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Protests Against Egypt’s Plan to Return Two Islands to Saudi Arabia

By Jacob Wirtschafter | The Media Line

January 3, 2017

Photo: Saudi King Salman and Egypt's Abdel Fattah el-Sisi. Getty Images
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Fears that Sisi could crack down on protestors

CAIRO, EGYPT Egypt’s legal opposition took a significant step towards civil disobedience this week by staging a non-permitted demonstration against the adoption of President Abel Fatah al Sisi’s agreement to transfer sovereignty over Tiran and Sanafir islands to Saudi Arabia. In April, Egypt declared that the two strategically placed islands fall within Saudi Arabia’s territorial waters, and that Egypt would return them, a decision that needs to be ratified by the Egyptian parliament.

More than 900 Egyptians braved breaking the military-drafted 2013 Protest Law granting police the right to ban or postpone demonstrations when deemed a “threat to security and peace” to register their displeasure with the maritime demarcation agreement drawn up after the April 2016 visit of King Salman to Cairo.

“The regime is selling our lands and going on spontaneous demonstration that was not prepared for and without a permission means a lot,” said Dostour Party spokesman Mohamed Soliman.

The king’s five day visit last spring netted Egypt four billion dollars in private sector investment pledges and a five-year $23 billion arrangement for Saudi Aramco to provide 700,000 metric tons of refined petroleum each month.

“The constitution allows the president to take decisions on borders but the thing is that the president skirted the rules bringing this treaty to parliament only after the courts ruled twice against this agreement,” Soliman told The Media Line.

Ibrahim Eissa, a frequent critic of the Saudis in general and the islands deal in particular “voluntarily resigned” this week as host of the popular TV news-talk program, on Al-Qahera w’ al Nas (Cairo and the People).

“The government surprised 90 million Egyptians with a decision that we grew up accustomed to its opposite. That’s what made it worrisome and horrifying,” said Eissa.

As eager as Egypt is to obtain aid and boost trade with the Saudis, there is widespread disapproval of the islands handover. The islands are in the Straits of Tiran which connect the Red Sea to the Gulf of Aqaba. It is strategically important to Israel and Jordan, as well as Saudi Arabia. Egyptian media said Israel’s Defense Ministry privately approved the deal, before Sisi took it to his public.
The two islands control entry to the ports of Eilat and Aqaba. Tiran lies about four miles from Sharm el-Sheikh and was captured by Israel the 1967 War and returned to Egyptian sovereignty in the 1979 Begin-Sadat peace treaty.

Saudi officials are understood to have reassured Israel that the kingdom would follow the terms of the treaty with Egypt, meaning that no country will station troops on the islands and will guarantee free navigation in the area’s arrow shipping lanes.

An Egyptian administrative court voided the agreement in June after opposition lawyers challenged the deal, and a series of appeals has put the case in front of several different Cairo judges.

“I think the timing of the agreement was bad and the way it was done was bad,” said Abdel Monem Said, director of Cairo’s Regional Center for Strategic Studies [RCSS]. “But the agreement itself is not a mistake.”

“It is Saudi according to everything I have read,” Said told The Media Line.

Before this week’s demonstrations, Prime Minister Sherif Ismail submitted the bilateral maritime border agreement to the parliament’s speaker. Opponents of the deal say legislators can’t rubber stamp it when the matter is already in front of the courts.

Meanwhile some of the same lawyers who challenged the agreement in court work were working to free more than a dozen demonstrators arrested by police during the protests in front of the Journalist’s Syndicate.

“The government does not want people protesting this deal or any of its policies,” said Soliman. “We think the opposition to this deal is growing even as the president is under more and more pressure to implement it.”

Riyadh suspended the Aramco petroleum assistance deal in November after Egypt voted for a Russian-drafted Security Council measure on Syria and it saw Cairo as stalling on the islands deal.

“The strains in the relationship represent a diplomatic failure on both sides,” said the RCSS’ Abdel Monem Said. “I think our mutual interests are much stronger than our differences.”

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