No Mandate Is an Island

It seems that outrage over desolate islands is itself all the rage these days. There are the Kuril Islands, concerning which Moscow and Tokyo have issues; there are the Senkaku Islands amongst which Japan is quarreling with anyone who believes oil might lie beneath; and then there is the motherlode of the Spratly Islands which are claimed by Beijing and a near half-dozen others in the South China Sea.

Taken together, a casual observer could be forgiven having these largely uninhabited specks on the map entirely confused with one another. This is especially the case in regard to two other entrants in the litany of disputed atolls which were recently the focus of complex ownership negotiations between Egypt and Saudi Arabia, but by extension also involved Israel and the United States.

A pending compact includes both Tiran and Sanafir islands; the former being larger of the duo (80 square kilometers as compared to 33 square kilometers). Their general location is the demarcation of the Red Sea and the Gulf of Aqaba, flanked by Egypt’s Sinai Peninsula and westernmost edge of Saudi Arabia. The nearest city on shore familiar to most Westerners would be the (formerly) popular resort destination of Sharm el-Sheikh approximately 20 kilometers distant.

Tiran is currently a part of the Ras Muhammad National Park and had been recognized as Egyptian territory during the Convention of London in 1840. By 1950 it was deemed a belonging of Saudi Arabia; though by mutual agreement Egypt assumed occupation following the creation of Israel. Tiran is of modern geopolitical importance as possible impediment to Israeli access of the Red Sea. Indeed, an Egyptian blockade was a nominal reason for the Six Day War. (As consequence of those hostilities the island was seized by Israeli troops from 1967 until 1982 when it was returned to Egyptian jurisdiction as part of the 1979 Camp David Accords on condition of safe Israeli shipping through the Straits of Tiran.)

Much the same, from 1906 onwards Sanafir has been under Egyptian administration. Its military stationed there during the Second World War in order to protect the Suez Canal and again later as a counter to Israel. This met with the same consequences as for Tiran; capture and relinquishment.

Needless to say, actual title to the territories is ambiguous at best although as a practical matter they have been Egyptian by virtue of being so occupied and so associated in the popular mind for the better part of two centuries. Despite contemporary nominal detachments from Egypt as well as the Multinational Force and Observers (MFO), the two islands are otherwise unpopulated.

So why are these otherwise insignificant isles in the news today? Because on April 9 a concord between Egypt and Saudi Arabia realigned both land masses as being within Saudi territorial waters.

The more important question for parties removed from these events is why transfer the islands at all? While very little in the Middle East is transparent, this situation is a little less opaque than most events. A Saudi-Egyptian Causeway is intended to eventually be built and serve as transportation corridor connecting the continents; the projected cost of which is $4 billion. An important purpose separate from the obvious economic implications will be to offer another route for pilgrims making the Hajj (which may witness as many one million adherents pass over the alternative transit). Finally, there is a corollary subject of Sinai Peninsula population expansion. Though today at 1.4 million people, a lack of funds and opportunity has plagued a region still littered with landmines from wars of the twentieth century. Large areas which are now virtually unusable may thus be made so for innumerable of Egypt’s millions.

As with anything governmental there remain a series of bureaucratic formalities to be accomplished. Foremost, transference of the islands must be ratified by the Egyptian Parliament. Moreover, Israel will have a say as transfer impacts its sea guarantees. (Though to forestall upsets Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman Al Saud in his capacity as Saudi Defense Minister informed Egyptian Prime Minister Sherif Ismail that Saudi Arabia would consider itself bound by all articles of the preceding covenants.) At this time the Israeli stance is any proposed handover does not conflict the 1979 treaties with Egypt. Additionally, there are likely to be objections that environmentalists will make.

It would not the first time the endeavor has been halted. In 2005 President Hosni Mubarak was forced to pause the deal due to Israeli objections. The plan was revived by his successor Mohamed Morsi until his removal from office caused another delay.

Yet the greatest opposition may come from the Egyptian people themselves. An already suspect President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi encountered throngs of dissenters to the pact across his nation on Friday. These were the largest demonstrations within the past two years; telling in a state which has harshly responded to criticisms from within. El-Sisi, who styles himself a patriot, was seen by many as having sold out his nation for the reported $16 billion in Saudi investment.

One of the more remarkable statements from the street during the Egyptian Journalists Syndicate protest was by Khled El-Balshy, leader of the Freedoms Committee, who told Ahram Online, "We have not forgotten that the regime cracks down (upon) freedoms in Egypt, but our main demand today is the cancellation of that agreement between the Egyptian government and Saudi Arabia." Thus, at least to some, a nationalism aroused by the fate of two near-deserted islands ranks higher than freedoms of speech, assembly and religion in Egypt. There is an analogy evident here for those who claim to be mystified over the visceral support Donald Trump inspires whenever he speaks of a wall with Mexico.

People everywhere (not merely Americans "clinging to guns and Bibles") have extreme psychological, almost emotional, responses concerning what they view as propriety nativist interests. Even the very poor, as many would consider the populace of Egypt, have a deep sense of ownership in their homeland: they may have nothing else, but they always have their country. Whenever they adjudge their elected leaders to be giving it away or allowing it to be taken from them there will be strong reactions which become increasingly fanatical the more those perceptions are dismissed or ridiculed.

It does not bode well for any President or political party to choose demonization over persuasion when endeavoring to convince the people that reallocating two small islands will lead to increased resources or that millions of immigrants may not necessarily negatively impact voters personally.

At the moment rallies in Egypt have been dispersed, though organizers intend to reconvene on April 25th to make further display of their displeasure. More disquieting to Egyptian officials should be that these were not sporadic disturbances in Cairo but were in fact highly coordinated and occurred throughout multiple cities. At present the numbers involved are much smaller than those during the "January 25 Revolution;" still to restore order government was required to call upon security services using tear gas with over 100 persons being placed under arrest. Ominously, throughout the day Twitter hashtag #Land_Friday (#جمعه_الارض) was trending not only in Egypt but globally with over 150,000 Tweets.

In some ways the island agreement is an inspiring signifier of hopeful (if incremental) peace in the Middle East. Although Saudi Arabia and Israel are not speaking, at least they are communicating through Egypt as intermediary. Likewise, clearing and developing the coastal Sinai Peninsula could increase internal Egyptian harmony as more people are provided with occupations and dwellings.

Yet in other ways el-Sisi has stirred the never-quite-sleeping giant of nationalism in the Middle East. His dismissive attitude toward the genuinely passionate concerns of his people was a dangerous mishandling of a delicate situation. Whether the ultimate issue can be resolved intelligently will depend less on how the President communicates with foreign Heads of State and more upon whether he listens with understanding to the demonstrators in closer proximity.

One largely overlooked aspect of the arrangement is no formal changes in ownership will take place until at least 65 years from now. Naturally, don’t expect construction on the causeway to be delayed quite that length of time. However one suspects the dates were chosen quite deliberately in order to ease anxieties over the loss of two relatively inconsequential islands and allow in the meantime public ardor to be pacified by the commercial palliative of several decades of increased employment, new homes and passages to Mecca filled with fond memories.

Guy Somerset writes from somewhere in America. He is a lawyer by profession.

Read more by Guy Somerset