Egyptian lawyer Khaled Ali celebrates outside the courthouse in Cairo after the verdict. Photograph: Khaled Elfiqi/EPA- via the Guardian
The unseasonably warm weather in Cairo, with temperatures of 20°C has been coupled with spring-like excitement. Egypt’s State Council Supreme Administrative Court, in a final ruling, rejected the transfer of two Red Sea islands, Tiran and Sanafir, to Saudi Arabia. An enthusiastic crowd outside the court chanted “bread, freedom, the islands are Egyptian,” summing up a sense of nationalistic pride and celebrations around Egypt.
It is hard to imagine how the Egyptian leadership will survive such crisis unscathed. Regardless of what’s next, it has become embedded in the minds of many Egyptians that their leadership is selling their lands.
The dispute started on April 8th, 2016, after Egypt hastily signed a maritime border demarcation that would transfer Egypt’s sovereignty of the two islands to Saudi Arabia. Egypt has been controlling those strategically placed islands in the Strait of Tiran, near the Israeli border, for more than 60 years. The agreement was immediately followed by a legal contest filed by a group of lawyers, including ex-presidential candidate Khalid Ali. The legal battle has continued until Monday’s verdict.
As I wrote before, the idea that the people of 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 slogan, “Awad sold his land,” surfaced in Egypt following the signing of the agreement with Saudi Arabia to transfer the two Red Sea islands to Saudi sovereignty. Awad is the name of a farmer in an old Egyptian radio soap opera who sold his land. Opponents of the Saudi deal resurrected Awad’s story in angry protests against relinquishing the two islands to Saudi Arabia. Monday’s verdict enshrines the image of president Sisi as the new Awad who is willing to sell his land.
Beyond the legal side of the dispute, the controversy is pitting Egypt’s pillars of the state against each other. While the government, along with the army and the various intelligence bodies back the deal, the Judiciary and a substantial section of the public are against it. It is also clear that such controversy on a very patriotic issue is damaging the already eroding popularity of the Egyptian president.
Since the verdict, Egyptian politicians and lawmakers have bickered on various talk shows about what should be done next. Members of parliament insist that they should discuss the deal and vote accordingly; some have even suggested a referendum. Others have urged the government to resign. Such infantile bickering will only compound the deep sense of confusion and mistrust among the public.
The crisis has triggered an environment in Egypt similar to 1979, when late president Sadat signed the Camp David peace accords with Israel, which was unpopular among many sections of Egyptian society. Many at that time tried, but failed, to legally challenge the peace treaty. The difference, however, is how Sadat signed a treaty to regain Egyptian land. The current Egyptian leadership is trying to surrender two islands that have been under Egyptian sovereignty for decades to another country (Saudi Arabia).
There is no doubt that this verdict is a huge slap on the face for Egyptian leadership, and it should be taken as an urgent wakeup call. Egyptians can put up with autocracy and harsh economic conditions. Egyptians, however, would struggle to accept a leadership fighting its judiciary to prove that part of their land is not actually their land.
As the anniversary of the January 25th revolution approaches, the Egyptian leadership must embark on a damage limitation path. It is time to accept that this Red Sea islands transfer deal has proven to be a huge error of judgment. If the choice is between losing Saudi patronage or the Egyptian public, there should be no hesitation____ the Egyptian public must be the choice. Egypt cannot afford another upheaval.