Rabat - The Egyptian cabinet announced on Saturday that it will return the sovereignty of two islands called Tiran and Sanafir to Saudi Arabia after almost seven decades.
Rabat – The Egyptian cabinet announced on Saturday that it will return the sovereignty of two islands called Tiran and Sanafir to Saudi Arabia after almost seven decades.
The two pieces of land – both arid and uninhabited islands in the Gulf of Aqaba – turned Egyptian in 1950 when Saudi Arabia transferred their soveriegnty to the Cairo government amid fears that Israel would seize them during negotiations following the Jewish state’s victory over the Arab alliance bent on destroying the country.
The decision to reverse the transfer is still pending the approval of the Egyptian parliament.
A few soldiers – mostly American – have been stationed at the islands as part of a provision of the 1979 peace treaty between Egypt and Israel. The decision to return the islands comes at the end of a six-year discussion on maritime borders between Egypt and Saudi Arabia, officials said.
Many Egyptians protested the announcement on social media and others gathered in Tahrir Square on Sunday, leading to the arrest of five people, an official from the ministry of the interior said. Satirist Bassem Youssef posted a tweet saying “The island is for a billion, the pyramids are for two, and they come with two gift statues on top.”
Opponents of the announcement said the president did not have to turnover land that has been officially Egyptian for decades. Critics also said the move violated a clause that Sisi himself entered into the constitution in 2013, which explicitly prohibits ceding Egytian territory to a foreign power.
A New York Times article from 1982 shows that Saudi Arabia had first suggested returning the islands to their original rulers in the early 1980’s. Israel, fearing the North African would make such a deal in order to mend the country’s relationship with Saudi Arabia, warned Egypt that transferring the islands would constitute a violation of the peace treaty between the two countries.
“Whatever the legal situation, the optics of this move are terrible,” Samer Shehata, an associate professor of Middle East studies at the University of Oklahoma, told the New York Times earlier this week.
“Here you have Salman coming to Egypt, pledging billions of dollars in aid and investment, and in exchange these islands are handed over,” Shehata said. “It seems to many Egyptians that the president is selling land for Saudi riyals.”
Sisi’s supporters said the islands were visited by too few Egyptians for them to be considered important to the territory integrity of the nation.
“All of a sudden, everyone is acting as if they were vacationing there, when none had gone anywhere near it,” television presenter Amr Adeeb told his audience during a recent edition of his show, “Al Qahera Al Youm.”
Photograph: Sherif Abdel Minoem/AP