariri said he would submit a request to defence minister Sedki Sobhi and foreign minister Sameh Shoukri to deliver to the parliament the documents that prove Saudi Arabia's sovereignty over Tiran and Sanafir.

On Sunday, Egyptian lawyer Khaled Ali filed a lawsuit with the administrative judiciary, calling for the annulment of the maritime border agreement.

Ali said in a Facebook post that the case was "not personal" and that it would require major research and legal efforts on the historical, geographical, constitutional and international levels.

The human rights lawyer and former presidential candidate also called for assistance from anyone who is able to help with research or provide supporting documents.

At least 11 people have been arrested so far for protesting against the decision, with calls for more protests supported by some political parties and popular movements.

The settlement of the long-standing maritime dispute has also kicked off a storm on social media networks, with activists arguing that handing over the two islands to the Saudis was tantamount to a sell-off to the kingdom.

An online petition rejecting the handover of the two islands to Saudi Arabia has already gathered more than 17,000 signatures out of its goal of 20,000.

Translation: If Tiran and Sanafir belonged to Saudi Arabia, why did King Salman pay for them? And why did Sisi accept the money?

Translation: Sisi will give up anything to remain in power.

This regime is giving up national territory and threatening national security.
- Professor Khaled Fahmy

Khaled Fahmy, a history professor at Harvard and the American University in Cairo, said in a Facebook post that the regime, which he argued is basing its legitimacy on the idea of defending national territory, has given up the islands of Tiran and Sanafir without consulting the parliament or even informing the public or the media.

"Thus, based on its own definition, this regime is giving up national territory and threatening national security," he added.

Activists used several hashtags to denounce the agreement and share pages from geography books and Egyptian school curricula proving Egypt's sovereignty over the islands.

One of the hashtags was "Awad sold his land", a reference to a character in an old Egyptian song who had sold his land - a shameful act in the eyes of rural Egyptians.

Translation: The island is for a billion, the pyramids are for two, and they come with two gift statues on top.

They also shared a video of nationalist President Gamal Abdel Nasser, who ruled Egypt in the 1950s and 1960s, asserting Egypt's ownership of Tiran.

Others shared copies of decades-old official documents showing that the two islands belonged to the Egyptian governorate of South Sinai.

Translation: The Prime Minister's resolution number 1068 in 1983 to establish a nature reserve in the area of Ras Mohamed and the islands of Tiran and Sanafir.

Translation: Good morning from the Berlin Library. Here are some maps that prove the island of Tiran belongs to Egypt. I will prepare a whole file and send it to the lawyers. Save the date.

Others supported Saudi Arabia's historical claim to the islands, arguing that it was only "leased" to Egypt for a certain period.

Supporters of Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi rejected claims that the islands belonged to Egypt, showing support for his decision to "return" them to Saudi Arabia.

Using the hashtag "Sisi protects his land", many supporters commended their "brave hero" who "saved" the country.

Saudi foreign minister Adel al-Jubair defended his country's claim over the islands following the controversy.

"All the successive Egyptian governments since the rule of King Farouk, including the current government, have recognised Saudi Arabia's ownership of the islands of Tiran and Sanafir," he said.

"Cairo never objected to Saudi Arabia's sovereignty over the islands, but some parties are fishing in troubled waters," he added, referring to Iran, Saudi Arabia's regional rival.

Saudi social media users have also shown support for the agreement, challenging the Egyptian people's claim of the islands.

Translation: Be careful, do not ruin things for yourselves like the Lebanese did, and if Saudi Arabia pulls out, see who's going to save your economy.

Translation: We would like to thank President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi for returning the islands to their rightful owner.

Saudi Arabia has been a key backer of Sisi since the overthrow of Mohamed Morsi, whose Muslim Brotherhood movement was viewed by Riyadh with suspicion.

The kingdom has since pumped billions of dollars in aid and investment into Egypt.