Sunday,17 December, 2017
Current issue | Issue 1293, (28 April - 4 May 2016)
Sunday,17 December, 2017
Issue 1293, (28 April - 4 May 2016)

Ahram Weekly

Against the loud mouths

Despite the recent protests in Egypt against their return to Saudi Arabia, the islands of Tiran and Sanafir are as Saudi as Sicily is Italian, writes Yassin El-Ayouty

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Al-Ahram Weekly

In Egypt under then President Gamal Abdel-Nasser, nobody could open his mouth. But under President Abdel-Fattah Al-Sisi, everyone has a big loud mouth. This has been the case in “The Islands vs. Ignorance” case, ignorance compounded by the herd mentality that seeks in nearly every decision by the Cairo authorities a cause for the false cry of wolf. This is because the islands of Tiran and Sanafir are as Saudi as Sicily is Italian.

Just look at the international maps, because to study history you must also study geography. Study the maritime line of the Gulf of Aqaba, which moves north from the Red Sea to Al-Aqaba. There is Ras Mohamed to the west, Ras Nusrani to the west (Egyptian territorial waters), Jazirat (island) Tiran and Jazirat Sanafir to the east (Saudi territorial waters), Al-Shaykh Humayd to the east (Saudi mainland, the end of a long road from Maan in Jordan to the north). Then the maritime line ends at Al-Aqaba.

The hordes on the Cairo streets (a few hundreds) were herded there by another area of ignorance: international law. The maritime lines fall at the midpoint between two littoral sovereignties: Saudi Arabia is east of the Gulf of Aqaba and Egypt is west of that Gulf, with territorial waters filling the geographical space in between.

This principle of the delimitation of territorial waters was ignored by Iraqi President Saddam Hussein. The dividing line in the Shatt Al-Arab waterway between Iraq and Iran was formalised in Algiers in 1975 between Saddam and the shah of Iran. Then the shah made a mistake.

He asked Saddam to banish an insignificant cleric by the name of Khomeini from Iraq. Saddam obliged. It ended with Khomeini establishing the Islamic Republic of Iran in Iran upon his return from exile in Paris.

Saddam then nullified the Algiers treaty and attacked Iran in 1980, with a nod from America, and waged a losing battle for eight years. After the unjustified US-led invasion of Iraq in 2003, Saddam was caught in a cave and hanged. Prior to that, the shah died in Cairo and was buried with honours.

There is a lesson we teach at US law schools: “Pacta sunt servanda” (agreements are to be kept). In the Qur’an, it says, “O ye faithful, respect your obligations” (Chapter V, Verse 1).

Of course there is a pact between Cairo and Riyadh: the agreement of 1950 under which the two islands, under Saudi sovereignty, were to be administered and defended by Egypt. The danger was Israeli encroachment south of the waterway. “Administering” does not mean transferring sovereignty. It means an amanah agreement (bail), entrusted by a bailor (Riyadh) to a bailee (Cairo) until the rightful owner returns to claim it.

Sovereignty is not transferable as it does not reside in any government. It resides in the body politic (the corpus), the demographic corporation called the people. King Salman of Saudi Arabia did not come to Cairo earlier this month to buy territory. He came to witness the signing of the return of the amanah to his country. Egyptian President Abdel-Fattah Al-Sisi did not surrender Egyptian territory to Salman, as Cairo could not keep what it does not own. Otherwise, it would be an occupier, an aggressor against its sister state Saudi Arabia.

Back to my zones of maximum comfort: international law, history and diplomacy. From these disciplines, I would like to raise the following issues.

To the idiots parading on the Egyptian streets and media, I say that Sinai itself was not Egyptian territory until it was ceded by the Ottoman Empire in 1906. That cession transformed Egypt from an African country to an Afro-Asian one. That was only 110 years ago. Examine the cession agreement. The delimitation does not jump from Sinai south to the edge of the Arabian Peninsula.

It does not matter that the Saudi state only came into being in 1932. Sovereignty does not reside in a regime. The Hashemites under Ottoman rule were the regime in the country.

The islands of Tiran and Sanafir, but for the Egyptian military custodial presence, have been uninhabited. The absence of any other form of human life did not transform them into terra nullius (land without ownership), however.

There is an owner, a big, visible and important owner called the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia. In fact terra nullius as a term exists only in imperialist parlance to justify illegal land grabbing. It is akin to the Zionist fiction about settling Palestine — the “people without a land for the land without a people”.

The rightful Saudi ownership of the two islands was repeatedly asserted following the 1948 War. These assertions were manifest as Israel occupied the port of Um Rashrash, now Eilat, followed by Israeli complaints at the UN regarding the Egyptian occupation of the islands.

A mountain of written evidence of uninterrupted Saudi ownership of Tiran and Sanafir is on record, including in the law of the Arab economic boycott of Israel enacted on 19 October 1955, in official Egyptian memoranda to the UK and US regarding these Arab punitive and defensive measures, in the expressed desire later on by Saudi Arabia for the return of its Islands to its sovereign fold as the reason for the Egyptian occupation was no more, and in the statements made by the late Ambassador Mohamed Awad Al-Koni, Egypt’s permanent representative to the UN’s Security Council.

It was on 27 May 1967, a few days before the 1967 War, that Al-Koni said, “Egypt has never at any time claimed that these two islands were part of its sovereign territory.” I was there in the Security Council chamber when Al-Koni, in exquisite French, with his shiny head gleaming, read this historic statement.

Land bridge: The Saudi-Egyptian agreement of April 2016 regarding a land bridge between the two sister states is a positive step between the two nations.

Here are two sovereign countries engaged in inter-Arab economic integration, the very step that the fragmented Arab world needs today, in this darkening age of terrorism and fragmentation caused primarily by the Islamic State (IS) group, the Muslim Brotherhood, and their affiliates and proxies in Gaza and elsewhere.

The protests raised in the Egyptian media qualifying the historic measure of mapping Arab borders on land and at sea by Arab hands are utterly repulsive. These are shrill voices, from which I select the following, dated 14 April 2016. In the Al-Shorook newspaper, journalist Fahmi Howeidi writes, “The Egyptian side is to blame for national anger. That side is the party which decided to relinquish the two islands and attach them to Saudi sovereignty.”

In Al-Misriyoun, its editor Mahmoud Sullam heatedly argues, “How dare President Al-Sisi call on us not to dwell upon the islands matter? Are we his pupils, or are we in a military encampment?”

In a crescendo of total absurdity, another writer, by the name of Ashraf Al-Barbari, claims the prize of “ignorant cum laude”. He attacks the decision on the following idiotic basis: (a) sovereignty over the islands should have been arbitrated; (b) Friday, 8 April, the date of the Saudi-Egyptian agreement, should be called “Black Friday” and Egypt’s cession of the islands to Saudi Arabia was a “huge shock” as it caused young Egyptians to lose their national compass; and (c) for decades our history books have stressed that no Egyptian territory should be given up.

Please show us which history books offer us this advice, which is a total abstraction. It is like defining the word “water” by the word “water”.

In Al-Masry Al-Youm, Hamdy Rizk calls on the Egyptian parliament to nullify the agreement in fulfilment of its national obligations. But Mr Rizk, it behoves you to learn that parliament has no say in purely administrative matters framed within prior accords.

In Al-Tahrir, Nasser Arraq claims that the speed of reaching the agreement, without first engaging the public before signing it, manifests utter disregard for the popular will. Sir, this is not a plebiscite.

In Vito, Abdel-Qadir Shuhaib attacks Al-Sisi for “covering up for eight months” the negotiations with Saudi Arabia. Dismissively, he tells Al-Sisi to treat Egyptian public opinion with respect as it is “unacceptable to conspire against it in a game of deception”.

Other media outside Egypt joined the fray. The New York Times of 16 April reported the Cairo demonstrations gleefully. It said that they were “an unusual burst of public outrage” because of “an unseemly concession to Saudi Arabia in return for billions of dollars in aid, and an unforgivable wound to national pride”.

Egyptophobia and the misreading of history in plain sight were also reflected in a blog by a pro-Nasser Lebanese American, Assad Abu-Khalil, a professor at California State University. In his “Angry Arab News Service,” Abu-Khalil promoted a lie connected to King Salman’s visit to Egypt, writing that “the statue of Ibrahim Pasha in Cairo was placed under a shroud” during the visit. The claimed reason? Ibrahim Pasha led the Egyptian charge against the Wahabbis in Najd in the Arabian Peninsula in 1819.

Yet my contacts in Cairo informed me that Salman’s visit had nothing to do with the renovation work on the statue. When Abu-Khalil was contacted for a retraction, he declined. According to the Los Angeles Times, the professor’s blog is “known for its sarcastic but knowledgeable commentary and for being consistently pro-Nasser and anti-Al-Sisi”.

This is ideological misrepresentation unbecoming of an Arab-American professor at a major American university for ideology is partisan advocacy. It is not teaching, particularly when it comes to the malady of hate, which is floating hostility. It is a form of mental constipation.

Criticisms of Nasserism: I do my best to judge political leaders by their degree of dedication to the national interest. With that measure, and judging by the storm over Tiran and Sanafir, I raise the following queries about Nasserism in action in foreign affairs.

Was Nasser ever elected through the process of “one person, one vote,” or by any other democratic formula? No. And where were the Egyptian voices raised in protest against his policies, which led to the break-up of the Nile Valley into the north (Egypt) and the south (Sudan)? What about the authoritarian unification of Egypt and Syria (1958-1961)? And its collapse, largely because Nasser’s surrogates in Syria converted Syria into a police state.

When did Nasser involve the nation in consultation before embarking upon other existential decisions, like expelling the UN “blue helmets” from the Egyptian-Israeli lines of demarcation in Sinai, thereby providing Israel with the pretext to strike on 5 June 1967?

Following the greatest Arab military defeat in modern history, Nasser mournfully lamented, “We expected the enemy to come from the east, but they came from the west.” Historically laughable — especially coming from a military leader. Nearly the entire Egyptian air force, sitting on the ground, was wiped out in three hours.

Sinai was occupied, and so were Gaza, the West Bank, Jerusalem, and the Golan Heights. They still are today, with the exception of Sinai, liberated from Israeli occupation by President Anwar Al-Sadat. The future of these other Arab areas is still in doubt, including Jerusalem.

And under what circumstances did that most humbling of Arab defeats take place? Nearly 100,000 Egyptian army recruits were marched to Yemen by Nasser in 1962 to be inserted into a Yemeni civil war. What for? Not for any reason of Egyptian defence or development.

It was for ideological reasons of Nasser’s making, pitting in its wake Egypt against Saudi Arabia whose southern cities were bombed by the Egyptian air force. While Nasser looked to becoming the Arab hegemon, Israel was planning to become the hegemon of the Arabs.

It took a leader like Al-Sadat, whose focus was on Egypt, to rescue for Egypt through war and diplomacy what belonged to Egypt, namely Sinai.

As in the age of Al-Sisi, the Egyptian leadership should first and foremost work towards a strong Egypt.

So I ask again, where were the voices of open and noisy protest against Nasser? Who was aided and abetted by his “philosophy of the revolution”? It was Nasser who historically was the loser of Arab territory.

In the Tiran and Sanafir issue, the Egyptian media has uncovered an Egyptian fault line of perception — the dictator who loses territory is

reverently called “the eternally remembered” (khalid al-zikr), but the freely elected leader Al-Sisi is vilified in the post-dictatorship era as “a sell-out” for respecting Cairo’s contractual obligations.

History cannot be invented. It can only be recorded and reported. So back to the shrill voices in Egypt against Al-Sisi, the leader who saved Egypt from a bloody civil war, the leader who cut Islamist fascism down to size. I have never met Al-Sisi, and he doesn’t know me. But I know him through his actions to build a strong Egyptian state, and that is enough for me.

A strong Egypt: On the issue of water and the building of the Grand Renaissance Dam in Ethiopia, the emboldened but vain voices say that Al-Sisi’s stand has been another sell-out. Ignorance. Ethiopia is a sovereign state developing its resources, as Egypt did in the case of the Aswan High Dam. The 1929 Treaty was a colonial creation, and treaties, like contracts, are subject to change.

The only voice raised in favour of a Nilotic alliance between Egypt, Sudan, Ethiopia, Uganda and Congo has been that of the Coptic Church. The Ethiopian clergy have long been “created” in Alexandria, and the Coptic popes look upon Egypt, and rightly so, as a “Nilotic state”.

But in the Nasser era, it was a case of “all hail to the southern province” (the northern one being Syria). And in the brief period when Egypt was ruled by Islamist president Mohamed Morsi, the politician Hamdeen Sabbahi called for the bombing of Ethiopia on the issue of the dam. A bravado voice of the insane.

Instead, Al-Sisi resorted to diplomacy through the modern doctrine of functionalism, or sharing the wealth. This is particularly necessary now that Sudan, as a possible Great South for Egypt, is no more.

The future lies not in making war on Ethiopia but on friendship with Addis Ababa and in hopefully developing the White Nile in cooperation with Khartoum and South Sudan.

Even an open dialogue between Al-Sisi and representatives of civil society, unimaginable under Nasser, has been the subject of media derision by pens that found their ink only after 3 July 2013.

On 13 April, Al-Sisi told that conclave, “The military establishment has taught us to fear for our country and its people, respecting every grain of sand in it. We do not sell our territory to anyone, nor do we usurp anyone’s rights.

“I am an honest Egyptian who is not for sale, who has not conspired against anyone, who has not deceived anyone. The Supreme Council of the Armed Forces did not conspire against the Muslim Brotherhood. We dealt with former president Mohamed Morsi honourably and with honesty and respect.”

Of course it did. For three fateful days, from 30 June to 3 July 2013, Al-Sisi tried to coax Morsi towards a new beginning and a fresh plebiscite. But Morsi and the Brotherhood’s Guidance Bureau gave those efforts the thumbs down.

The media’s response to these assurances by Al-Sisi on 13 April was a truly pathetic campaign by several Egyptian so-called “opinion formers”.

But the great historian Gamal Hamdan on 13 April contributed to the undeniable verdict that the islands belong to Saudi Arabia. It is worth noting that the third of Hamdan’s four volumes in Arabic on “Egypt’s Personality” bears the interesting title “The Genius of Geography” (abqariyyat al-makan).

In the foolish attacks by the Egyptian media, one finds total ignorance of that genius compounded by falsification in a lunatic desire to get the mob aroused, the very hordes that paralysed Egypt for months, besieging, among other establishments, the Journalists Syndicate in Cairo.

The journalists named above have debased, auxiliary motives. Examples include Adel Al-Sanhouri in Al-Yom Al-Sabee, seeing in the agreement of 11 April haste and a cover-up; Karam Jabr, in the same paper, who said the government failed to educate the public; and Mohamed Al-Shebrawi in Al-Shaab, who asked what happened to Egypt’s independence. He also asked, “What was the hurry in concluding the 11 April agreement?” Al-Shebrawi, you are a rare genius. It was in the making for 18 years.

Even those not advocating the outright falsehood of Egyptian sovereignty over the Tiran and Sanafir islands are espousing other ridiculous approaches to this non-issue.

Makram Mohamed Ahmed in Al-Watan calls for an Egyptian parliamentary review of the April agreement. His purpose? Delineating the maritime line between Saudi Arabia and Egypt. This is a silly argument (in law, meaning nudum factum, or without factual merit), as it makes the Egyptian military presence on those two rocks a nexus to Egyptian sovereignty.

Had holding territory been tantamount to conversion to sovereign ownership then the entire scheme of decolonisation under the UN Charter should be revisited. If you care to find out how idiotic the Makram Mohamed Ahmed proposal is, read my book The United Nations and Decolonization: The Role of Afro-Asia (1971).

There is the same absence of legal knowledge or historical facts in Al-Ahram. In an article by Gamal Zahran, the writer calls the protests against the Egyptian-Saudi Agreement a “fitna” (insurrection). He claims, in tortured logic, that the protests are not directed towards Al-Sisi but towards the surrender of the islands. If that is Zahran’s defence of Al-Sisi, may I never have Zahran as my defence attorney.

Loud mouths: These are a deplorable phenomenon of the period after Al-Sisi’s elevation to the presidency. They are loud barks that were never heard during the age of Nasser, which was one of imposed silence.

One more thought: Morsi opened the gates (they are called tunnels) to Hamas’s occupation of Sinai under the deceptive label of “Arab brotherhood”. That encroachment on Egyptian sovereignty lies today at the root of terrorism in Sinai. Morsi also gave the nod to Islamist rule in the Sudan in Shalatin and Halayeb, even though Shalatin and Halayeb are north of the 22nd parallel, a straight line from Libya to the west to the Red Sea to the east.

Their case is the flip side of Tiran and Sanafir, which were entrusted to Egypt by their sovereign owner for administration. Shalatin and Halayeb were entrusted by Great Britain, the then occupier of the Nile Valley, to Sudan for administration. No administrative measure could nullify Egyptian sovereignty over Shalatin and Halayeb, for these are the same legal principles underpinning the UN Charter provisions regarding international trusteeship.

Sovereignty is “inherent” (permanent), and administration is “temporary,” as was the case of the Egyptian administration over Gaza from 1949 to 1967. This did not abrogate the Palestinian sovereignty over it, regardless of the length of an Israeli siege or the Hamas presence.

Egypt has had a sovereign existence for thousands of years. Its name, “Egypt” (Misr), does not even need a qualifier, as no fewer than five times the Qur’an mentions the country’s name as Misr. The Bible vouches for it by saying, “Blessed be my people Egypt.” The land and its people are one.

In the Egypt of Al-Sisi, the loud mouths should first learn their country’s history. To me, it boils down to three sentences. Five thousand years ago the great pharaoh Narmer (Mina) unified the country. In the 19th century, Mohamed Ali modernised it. And Al-Sisi, in the 21st century, saved it from collapse.

Now, in conclusion, I pose a challenge to those afflicted by loud-mouth syndrome. If you truly want to help the New Egypt, shut your mouth and go back to school. Learn something about Egypt’s history.

The Chinese say, “One learns from the ear.” And the Qur’an, in its first word of revelation, says “iqraa”. In Islamic jurisprudence, that one word is loaded. It does not only mean “read”. Its expansive meaning is “learn”.

The officers of the Egyptian Armed Forces read. How do I know? The proof was provided in 1974 by Field Marshal Ahmed Ismail. After the October War, he contacted me with an invitation. “I need you to present a lecture at the Cairo Military Academy,” he said. I immediately booked a flight from New York to Cairo.

There were 500 senior officers from all branches of the Armed Forces there, including field marshals Al-Gamassi and Abu-Ghazaleh. I sat on the rostrum, flanked by Ahmed Ismail to the right and the academy’s commander to the left. My presentation was on “strategy,” which I had taught in New York to large groups of US army officers during the Vietnam War. I was giving lessons learnt in Algeria during the war for independence as a spokesman for the UN.

When I finished my presentation, Ahmed Ismail called for questions to be written on pieces of paper and these to be collected by recruits. He instructed the academy’s commander to organise the 74 written questions into six themes, saying, “Our guest will answer those themes because I am escorting him to the Northern Command in Alexandria.”

I asked the field marshal if I could keep the texts of the 74 questions. His response was, “Keep them. You are one of us.” On my trip back to New York, I read the 74 questions. They were very penetrating and showed an army that reads. It fights for Egypt, and it also reads for Egypt.

This defender of Egypt is fighting today for what belongs to Egypt. And what belongs to Egypt, as far as Sinai is concerned, is clearly evidenced by maps delineating the international boundary in the Gulf of Aqaba, clearly showing the basis for the Saudi-Egyptian administrative agreement signed in 1950. This gave Cairo the privilege of guarding the Tiran and Sanafir islands for the Saudis against the never-ending Zionist territorial grab.

Could the loud mouths, unleashed after Al-Sisi became president, shut up and read the maps? Maps don’t lie.


The writer is a professor of law at New York University.

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