Egypt on edge: An island giveaway to Saudis undercuts el-Sissi
EGYPT’S precariously perched president, Abdel-Fattah el-Sissi, put his position further at risk earlier this month. He gave visiting Saudi Arabian King Salman two Red Sea islands, Sanafir and Tiran, in return for a multibilliondollar package of aid and investment.
On the one hand, the two islands, located at the mouth of the Gulf of Aqaba, off the tip of the Sinai peninsula, are uninhabited. On the other, they have been considered Egyptian property since a line was drawn between Egypt and the Ottoman Empire in 1906. Saudi Arabia has claimed them from time to time, deeming them to be in its territorial waters, but nonetheless consigned them in 1950 to Egyptian protection from possible Israeli seizure.
The borders of Egypt, Israel and Jordan meet on the Gulf of Aqaba in that area. There is the suggestion that Saudi Arabia will construct a bridge or causeway between it and Egypt if ownership of Sanafir and Tiran is now settled.
The problem for Egypt is that already-fervent opposition to Sissi, a former military field marshal, has focused on what it considers to be his giveaway of Egyptian territory for Saudi cash, prompting protests by thousands in Cairo streets. President Hosni Mubarak was overthrown in Arab Spring demonstrations in 2011. Mohamed Morsi of the Muslim Brotherhood was elected president in democratic elections in 2012. Sissi overthrew him in a military coup d’etat in 2013, and was elected president himself in dubious elections in 2014.
Since then the Egyptian economy has gone straight downhill, led by a tourist industry that used to sustain the country but has now collapsed, prompted by the likely state killing of an Italian graduate student and other alarming incidents. Sissi called protests against him over the two islands to be the work of “forces of evil,” and called out security forces loyal to him to put them down.
In the meantime, the US has maintained $1.3 billion in mostly military annual aid to Egypt. It also just pulled back 100 of its 700 forces in the Sinai peninsula due to “troop safety,” a move engendered by Islamic State attacks on the Multinational Force of Observers there. The island giveaway looks like selling off the furniture to pay the rent and could spell the end of Sissi.