On Wednesday, June 14, Parliament approved the handing over of the Red Sea islands of Tiran and Sanafir to Saudi Arabia.
According to reports, some members of Parliament (MPs) chanted “islands are Egyptian” after final approval was confirmed by a vote of hands.
The issue of the island’s sovereignty has been topical for over a year: in April 2016 President Abdel Fattah Al-Sisi, during a visit by Saudi Arabia’s King Salman, recognised Saudi sovereignty over them, then a lower court blocked their cession (after there were some protests against it, notably by journalists), then, in January of this year, the Supreme Administrative Court rejected the government’s appeal against the lower court’s June 2016 ruling. That decision in January was then annulled by Cairo’s Urgent Matters Court.
Critics of the plan to cede the island argue that neither the courts nor Parliament can ultimately decide on their fate – only a referendum would authorise a handover.
Article 151 of the 2014 constitution states: “The President of the Republic represents the state in foreign relations and concludes treaties and ratifies them after the approval of the House of Representatives. They shall acquire the force of law upon promulgation in accordance with the provisions of the Constitution. With regards to any treaty of peace and alliance, and treaties related to the rights of sovereignty, voters must be called for a referendum, and they are not to be ratified before the announcement of their approval in the referendum. In all cases, no treaty may be concluded which is contrary to the provisions of the Constitution or which leads to concession of state territories.”
The text appears clear on the issue, but it is unclear whether the issue will be put to a popular vote. This could mean that any parliamentary decision is open to being challenged on constitutional grounds.
The question thus arises as to how Egyptians would vote if they were called upon to do so in a referendum on the islands.
A survey conducted by Baseera (the Egyptian Center for Public Opinion Research) released on Tuesday found that 47% of Egyptians believe the islands belong to the country, 11% believe they belong to Saudi Arabia and 42% are unsure (or, perhaps, declined to give answer that would put them at odds with the head of State).
When the same question was put to them in April last year – after the deal was announced – 30% believed the islands were Egyptian, 23% believed they were Saudi and 47% did not know.
Thus, if anything, the public has been swayed by the arguments against the deal over the past year.
Furthermore, Baseera found that 42% of respondents felt it was necessary that the issue goes to a referendum – 37% felt parliamentary approval would be enough and 3% said the judiciary should decide, with the remainder unsure.
The sporadic protests last year against the ceding of the islands did not gain momentum. Media reports state that there were protests on Tuesday evening, with journalists conducting a sit-in at the Egyptian Press Syndicate offices in Cairo, and Wednesday but they have not yet been on the scale that would concern Mr Sisi.
It is likely that protests will begin to grow in coming weeks if activists and dissidents are able to organise.
The country is currently under a state of emergency – in place since April for three months after terrorist attacks on Coptic churches – which gives security forces added powers to keep a lid on dissent. Whether these powers will be used to hold off protests remains an open question.
The islands debacle has seriously dented Mr Sisi’s popularity and his government’s legitimacy. But he is seemingly unperturbed.
In recent months, he has become more strident as he clamps down on the media (we hear that over 60 websites have been blocked, both local and international), arrests opposition politicians (including Khaled Ali, a human rights lawyer that fought the case against the ceding of the islands, and members of his left-leaning Bread and Freedom Party) and rolls back judicial independence (in April the controversial Judicial Authorities Law was passed which gives the president the ability to appoint the judiciary’s most senior members).
Declining political capital and authoritarian overstretch in a harsh economic environment (inflation is still hovering around 30%, though we forecast that it will ease in coming months) is a recipe for a popular backlash.