“Awad sold his land” is a slogan that surfaced in Egypt following president Abdel Fatah al-Sisi’s agreement with Saudi Arabia to transfer two Red Sea islands (Tiran and Sanafir) to Saudi sovereignty. Egypt has been controlling those strategically placed islands in the Strait of Tiran, near the Israeli border, directly for more than 60 years. Awad is the name of a farmer in an old Egyptian radio soap opera who sold his land. Last Friday, opponents of the Saudi deal resurrected Awad’s story in angry protests against relinquishing the two islands to Saudi Arabia. The idea that Tiran and Sanafir are not Egyptians is difficult to sell, especially for the many Egyptians who lived all their lives with the story of the Straits of Tiran and the 1967 war as an integral part of their memory.
The story of Awad and his land was part of Nasser’s remodeling project, aimed to embed a new nationalist identity in the minds of Egyptians. It started with a land “reform” project in 1952, when Nasser’s Free Officers passed Law 178, which limited land holdings to 200 feddans (84 hectares) per person. A new law in 1961 reduced the limit to 100 feddans per individual and 200 feddans per household. During Nasser’s tenure, media (radio, cinema, and books) was used to emphasize and assert the importance of Egyptian land for the Egyptian people. The film The Land, based on a popular novel by Abdel Rahman al-Sharqawi, is considered a classic of Egyptian cinema production. The storyline was aimed at asserting the bond between the land and the Egyptian people.
The “Awad sold his land” radio story was part of my mundane school summer holidays, when radio was the only entertainment tool available. These nationalist slogans and stories continued to be broadcast on Egyptian TV and radio during the tenures of Sadat and Mubarak—albeit less intensely and usually during off-peak hours. I loved the catchy tune, but not its mediocre plot where Awad sold his land to spend the money on a belly dancer who later dumps him. Instead of drawing attention to his misplaced trust in his lover, the story focused solely on how selling the land was a disgraceful act. In real life, however, such “disgraceful” acts and abuse of land are daily occurrences. It is the common practice of not just one reckless “Awad.”
Since childhood, I have witnessed the daily assault on Cairo’s beautiful buildings—not just by the government but also by private owners. There was the scandalous razing of the legendary Umm Khalthoum villa, sold by her relatives. Relatives of Egypt’s legendry singer Umm Khalthoum were not poor, but the lure of money seduced them to sell a landmark of modern Egypt. They were not the only ones: many of Egypt’s beautiful historic buildings have been systematically ruined or destroyed. The assault on Egyptian lands has not been confined to urban cities. The loss of prime agricultural lands to illegal urban encroachment has also been a problem in Egypt for many decades. After the 2011 revolution, there was a massive wave of construction on agricultural land in violation of the law and in light of lax enforcement. For years, Egypt’s countryside has been slowly changing into an ugly concrete jungle.
The appalling abuse of domestic land has always been coupled by numerous puzzling and often contradictory public responses to conflicts on Egypt’s external border frontiers. Nasser, the father of land honor, recklessly lost not just Tiran and Sanafir but the entire Sinai Peninsula to Israel in the 1967 Six-Day War. His hasty blockade of the Straits of Tiran to Israeli vessels was coupled by a foolish lack of preparation for an overall confrontation with Israel. The Egyptian response to Nasser’s catastrophic error of judgment was even more of an enigma. When Nasser tried to resign after such a devastating defeat, Egyptians poured into the streets within moments of his announcement, and demonstrations in his support broke out all over Cairo. Weeping people shouted, “We want Nasser!” It was perhaps the first major incident of collective irrationality in Egypt’s modern history.
This irrationality continued during Sadat’s tenure but in an opposite manner. First, many in Egypt protested and urged Sadat to go to war with Israel to liberate Sinai, which he did in 1973. Later, many Egyptians resented Sadat for forging a peace treaty with Israel and regaining all the land occupied in 1967. Egyptian pride could not tolerate a peace deal with the “Zionist enemy.” Unlike Nasser, who got away with failures, Sadat paid a hefty price for doing the right thing in regaining Egyptian lands: he was assassinated in 1981.
Later, when Mubarak regained Taba, the last disputed border point with Israel, the public received it with a muted celebration, probably due to their deep dissatisfaction with his tenure in general. In comparison, Mubarak and many in Egypt tolerated and even welcomed systematic encroachment by the Hamas group in Gaza on Sinai through its network of underground tunnels. The Palestinian conflict with Israel was given as an excuse for this clear exploitation of Egypt’s national security.
In sum, historically, Egypt’s autocratic leaders have maintained total control and ownership of vital strategic decisions, which, in turn, triggered chronic flip-flopping emotional public responses. Egyptians have a long record of an erratic relationship with their land. They forgave Nasser for losing Sinai and then punished Sadat for regaining Sinai. For years, they turned a blind eye to dangerous tunnels under the Gaza border but reacted with prompt outrage when the current leadership agreed to relinquish two disputed islands to Saudi Arabia.
The two Red Sea islands should be a wake-up call for everyone. It is about time for President Sisi to stop taking the public for granted and consult Egyptians before making major sovereignty decisions. It is crucial, however, for Egyptians to uncouple their love/hate affair with their leaders from attitudes about their land and borders. Whether Tiran and Sanafir belong to the Egyptians or Saudis should not be linked to whomever is in Egypt’s presidential palace. Finally, we cannot love Tiran and Sanafir, while continuing to abuse Cairo, Alexandria, Port Said, and other parts of Egypt. It may be that, in actuality, Awad and his story will continue to haunt us for years to come.