I write these words as the parliamentary debate on the border agreement with Saudi Arabia is still underway. All indications are, however, that parliament will approve the deal and Egypt will relinquish the Tiran and Sanafir Islands. If that happens, we’ll have entered a new phase, and the consequences will be grave, though perhaps not immediate.
Since the agreement was signed last year, I’ve chosen not to address the historical and legal aspects, reasoning that many others discussed those dimensions in great detail and based on an exhaustive analysis of documents and evidence.
I limited my comments to the political aspect: the way the government approached this extremely serious issue, surprising the public with such a grave decision that touches on national sovereignty, the disregard for public opinion and court rulings, and the maltreatment of those who objected to an agreement that was concluded in mysterious circumstances.
For those reasons, I was, and still am, convinced of the need to reject the agreement, and not only because it cedes sovereignty in flagrant violation of the constitution. Equally significant, it stands as an egregious case of unilateral decision making, non-disclosure of information, and disregard of a citizenry that has the right to understand, participate, and object.
The way the issue was handled means that the agreement, if approved by parliament, will likely have serious, long-term consequences, even if this week passes in peace.
First of all, it will shake the public’s confidence in the government like never before, even beyond the difficulties it has faced and the controversial policies it has adopted. This isn’t like a decision to raise fuel prices, float the pound, or pass the NGO law—policies that can be pursued relying on people’s fear of instability or their preoccupation with Ramadan TV serials.
This is a fateful decision that will echo for years to come. No matter how many arguments supporters of the agreement marshal, how many experts they cite to bolster their position, or how many voices they mobilize in parliament and the media, the belief that the government failed in its duty to protect national sovereignty will persist. In fact, it will grow with time and come to threaten its credibility.
Second, the government seems unconcerned about the depth of the division the agreement has sowed in Egyptian society, a division that is likely to grow as the time to turn over the two islands nears.
Even as reasonable people have been urging the state to calm the resentment in the street, initiate a rapprochement on contentious issues, and unite ranks to confront terrorism and economic difficulties, the government has opened a new front, paving the way for another social rift, something a prudent government wouldn’t do.
Third, I expect the deal to have repercussions for the government and parliament. Even if the agreement is ratified, I don’t think the government will long maintain its position under such pressure, or that the parliament can overcome the black mark on its record, though this is not the worst consequence.
Finally, if the official justification for the border agreement is to maintain good relations between Egypt and Saudi Arabia, I fear the reckless management of the islands issue will instead poison relations in the future—and here I’m speaking of ties between the Egyptian and Saudi peoples, not their rulers. These are strong, important relations, supported by not insignificant fraternal bonds, trade interests, and human ties. I believe the way the state dealt with the issue will unnecessarily injure these relations.
If the opportunity still exists, parliament should refuse to debate the agreement, send it back to the government, and turn the page on extreme government mismanagement and careless decision making. Maybe this would give it the chance to reconsider and correct course before it’s too late.
*The writer holds a PhD in financial law from the London School of Economics. He is former deputy prime minister, former chairman of the Egyptian Financial Supervisory Authority and former chairman of the General Authority for Investment.
A version of this article was published in Arabic in El-Shorouq newspaper on Monday, 12 June.