Thursday,18 April, 2019
Current issue | Issue 1292, (21 - 27 April 2016)
Thursday,18 April, 2019
Issue 1292, (21 - 27 April 2016)

Ahram Weekly

Island protests: A turning point?

The “Land Friday” protests should not be underestimated. But nor can the demonstrations be allowed to develop to force a new period of extra-constitutional rule, Amr Al-Shobaki tells Dina Ezzat

Al-Ahram Weekly

For the past few days, in his daily column in Al-Masry Al-Youm, political scientist and member of the Al-Ahram Centre for Political and Strategic Studies Amr Al-Shobaki has shared his concerns about the management of the controversial handover of two Red Sea islands to Saudi Arabia.

Announced during the recent visit of the Saudi monarch to Cairo, the handover was presented as ending a maritime “conflict” between Egypt and Saudi Arabia.

Al-Shobaki takes exception to the secrecy surrounding the deal and the failure to inform the public about the negotiations. He also expressed deep reservations about the way some sections of the media have gone the extra mile to support the handover without providing the public with reliable evidence that the two islands do actually fall within Saudi Arabian waters.

Speaking to Al-Ahram Weekly, Al-Shobaki also expressed reservations over the timing of the announcement of the hand-over and the handling of the public outcry that followed.

“It was a really bad idea to announce the handover as part of King Salman’s visit. The visit was marked by an exaggerated show of hospitality, and widely trailed as a precursor to a new round of Saudi economic assistance to Egypt. It gave the impression that Egypt was trading sovereign territory in return for desperately needed economic assistance.”

Worse, said El-Shobaki, was the high-handed rejection of skepticism over the deal expressed in political and public quarters following the announcement.

“Instead of acknowledging the legitimate right of the people to take exception to the secrecy with which this deal was surrounded the state displayed stubbornness,” he said.

On 13 April, during a televised statement made in the presence of selected public figures, President Abdel-Fattah Al-Sisi defended the handover of the Red Sea islands of Tiran and Sanafir as “an overdue return of rights”.

Al-Sisi said that he decided in favour of the handover after consulting with experts, including those who were involved in discussing earlier Saudi requests for the islands during the Hosni Mubarak presidency.

Al-Sisi added that negotiations with the Saudis were kept secret to avoid any outcry that might harm the interests of Egypt and its relations with Saudi Arabia, and more or less asked the media to drop the islands from its agenda and for the “matter to be closed once and for all”.

Two days later several thousand demonstrators — the numbers vary even in the assessment of government sources — took to the streets to protest the deal.

The Land Friday demonstrations attracted a mix of protestors, though the majority were young people. They demanded the deal be reversed, with some going a step further and protesting against Al-Sisi and his regime.

Some talk shows continued with their criticism of the secret talks and the failure of the government to provide the public with compelling evidence in support of the handover.

“If anyone thought that the matter would just disappear after the president’s 13 March statements they were sorely mistaken,” said El-Shobaki. What they had overlooked was the “excessive sensitivity of the public opinion when it comes to sovereignty over territories”.

“What was at stake was not related to freedom of expression, the right to demonstrate or the requirements of good governance and civil rule. It wasn’t an economic issue related to prices or public services. It was an issue of Egyptian sovereignty and that it not something about which many Egyptians are willing to compromise.”

Al-Shobaki pointed out that the most damaging criticism directed at “legendary leader Gamal Abdel-Nasser” was to “have lost the land” in the 1967 war. Similarly, Anwar Sadat was pilloried for “compromising sovereignty” over Egyptian territories in the peace deal signed with Israel in 1979.

Like other commentators and observers — and even some government sources — Al-Shobaki said that the number of demonstrators who took to the street was higher than was expected when calls for the Land Friday protests were first made. But numbers, he said, are not the real issue.

“These particular protests are not about the number of those who actually took to the streets, though given the calculations demonstrators must have been making about the possible security response, that any more than a handful actually turned up is significant,” he said.

Far more important, argued El-Shobaki, will be the impact of the protests on the political atmosphere.

“What we saw were demonstrators from across the socio-economic and political spectrum — including some who just two years ago offered unconditional support to President Al-Sisi —taking to the streets.” 

He continued, “None of the decisions that the president has taken” since he was sworn in two years ago “have been as contested”.

Said El-Shobaki, “Neither the president nor his aides appear to have expected this level of public outrage. And the outrage extends beyond those who went out to protest on Friday or are calling for more protests on 25 April. What happened on Friday is significant because it marks a shift in the public’s attitude.”

The Land Friday protests, he said, herald the end “of unconditional support” and follow “the dramatic collapse of the 30 June coalition which was itself a response to the state’s lack of commitment to freedoms and transparency”.

Al-Sisi is far from running out of support, but the demonstrations showed “the decline in his popularity is not negligible”.

Not that Al-Shobaki believes it is all about the president. “I think a clear message was directed to the regime as a whole. The protests might have been about two islands, but they were also about the right to protest peacefully, about political inclusion and accountability for decisions made.”

The regime, warns El-Shobaki, needs to realise that it will worsen rather than improve the situation if it acts aggressively against the young protestors who were detained on Friday. 

Police took more than 100 protestors into custody, though 75 were released within hours. Lawyers have told the families of those still detained that the prosecution authorities had initially ordered their release only to reverse the decision.

“This reversal was lamentable. It places a question mark on the process of justice and brings the debate back to the right to demonstrate peacefully which is stipulated in the constitution,” said El-Shobaki.

“I think the regime needs to realize that it is has courted an unnecessary crisis. Now it must formulate a crisis management strategy rather than resort to intransigence and make things worse for everyone.”

The regime, he argued, could “turn the situation round” if it sends a reassuring message to an increasingly apprehensive public by releasing protestors and promising to have the status of the islands reviewed by a “credible board of authoritative experts” before letting the public have a final say in a referendum.

This would not, he argues, harm Egyptian-Saudi relations — “to the contrary, it would halt the public outcry”.

An aggressive reaction to further appeals for more protests will do “immeasurable harm” to the image of the regime, “not just in the eyes of the opposition but also internationally, even among those who want to continue supporting it as a stabilising force in the region”.

If the regime opts for aggressive anti-protest tactics it could also fan a “radicalisation” that would leave protestors exposed to the influence of those who promote “the need to end the regime rather than to reach a compromise with it”.

He continued, “We cannot afford another extra-constitutional phase. We need to keep the country on the constitutional path and work on reforms rather than zero-sum political confrontations. And this is not something just the opposition needs to keep in mind. The regime needs to remember it too.”

The regime must not make it impossible for a compromise to happen, and not just over the two islands but across the “full range of political grievances adding to the sense of fury over Tiran and Sanafir, the large number of political detainees, the limitations imposed on the public space and the marginalisation of the constitution”.

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