By Ahdaf Soueif – The New York Times –
This month, we reached a new level in the spiral we’ve been living through in Egypt since January 2011. On June 11, state security agents cleared the public from the area around the Parliament building here in the capital: The parliamentary debate about Egypt ceding its Red Sea islands, Tiran and Sanafir, to Saudi Arabia was about to begin. Three days later, Parliament voted to give up the islands.
The vote was preceded by arrests across the country. These arrests — both of known activists and others — had started some weeks before and were stepped up as the vote approached. We were on sadly familiar terrain: lawyers rushing to check who was being held where; volunteers arranging to feed those in jail; others raising bail money. And all those involved, throughout, trying to stay focused on the core issue: the islands.
The question of the islands has moved center stage because it incorporates many motifs of the conflicts troubling Egypt today. The business began a little over a year ago, in April 2016, when a visit to Cairo by the king of Saudi Arabia ended with a series of agreements reportedly worth more than $20 billion to Egypt. At the same time, Egypt’s president, Abdel Fattah el-Sisi, announced that he had decided to hand over the two islands in the Red Sea to Saudi Arabia.
To account for this action, he said he believed the islands were Saudi and had been left with Egypt only for safe keeping. And his mother, he added, had told him never to take anything that wasn’t his.
The islands lie east of the Sinai Peninsula at the northern end of the Red Sea. Tiran, the larger of the two, is about 30 square miles and only about five miles from the port of Sharm el-Sheikh. The sea around the islands is rich in coral reefs and sea life, making it a popular destination for divers and tourists, but the islands are also strategically important because they command the straits to the Gulf of Aqaba, along Egypt’s eastern border.
At the top of the gulf is the Israeli port of Eilat, once the Egyptian port of Umm al-Rashrash. In the wars of 1956 and 1967, Tiran and Sanafir were invaded by the Israeli military but were twice returned to Egypt, the second time under the 1979 treaty that followed the Camp David accords. A small detachment of international peacekeeping troops, mostly Egyptian and American, is stationed on Tiran (the islands are otherwise uninhabited).
Nobody set much store by the president’s “my mother told me” riff. Had the islands been sold? Could a government parcel out and sell bits of territory to another country? The Constitution said it could not, and the government claimed it had not. Lawyers, acting on behalf of some 300 citizen litigants, asked the State Council, the umbrella organization for the administrative courts that adjudicate disputes between the state and citizens, to rule on whether the islands were, in fact, Egyptian or Saudi.
Documents from across the world and spanning two centuries poured into the lawyers’ offices. An administrative court appointed a panel of experts to examine these submissions and, in June 2016, ruled that the islands were, beyond doubt, Egypt’s. When the government appealed the case, the Supreme Administrative Court reaffirmed what then became a final and absolute ruling.
The matter should have ended there. But Mr. Sisi’s government did a strange thing: It took the case to another, lower court — one that handles routine issues like the enforcement of alimony payments — and asked it to stay the ruling of the Supreme Administrative Court. This lower court duly did so, which meant that the case would go to the Constitutional Court. But without waiting for any further hearing to settle the issue between the deadlocked courts, the government sidelined the judiciary and took the matter to Parliament.
A great number of representatives in Parliament belong to one of the parties or electoral blocs that were created by the regime’s security and intelligence agencies about three years ago in preparation for parliamentary elections. There were scuffles in the chamber as dissenting representatives yelled at their fellow legislators, saying that even to debate the issue was treasonous. Again and again, opponents of ceding the islands asked to speak and were denied. They demanded a roll-call vote and were denied. On the fourth day, amid chaos, the law transferring the islands to Saudi Arabia was passed in an unrecorded vote.
Why is the president so keen to give away such strategic and valuable pieces of Egyptian territory — so keen that his government was willing to show contempt for the institutions of the judiciary, the Constitution and Parliament? Was this simply a battle of wills that Mr. Sisi had to win to show that there was nothing to stop him from doing whatever he wanted? Or was it because the government was trapped in a deal that it could neither renege on, nor account for frankly to the people?
Handing the islands to Saudi Arabia makes the kingdom a party to the Camp David accords and so provides justification for its developing rapprochement with Israel. Until now, Saudi relations with Israel have largely been secret because they would be unpopular domestically. Now, with the possibility of a realignment in the region, including an alliance against Iran that would include Israel, Saudi leaders want to go public about the new ties but dress them up as a necessity, mandated by the treaty.
The danger for Egypt is that while the Camp David accords say that the Straits of Tiran must remain open to all shipping, this holds only in times of peace and for “well-intentioned” shipping. If the straits remained under Egyptian control, then Egypt could close them in time of war or if it suspected that any particular shipping had hostile intent. If the islands were Saudi, though, the straits between the islands and Egypt would become international waters, instead of Egyptian territorial waters. That would leave Egypt’s Sinai coast completely vulnerable to attack.
In addition, the dispute over the islands takes place against a dark backdrop in Egypt. Most citizens have felt a threat hanging over their lives and livelihoods for decades, but we also now feel a kind of existential dread. The bedrock of our identity is that Egypt has existed in recognizable form for thousands of years. This bedrock is being eroded as the core characteristics of our country change.
Egypt’s share of water from the Nile is under threat from a dam being built by our neighbor to the south, Ethiopia. The soil of the Nile Valley is exhausted, less fertile, and the nation’s resources are depleted. Much of the population is impoverished and malnourished, while years of poor governance have left our cities horribly polluted.
Egypt’s society is divided and turned against itself more than ever before. For the first time ever, some would say, Egypt has become inhospitable to immigrants, and even its own young people brave perilous journeys over sand and sea to escape the country. None of this was inevitable. It is the result of decades of corrupt, self-serving government.
The revolution of January 2011 was a response to this profound threat; this is why it swept up young and old, rich and poor, secular and pious. Everyone wanted to save the country and be saved. Whatever the real, hardheaded odds against the revolution’s success, it was the manifestation of a tremendous will to live; to shake off stagnation, corruption and hopelessness. For a brief time, the people embraced their own agency, creativity, hard work, altruism, collectivity and diversity.
The counterrevolution that came after President Hosni Mubarak stepped down in February 2011 has failed or refused to address the concerns of the country’s citizens. In each of its forms, it has concentrated on consolidating its own power and on punishing and discrediting anything that might threaten it — that is, any inkling of the revolutionary spirit of agency, altruism, collectivity and creativity.
The Muslim Brotherhood and the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces were each in power for about a year, whereas, by now, Mr. Sisi has effectively ruled for over three years. That is long enough to be called to account. Egyptians feel the danger, shame and loss of the ceding of their islands, on top of everything else they have had to endure. Four professional associations have denounced the parliamentary decision, and there have been flash protests in the streets. The response of the government was to arrest scores more people and block more than 100 news websites. But this opposition will not go away. Egyptians will not be silent.
Ahdaf Soueif (@asoueif), a novelist and critic.
Illustration by Mitch Blunt, NYT
Main Photo: Lawyers protested ceding the Red Sea islands to Saudi Arabia earlier this month. Credit Amr Nabil/Associated Press