Egypt-Saudi deal on Red Sea islands stirs public debate

Ahram Online , Monday 11 Apr 2016

The announcment of a joint Egyptian-Saudi technical maritime border re-drawing decision came as part of a bundle of political and economic agreements signed during the current visit to Cairo by Saudi King Salman bin Abdelaziz

Tiran Island can bee seen a few kilometers away from a beach of the Egyptian Red Sea resort of Sharm El-Sheikh, February 27, 2016 (Photo: Lina El-Wardani)

Egypt's acknowledgement that the Red Sea islands of Tiran and Sanafir – long believed to be under Egyptian sovereignty – fall within regional Saudi maritime waters triggered a huge wave of controversy and confusion.

Egypt's cabinet said the agreement concerning the islands would be presented to the House of Representatives for legal and constitutional considerations and later ratification should it be voted for. The agreement allows Egypt to use shared Red Sea waters for excavation of natural resources, which would benefit the Egyptian economy, according to the statement.

Much as the cabinet statement sounds optimistic, it did not go down well publicly, with political parties among many doubters questioning the constitutionality of the decision, while other voices backed the Egyptian stance.

"This kind of agreements aren't signed all of a sudden without talks," said Medhat El-Zahed, a senior member of the Socialist Popular Alliance Party. "Discussions must've taken place beforehand, then why weren't they announced to the public ahead of the agreement?"

The cabinet statement said that the determination that the two islands fall within Saudi regional waters is the culmination of a six-year process of studies and eleven rounds of negotiations between the two sides.

"The borders of Egypt have been historically stable and are not [changeable] for compliments… even if the reason was the economic crisis," El-Zahed added while speaking to Al-Ahram's Arabic site. "Article 151 of the Egyptian constitution has to be invoked."

Egypt has been suffering a steeply deteriorating economy since the 2011 uprising, which toppled longstanding president Hosni Mubarak, and the political disturbance that came in the years to follow. Egypt has been receiving considerable financial aid from Gulf countries, particularly Saudi Arabia, over the past two years.

Article 151 of the Egyptian constitution, which critics say was violated by the agreement, stipulates that redrawing national boarders has to be through a public referendum, as well as a parliament vote and presidential ratification..

Moreover, former head of Egypt's military operations authority Abdel-Moniem Said, asserted that both islands are considered Egyptian territories.

"Both islands belong to Egypt and we used to secure them with forces " Said said in statements to Al-Aassema television channel. "Also historically they always were Egyptian islands," he added.

Tiran and Sanafir islands lie at the south entrance of the Gulf of Aqaba in the north part of the Red Sea.

Among the agreements reached between the Egyptian and the Saudi sides was establishing a bridge over the Red Sea that separates Egypt and Saudi Arabia. The bridge will reportedly connect with both Islands.

It is not clear if the acknowledgment of Saudi sovereignty over the two Islands is related to the technical maritime border drawing.

"The anger over dropping two Islands Tiran and Sanafir has to turn from condemnation and ruling into a clear popular demand," rights lawyer Khaled Ali said on his Facebook page, suggesting that people call for freezing the agreement until it is put in a referendum.

On social media a considerable amount of anger was expressed by Egyptians, some of whom shared an audio of late president Gamal Abdel-Nasser warning of any violations of the Tiran waters, which he said are under full Egyptian sovereignty.

Others activists shared a picture of a map of the Red Sea taken from an elementary school book, according to which both Tiran and Sanafir are part of Egypt, with an Arabic hashtag that reads both islands trending in Egypt.

A Facebook page that drew the attention of thousands of users calls on all Egyptians to support a lawsuit that will be filed by lawyers Tarek El-Awady and Malek Adly to revoke the agreement.

Khaled Ali also filed a legal compalint against the decission.

However, former independent MP Amr Hamzawy on Twitter said that despite "the lack of transparency, the statement of the cabinet… was accurate." He said it refers to the presidential decree number 27 in 1990 determining regional Egyptian maritime waters.

Hamzawy stressed the decree indeed excluded both islands.

"The [cabinet] statement is also accurate in referring to notifying the United Nations with the drawing of Egyptian maritime waters in 1990 and not claiming sovereignty over the two islands."

Similarly, Mohsen Hamdy, a former military general who used to be a member of an Egyptian committee which negotiated with Israel over reclaiming the northern Sinai city of Taba in the early 1980s, confirmed to Al-Masry Al-Youm daily that the two islands "belong to the Saudis 100 percent."

"The two islands are considered Saudi territory according to telegrams, documents and correspondence between both countries which lasted  for many years," Hamdy said. 

Hamdy explained that Egypt had sent troops to secure the two islands in the mid-1950s upon Saudi request at a time when the kingdom wanted to protect them from Israeli invasion.

That said, some social media users circulated an old news story published by the New York Times in January 1982 which mentions the former, and adds that following the 1979 peace treaty and after Egypt reclaimed the majority of the Sinai peninsula which was occupied by Israel in 1967, Saudi Crown Prince Fahd said that he would ask the Egyptian authorities to return the islands to Saudi sovereignty.

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