By Owain Richards
Strategically located at the Straits of Tiran, where the Gulf of Aqaba meets the Red Sea, the uninhabited islands of Tiran and Sanafir have a combined total land mass of a mere 113km². The islands themselves are not particularly celebrated or well-known in Egypt and are perhaps better known for fishing and diving due to their proximity to the popular Red Sea resort of Sharm el-Sheikh.
The uproar that followed the first official visit of King Salman of Saudi Arabia to Egypt and the signing of various agreements, which included the readjustment of their shared maritime border, is consequently somewhat surprising. On April 10, the Egyptian Council of Ministers announced that the islands were in Saudi territory. The announcement included a declaration that the maritime border agreement had followed after many rounds of negotiations and studies conducted over a six-year period. The two islands, occupied by Egypt in 1950 in order to prevent an Israeli occupation, were to be “returned” to Saudi Arabia.
The Egyptian public was unconvinced, and anger over what was perceived as the “sale” of Egyptian territory for continued financial and economic assistance from Saudi Arabia erupted on social media. Cartoons depicting Egyptian President Abdel Fatah el-Sisi exchanging the islands for sacks of rice and money circulated on Facebook and Twitter, popular forms of communication for the Egyptian youth. Egyptian and Saudi commentators maintained that Saudi Arabia had requested that Egypt occupy the islands in 1952, although more discerning Egyptians noted that the islands had been clearly labelled as Egyptian territory in school textbooks used for many years.
Public anger over the transfer of the islands and the small-scale protests held in Cairo against the government last month are deceptively complex. Furor over the islands is perhaps easier to understand if seen as an outburst of general public dissatisfaction. Although the current condition of the public sphere in Egypt makes data on public opinions difficult to evaluate, according to the Egypt Independent, a recent poll conducted by the Egyptian Center for Public Opinion Research (“Baseera”) revealed that only 30% of those surveyed believed the islands were Egyptian. Fervent Egyptian nationalism and ignorance of the historical circumstances surrounding the islands will nevertheless continue to undermine the legitimacy of this transfer.
“The transfer of the two islands is consequently symptomatic of the many challenges currently facing Egypt.”
Egyptian commentators were quick to suggest that public anger, directed most notably at the President, indicates changing attitudes and frustration toward the government. The Egyptian economy continues to underperform, and youth unemployment remains unsustainably high. Continued suppression of critical voices and restrictions on protests in Egypt have led many to avoid the risk of detention and criminal charges. Widespread abuses by Egyptian security forces have also inflamed public anger toward the government. The recent sentencing of 152 Egyptians to prison for protesting over the transfer of the islands, along with substantial fines, does little to allay these concerns.
The transfer of the two islands is consequently symptomatic of the many challenges currently facing Egypt. The readjustment of the maritime border also followed the announcement of several high-profile Saudi economic initiatives in Egypt, including the launch of a USD 16 billion investment fund, and the construction of a bridge between the two countries over Tiran to facilitate industrial development. The Egyptian government remains dependent on external economic assistance from the Gulf states and Saudi Arabia. Public anger and the first major protests in almost a year further suggest that current government policy is insufficient and inadequate.
Although intended to quell anger over the islands’ transfer, a meeting with the President, members of parliament, ministers and journalists at the Al-Ittihadiya Palace on April 13 instead triggered a debate on free speech on social media after the President silenced an MP who had raised a question with the words: “I did not give permission for anyone to speak.” The gag order imposed on media coverage of the protests is itself indicative of a climate of repression, which may continue to aggravate the situation in the coming months.
Egypt faces many challenges, which continue to threaten the government’s stability and security. The protests and anger over the transfer of the islands is not symptomatic of deep attachment to the small pieces of territory in the Red Sea but is instead more visible evidence of changing attitudes and the frustration felt by many Egyptians. Although Saudi commentators view the transfer as a fair exchange for continued Saudi economic assistance, and the Egyptian government has for its part stressed the circumstances in which Egypt first gained the islands, the border change has revealed broader tensions within Egyptian society which may resurface in the near future.