Monday, April 11, 2016

Sisi regime's self-inflicted wounds

Protests over Egyptian-Saudi sovereignty deal

By Brian Whitaker

Nasser's speech claiming Tiran and Sanafir as Egyptian


The behaviour of Egypt's Sisi regime is increasingly shambolic. Last week relations with Italy took an unnecessary turn for the worse over the regime's obstructive attitude to investigating the torture and death of Julio Regeni, the Italian PhD student whose horribly mutilated body was found on the outskirts of Cairo.
On Thursday, after planting several implausible false trails to deflect suspicion from the most obvious suspect in Regeni's killing – Egypt's security apparatus – the regime refused to provide Italian investigators with mobile phone records that might point to the real culprits. To justify their refusal, officials said they were obliged to comply with Article 57 of the constitution which says the confidentiality of "postal, telegraphic and electronic correspondences, telephone calls, and other means of communication" cannot be broken, except by the order of a court.
Two days later, insistence on strict constitutionalism appeared to evaporate when – during a gift-bearing visit by King Salman of Saudi Arabia – the regime officially conceded that two Egyptian-controlled islands in the Red Sea are Saudi territory. In the eyes of many Egyptians, this flouted Article 1 of the constitution which says no part of Egyptian territory may be relinquished.
Yesterday, several demonstrators were arrested for protesting against the decision and the Muslim Brotherhood – rather ironically – has been eagerly circulating some old footage of President Nasser declaring that the islands are Egyptian. 
Put crudely, it looks as if Egypt has demeaned itself by handing over the islands in exchange for Saudi economic aid. Although the reality of what happened is actually more complicated, this could easily turn into a cause célèbre for Sisi's opponents and provide the basis for a treason trial when he eventually loses power.
الجزر أم الرز ؟!

Making matters worse, the phrase about not relinquishing Egyptian territory was included in the 2014 constitution as a response to the alleged treachery of Mohamed Morsi, the Muslim Brotherhood president ousted by Sisi in 2013. The New York Times reports:
Political analysts said it was surprising that Mr Sisi had agreed to transfer the islands, given sensitivities in Egypt to surrendering land to foreigners. Critics accused President Mohamed Morsi in 2013 of plotting to give part of Sinai to the Palestinian group Hamas.
After Mr Sisi came to power that year in a military takeover, he introduced a clause in the Constitution that explicitly prohibited ceding Egyptian territory.
“The irony of the post-2013 regime ceding Tiran to Saudi Arabia after having inserted this clause will not be lost on those with any political memory of the controversies of Morsi’s year in office,” Nathan Brown, a scholar at George Washington University, said in an email.
The islands in question, Tiran and Sanafir, lie just a few miles off the coast of both countries in the narrow southern entrance to the Gulf of Aqaba. They were placed under Egyptian control in 1950 – at Saudi Arabia's request because the Saudis feared that Israel might try to seize them.
When the 1967 war came Israel did seize them, along with the rest of Sinai. Israel handed them back to Egypt in 1982 – at which point the Saudis began asserting their claims of sovereignty over the islands. This alarmed the Israelis, as an article in the New York Times explained at the time:
Israel fears that Egypt, attempting to repair relations with the Saudis, might make such a transfer, and has told the Egyptian government firmly that this would constitute a violation of the peace treaty.
The map appended to the treaty shows the islands as part of Zone C, which is to be patrolled by the international force and is to have no Egyptian military presence, only civilian police. Since Saudi Arabia is not a signatory to the treaty – and in fact opposes it – there is no allowance for Saudi sovereignty over the islands, according to officials here [in Jerusalem].
Boat trips and diving expeditions to Tiran have since become a feature of Sharm el Sheikh's tourist industry and the islands are included in Egypt's Ras Mohammed National Park.
Last weekend's announcement of Saudi sovereignty – yet to be approved by Egypt's parliament – was not the hasty decision that at first sight it appears to be. According to the Egyptian Streets website it was based on a decree issued by President Mubarak in 1990 which set out "Egypt’s basis of outlining territorial seas". Daily News Egypt says it follows a series of discussions between the two countries dating back to 2007. A statement from the Egyptian cabinet on Saturday said the joint maritime delimitation committee had used “the most modern scientific methods” in coming to the conclusion that Tiran and Sanafir lie within Saudi Arabia’s maritime territory.
According to another report (in Arabic), although Saudi Arabia will have sovereignty over the islands, the military situation specified in the Israeli-Egyptian peace treaty will remain unchanged and the islands will stay under Egyptian control for the next 65 years. Saudi sovereignty, the report says, will allow exploitation of oil and natural gas resources in the area – which Egypt can't afford to do – and Egypt will have a 25% share in the proceeds. In that connection it is unclear how much thought has been given to environmental issues, since the area is noted for its coral reefs and rich marine life.
As with the Regeni affair, damage to the Sisi regime caused by the sovereignty agreement is largely self-inflicted. Better presentation of the announcement, and more transparency and public discussion beforehand could have averted a lot of the current controversy. As it is, though, the regime now finds itself embroiled in a territorial dispute with a large section of the Egyptian population.

Posted by Brian Whitaker
Monday, 11 April 2016

No comments: