Saudi Arabia’s King Salman arrived in Cairo for a summit accompanied by a large delegation of Saudi ministers and officials on Thursday 7th of April .Aljazeera and other media in the Middle East reported last weekend (Saturday) that the Egyptian government said a new maritime border agreement with Riyadh would put the Red Sea islands of Sanafir and Tiran that long considered as Egyptian one’s within Saudi territorial waters. This was announced suddenly and surprised the country’s opposition as all the people of Egypt and caused a lot of criticism even outside the country’s borders.
The two islands control entry to the Gulf of Aqaba and the ports of Eilat and Aqaba in Israel and Jordan, respectively. Tiran Island (80 square kilometers) lies at the entrance of the Strait of Tiran, which separates the Gulf of Aqaba from the Red Sea only six kilometers from the Sinai coast. Sanafir Island (33 square kilometers) is located to the east of Tiran Island.
“The Red Sea islands [Sanafir and Tiran] fall within Saudi territorial waters in light of the new border demarcation agreement between Egypt and Saudi Arabia,” the Egyptian government said in a statement.
The announcement, which came as a surprise to many Egyptians who thought the islands belonged to their country and provoked a backlash on social media and even in press normally loyal to the president, with thousands tweeting a hashtag accusing Sisi of selling the land. 28,000 tweets had been sent with the islands’ names in a hashtag.By Sunday evening
— Algeria Tweet (@Algeria_Tweet) 12 avril 2016
In a joint statement, Egypt’s opposition asserted their “total rejection” of “all agreements concluded by this illegal regime, including the relinquishment of Egypt’s historical right to territorial waters, land and airspace, along with the management of its airports and wealth and its territorial jurisdiction and national sovereignty.”
Reports say that the accord violates article 151 of Egypt’s constitution, which requires all treaties related to sovereignty to be approved by referendum. The court will hear the case on May 17.
The agreement must be ratified by parliament, a 596-seat chamber packed with the president’s supporters whose adulation for Saudi Arabia went on display Sunday when King Salman addressed the legislature. He was received with a standing ovation and his six-minute address was repeatedly interrupted by applause. Lawmakers also recited poetry praising the Saudi monarchy
- Diplomacy and Geopolitics behind the decision
During Saudi King Salman’s five-day visit to Cairo, representatives of the two countries signed 17 financial deals and memorandums of understanding worth about $1.7 billion, including a bridge over the Red Sea that will connect the two countries.
Saudi Arabia and other Gulf Cooperation Council members such as the United Arab Emirates and Kuwait have been politically and financially backing Egypt’s administration since the army-led ouster of former Egyptian President Mohamed Morsi in 2013.
With Iraq, Syria and Yemen immersed in civil war, and Saudi Arabia preoccupied by its region-wide rivalry with Iran, Riyadh is determined to stop the Egyptian state from failing. It will maintain some aid despite its own tighter budgets from falling global oil prices, analysts say.
After meeting Sisi on Friday, King Salman announced that a bridge connecting Egypt and Saudi Arabia would be built across the Red Sea.
Sisi said the islands, which Saudi had leased to Egypt in 1950, belonged to the kingdom, something he said was recognised by former president Hosni Mubarak in 1990.
“We don’t sell our land to anyone, and we don’t take anyone’s rights,” Sisi said.
“Why are Egyptians more suspicious of each other than people are in other countries?” he asked, suggesting experts and religious scholars should look into the question.
Reporters said last week that the Saudi investors were bringing $4 billion to the table for infrastructure, energy and agriculture projects with $400 million already delivered to banks in Egypt.
Reuters wrote that Saudi Arabia’s financial support for strategic ally Egypt will no longer involve “free money” and will increasingly take the form of loans that provide returns to help it grapple with low oil prices, a Saudi businessman familiar with the matter said.
“This is a change in strategy. Return on investment is important to Saudi Arabia as it diversifies sources of revenue,” the businessman told Reuters on Friday during what has been described as a “historic” visit to Cairo by Saudi King Salman.
Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates and Kuwait showered Egypt with billions of dollars after then-military chief Abdel Fattah al-Sisi toppled President Mohamed Mursi of the Muslim Brotherhood in 2013 after mass protests against his rule.
But low oil prices and differences over regional issues have called into question whether such strong support is sustainable.
The Egyptian Opposition protests
Egyptian opposition members regard relinquishing the disputed islands as a concession in return for Saudi financial aid.Egypt is struggling to revive an economy hit by years of political upheaval since the 2011 uprising that ousted President Hosni Mubarak, as well as an Islamist insurgency based in the Sinai Peninsula. The hashtag “Awad sold his land” trended on Twitter after the announcement, referring to a song about an Egyptian who sold his land, seen as a shameful act.
There is also an online petition calling for the cancellation of that agreement and it is attracting signatures.
Egyptian comic Basem Yousef, exiled after lampooning successive leaders, compared Mr Sisi on Twitter to a bazaar merchant willing to sell his country and its heritage: “Come closer sir, the island is one billion, the pyramid is two with two statues on top for free.”
“Here, here, Pasha, one island for a billion, a pyramid for two and I will throw two statues on top,” Egypt’s best known political satirist, self-exiled Bassem Youssef, tweeted, mimicking the shouts of Egyptian street hawkers selling souvenirs to foreign tourists.
As anger spread on Monday, veteran lawyer Khaled Ali filed a complaint with the administrative court, arguing that according to a 1906 maritime treaty between Egypt and the Ottoman Empire, the islands are Egyptian and the move amounts to a transfer of sovereignty. The treaty precedes the founding of Saudi Arabia in 1932.
For some Egyptians, the problem is that the government is willing to sell land in exchange for survival, and that a military official is willing to sell his country in order to preserve his position.Another thing to consider is that the economic crisis experienced by Egypt cannot be resolved by conceding or selling islands, nor by attracting Gulf and foreign investments worth billions.
Recent history of the Islands and the role of Israel
Tiran is the larger of the two islands and is closer to Egypt’s southern Sinai coast. It is associated in the mind of many Egyptians with their country’s four wars against Israel between 1948 and 1973, a time of nationalistic fervor and patriotism. More recently, Tiran has become a popular destination for tourists.
In May 1967, Egypt blocked the passage of ships through the Strait of Tiran, Israel’s only maritime passage from the Gulf of Aqaba to the Red Sea, leading to the Six-Day War, which resulted in the Israeli capture of both Tiran and Sanafir and the whole of the Sinai Peninsula.
Israel returned them to Egypt in 1982 under provisions of the Camp David accords.
Neither island has ever been inhabited by either Egyptian or Saudi nationals, and had only a minor Egyptian security presence, aside from one month in 1967 when Egypt deployed soldiers to Tiran during the blockade of the strait.
Under the Camp David accords, a multinational force has been stationed on the islands since 1982 to ensure freedom of navigation through the strait.
Although they have no resorts, the islands nevertheless are famous for their coral reefs and have become a destination for tourists on excursions from the nearby resort town of Sharm Al-Sheikh.
The Hebrew-language Ynet website, citing the Egyptian daily Al-Ahram, reported Monday that peace partners Egypt and Israel have been in contact recently over the plan to redraw the maritime border between Egypt and Saudi Arabia. Specifically, Egyptian authorities notified Israel about a plan to transfer control of two Gulf of Aqaba islands, Sanafir and Tiran, from Egypt to Saudi Arabia.
— Carlos Latuff (@LatuffCartoons) 12 avril 2016