Thursday,20 September, 2018
Current issue | Issue 1292, (21 - 27 April 2016)
Thursday,20 September, 2018
Issue 1292, (21 - 27 April 2016)

Ahram Weekly

National impasse

It would be a disaster if the historical facts in the case of the two Aqaba Gulf islands Egypt has recognised as Saudi territory are lost in popular noise and Egyptian-Saudi relations damaged as a result, writes Hussein Haridy

Al-Ahram Weekly

Egypt has been thrown into the unknown by fierce reactions to the agreement between the Egyptian and Saudi governments to delineate the maritime borders from Latitude 22 to the south to the Gulf of Aqaba up north. Two small islands, Tiran and Sanafir, sit at the southern entrance of this Gulf. The agreement was announced during the official visit of the Saudi Custodian of the Two Holy Shrines, King Salman Ibn Abdel-Aziz, to Egypt earlier this month. The demarcation of the maritime borders between the two countries is one essential element in the Declaration of Principles of July 2015 that has set bilateral relations between the two countries on a new path.

The agreement recognised the two small islands mentioned as Saudi territories, which is the case. Once the announcement in this respect was made, a political storm hit Egypt, a storm that has not subsided. It is difficult to predict, frankly speaking, when it will. Opponents of President Abdel-Fattah Al-Sisi seized the occasion and mobilised their troops in the media and on the streets of Cairo and Alexandria on Friday, 15 April, to denounce what they called the selling off of Egyptian territory. Not to lose out on the occasion, the Muslim Brotherhood went into high gear in an attempt, proven to be futile, to take to the streets and regain lost appeal, aiming to appear as a national herald. Columnists, who have opposed the policies of the Egyptian president for various reasons jumped over established historical facts and official letters between the governments of Egypt and Saudi Arabia that date back to 1950 up to 1990, to claim, wrongly, that the two islands are Egyptian territories. Others, while admitting that they could belong to Saudi Arabia, argued that Egypt has been exercising sovereignty over the two islands from 1950, and this gives Egypt a right to claim Tiran and Sanafir. Others spoke about what they described as “historical rights” of Egypt over the islands, not realising that Israel had claimed Palestine on the same false grounds. Not only Israel, but also Iran in occupying three Emirati islands in the Gulf, back in 1971. Still other experts spoke about the 1906 agreement between Great Britain, as the occupying power in Egypt, and the Ottoman Empire to demarcate what is known as the eastern borders of Egypt between Sinai and Palestine, forgetting that this agreement traced the borders from the Mediterranean to Taba.

Social media played a significant role in polarising public opinion around the question. That does not mean that the opinions expressed on Facebook and Twitter are based on historical facts. Reflected in most of the comments posted is a disregard for objectivity and facts. What is interesting, in this respect, is that the social media became a reference  a development that has complicated the question of sovereignty over the islands.

The national debate concerning this question of sovereignty has become deadlocked, and relations between Egypt and Saudi Arabia could face a very serious test in the days to come if the naysayers pressure the Egyptian government to retreat. For his part, President Al-Sisi met with representatives of civil society in the country and stressed that it would be up to the House of Representatives to endorse the agreement or to reject it.

Not only is Egypt waiting for a resolution that would come out of the House of Representatives. Also Saudi Arabia. In case the agreement is rejected on claims that Tiran and Sanafir are Egyptian territories, I shudder to imagine the fallout on the future course of Egyptian-Saudi relations.

One of the reasons behind opposition to the agreement is precisely to undermine these relations that have provided Egypt with political, economic and financial support, much needed, to face the unprecedented economic and financial crisis the country has faced for the last three years in the midst of adverse regional and local conditions.

It is the responsibility of the government of Egypt to make sure that the debate that is expected to take place in parliament on the question of the two islands is based on historical facts.

One thing is clear. Egypt remains highly polarised and the government has not succeeded, so far, to garner wide popular support. These are very challenging times for the country in an era of uncertainties within Egypt and across the Middle East. One of the challenges is preserving the Egyptian-Saudi strategic partnership. It is a must.

The writer is former assistant to the foreign minister.

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