Sisi counts the cost of failed Saudi investment

Sisi counts the cost of failed Saudi investment
5 min read
24 Jun, 2016
Comment: Egypt's judiciary's decision to annul Sisi's islands deal with Saudi Arabia, leaves him facing a difficult decision: Contract his own judiciary or lose the Saudi investment, writes Mohamed ElMeshad
Sisi framed the transfer of the islands as a simple, rightful return of sovereignty [Getty]

Two months ago, Egypt witnessed the largest demonstrations it had seen since Abdel Fattah al-Sisi came to power in 2014. Thousands of protesters took to the streets to voice their discontent over the abrupt announcement that the President had suddenly signed away the sovereignty of two islands off the coast of Sinai, Tiran and Sanafir, to Saudi Arabia. The announcement came after a maritime demarcation deal between the two countries concluded that the islands do in fact, belong to the Kingdom.

Sisi framed this as a simple rightful return in a patronising statement to the Egyptian people in which he said, "my mother taught me not to take what is not mine". In the same statement he ordered "people" to "stop discussing this subject".

By, "people" of course he meant quite a sizeable number of Egyptians, even among his supporters who did not take the cessation of land to another nation lightly. This was especially true, as the Constitution itself dictates that in matters of land and sovereignty, the President does not have the right to make decisions without calling a national referendum.

The deal, however, appears to have crept out of nowhere and was conspicuously imposed on the people at a time when the government was lobbying the Saudis for as much funding, investments and endowments as it could muster. Many estimate the windfall for the Egyptian government from this sale could total at least $2 billion.

Like most Arabs, Egyptians are usually not privy to such major decisions by their governments and usually are powerless to stop them, which is something Sisi was undoubtedly counting on. This means that many were in a state of elated disbelief this week, when a historic court decision quashed this deal and concluded that the two islands are in fact, Egyptian. The following day, another court acquitted twenty two of the detainees who were imprisoned when they took to the streets to protest the deal.

Sisi claims that that eight months of legwork went into proving that the Saudis deserve the islands

For many, the events of this week have brought an unusual sense of belief in the judicial system, especially for those who saw mass sentencing to death in one court, prolonged pre-trial detentions, and hundreds of individuals being incarcerated for merely stating their opinions, or wearing anti-torture t-shirts.

Despite the euphoria of some, like any judicial process, this decision is subject to appeal, an the government began this process on Wednesday. However, according Hesham Geneina, former head of the Central Auditing Authority, the appeal can only rule on whether or not the court was within its purview to look into such a case, which would suspend the court order. This means that in effect, the appeal will not change the actual ruling that the islands are legally Egyptian.

The ruling now raises many questions, both for the government and for the general public.

Sisi claims that that eight months of legwork went into proving that the Saudis deserve the islands, despite the fact that Egypt claimed the islands from the Ottoman Empire in 1906, nearly three decades before Saudi Arabia came into existence. Sisi risks losing face in front of the Saudis, who he has made a point of pandering to ever since his pre-election campaign.

Sisi is now is presented with a potential quandary over choosing between maintaining a facade of respect for the judicial process, or disregarding it completely

Sisi is now is presented with a potential quandary over choosing between maintaining a facade of respect for the judicial process, or disregarding it completely. The third option - one he has increasingly turned to of late - is to find a way to force the rule of law to bend in his favour. This is how he was able to sack the only government employee who was looking to tackle corruption.

Even in the case of a successful appeal, or the "third option" being adopted, Sisi will now have to face a public who was presented with an official court ruling that the islands are Egyptian. As a result, in order to fulfil his promise to the Saudis, he would literally have to make a decision in the face of the general public, to relinquish land that is, by law Egyptian, in order to secure $20billion dollars.  

More significant than the reaction of Sisi's traditional opposition, is that of his supporters. The deal with the Saudi's was sour for many of them, because it ran counter to the ultra-nationalist mantra that defined many of the pro-Sisi positions. The president would often end his speeches to his supporters with a routine call and response of "long live Egypt". Now though, they face the fact that this deal which seemed ill-conceived from the outset, was also potentially illegal on the part of the commander and chief.

The Tiran and Sanafir islands were a huge gamble for the government, though it seems they did not see it that way. From the beginning it looked as though such a deal would represent a milestone in the authoritarian trajectory of the Sisi presidency. This court ruling suggests that it could also represent a breaking point.

Mohamed ElMeshad is a journalist and a PhD candidate at SOAS, focusing on the political economy of the media. He worked extensively in Egypt, Bahrain, West Africa, the UK and US.

Recently, he contributed to the Committee to Protect Journalists’ book,
Attacks on the Press (2015).

Opinions expressed in this article remain those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of al-Araby al-Jadeed, its editorial board or staff.