Egypt's President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi meets Saudi Arabia's King Salman in Cairo, Egypt, April 7, 2016.
Saudi Press Agency / Reuters

On April 10, Egypt announced that it would transfer control of Tiran and Sanafir, two small Red Sea islands whose ownership has been disputed for decades, to Saudi Arabia, provoking a furious response across Egypt. The domestic backlash has obscured the regional and domestic realities brought to light by the transfer: Saudi Arabia’s legal claims to the islands are not unreasonable or unfounded and the Egyptian regime is in a precarious state as it tries to balance domestic passions with foreign interests. No less important is what the deal means for Israel and Saudi Arabia.  

In 1906, British-controlled Egypt occupied the islands in an effort to create favorable conditions on the ground before its eastern frontier with the Ottoman Empire was delimited later that year. Although Egypt won its formal independence in 1922, the United Kingdom reserved the right to maintain security control over its former colony, using it as a base during World War II. The United Kingdom also never formally recognized Egypt’s demarcation of its maritime boundary, which included the islands. In light of these circumstances, the legal status of the islands remained unclear until 1949. 

A sequence of events in 1949 and 1950, however, established a set of precedents that strengthened Saudi claims of sovereignty over the islands. In March 1949, Israel captured Umm al-Rashrash (later known as Eilat), a city wedged between Egypt and Saudi Arabia, which faces the two islands from across the Gulf of Aqaba. Following this incident and fearing Israel’s intentions, Saudi Arabia requested that Egyptian forces occupy the islands, in an effort to deny Israeli vessels passage through the Straits of Tiran. In his authoritative book, The Middle Eastern States and the Law of the Sea, scholarAli A. el-Hakim notes that the Egyptian-Saudi agreement over the islands was communicated to other countries via an Egyptian aide-mémoire written in 1950. The document noted that “the Government of Egypt acting in full accordance with the Government of Saudi Arabia has given orders to occupy effectively these two islands. This occupation is now an accomplished fact.” 

As Egyptian-Saudi relations deteriorated during the Gamal Abdel Nasser era, disputes arose once more over the sovereignty of the islands, with Saudi Arabia insisting that it rightfully owned the territory and Egypt reverting to its previous claims of sovereignty. During a 1954 United Nations Security Council session, Egypt claimed the islands as its own, but, importantly, was later silent when Saudi Arabia asserted its sovereignty over the territory in 1957. That kind of inconsistency has undermined Egypt’s claim.

Following the Six-Day War in June 1967, Israel occupied Tiran and Sanafir, but it returned them to Egypt in 1982 as part of the 1979 peace treaty. The treaty defines the islands as part of Sinai’s Zone C, a designation that means that only the Multinational Forces and Observers (a peacekeeping force overseeing the peace accord) and the Egyptian civil police can be stationed there. According to official correspondence between the Egyptian and Saudi foreign ministers at the time—Ahmed Asmat Abdel-Meguid and Saud al-Faisal—Cairo asked Riyadh to defer discussions of the islands’ ultimate ownership until after Israel withdrew from all Egyptian territory in accordance with the peace treaty.

Egyptian protesters and Muslim Brotherhood members shout slogans against President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi and the government during a demonstration protesting the government's decision to transfer two Red Sea islands to Saudi Arabia, in Cairo, Egypt, April 15, 2016.
Amr Abdallah Dalsh / Reuters

The legal and historical issues behind the transfer have been overshadowed by a combination of hyper-nationalism, unleashed by Sisi’s coup of July 2013, and long-standing Egyptian resentments of Gulf wealth. The dispute, however, has long been a point of discussion and negotiation between the Cairo and Riyadh. For example, the July 2015 Cairo Declaration, a joint economic and military agreement to bolster ties between the two countries, noted that the definition of maritime borders was a key area of cooperation.

The public has regarded the transfer as concession borne out of weakness and dependency on Saudi Arabia. The transactional optics of the recent deal—it coincided with a significant commitment of aid and assistance from Riyadh—has reinforced the perception that Egypt has behaved like a pauper looking for royal handouts. As such, the move has come at an outsized political cost.

The depth of frustration evokes other moments of popular rage involving territorial concessions that have defined Egypt’s ill-fated post–Hosni Mubarak era. There were conspiratorial accusations against then President Mohamed Morsi that he was going to make territorial concessions to the Palestinians in the Sinai Peninsula, to Qatar in the Suez Canal zone, and to Sudan in the Hala’ib Triangle, a piece of once shared and now contested land on their borders. These accusations generated extreme anger and were effective at undermining the Muslim Brotherhood–backed leader. In fact, there was such uproar over these claims that in 2014, the new constitution included an explicit clause mandating that “voters must be called for referendum on the treaties related to making peace and alliance, and those related to the rights of sovereignty.”

But on the island transfer, there was no public consultation or preparation, let alone a referendum. Naturally, the domestic outrage has provided a new opening for critics of the Sisi regime, particularly on social media. Bassem Youssef, the renowned media personality, mocked the transfer on Twitter, writing, “Come near, come near ya basha [sir], the island for a billion, the pyramid for two, and on top of them a couple of statues as a gift.” An activist group known as the April 6 Youth Movement described the decision as treasonous, and (apparently without irony) called on the armed forces to intervene and defend the homeland. Lawyers have also filed legal claims against the decision, citing the constitutional clause that mandates consulting the public about such deals. Anger has been further exacerbated by press reports that Egypt had notified the United States and Israel about the transfer before the public announcement.

Perhaps what has been more alarming for the regime is public criticism from among its most vociferous nationalist supporters. For example, Tahani al-Gebali, a former deputy president of the Supreme Constitutional Court and a prominent booster of the Egyptian military, expressed her incredulity at the transfer and the manner in which it transpired.

The lack of public consultation suggests that Sisi has either lost touch with public sentiment or else believes that a public consultation would have revealed such opposition to the transfer that he would not have been able to move forward with the deal. In that case, he may simply be desperate for closer Egyptian-Saudi relations and at a time of considerable economic distress for Egypt. Despite massive outlays in financial assistance (as of late 2015, Egypt had received an estimated $30 billion in various forms of economic assistance from its Gulf allies) and considerable diplomatic support, there has been considerable friction in the Egyptian-Saudi relationship, with major public divergences on regional priorities and outlook. These came to the fore when Egypt refused to deploy ground troops to support the Saudi-led military campaign in Yemen; and also in Syria, where Egypt has essentially sided with Russia in support of Syrian president Bashar al-Assad, which puts it squarely at odds with Saudi Arabia. Sisi was thus likely motivated to try to patch things up through a goodwill gesture.

Egypt's President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi and Saudi Arabia's King Salman in Cairo, Egypt, April 7, 2016.
Saudi Press Agency / Reuters

The question for the Sisi regime now is how sustained and deep public discontent will be. What is distinctive about this latest bout of discontent is that it has not only provided an opening for staunch opponents of the regime, but has also outraged many of its staunchest nationalist allies. It should be noted, of course, that this latest setback also comes on the heels of a series of other political, economic, and security missteps that have dented public confidence in the government and its capacity to govern.

However, the very breadth of those outraged by the transfer will, paradoxically, undermine the chances for this incident to significantly challenge regime stability. Faced with the fact that Brotherhood supporters and opposition activists will try to capitalize on the current discontent by mobilizing their bases, nationalist supporters of the regime will likely tone down their criticism and eschew calls to protest for fear of boosting their opponents. The zero-sum dynamics of Egyptian political life remain a defining feature.

The matter could come down to Parliament, which will be tasked with reviewing and implementing the maritime border agreement. Already there are signs that parliamentary approval of the island transfer will not be wholly straightforward, with some parliamentarians and political parties expressing their disapproval. Although outright rejection remains unlikely, the level of parliamentary resistance will be an important indicator of public mood, elite opinion, and support for the regime. If a legislative body that is often seen as little more than a rubber stamp chooses to assert itself on such a highly contentious and sensitive matter, it will be a major setback for the Sisi regime.

To date, the collective interests of the elite and the state have converged to limit the nature of challenges to the regime. This caution is a product of the country’s tumultuous post-Mubarak period, the deteriorating regional security environment, and, most important, a sense of being responsible for heading off another uprising. The most significant source of regime stability has thus been the security establishment, and it remains so. For now, some within the security establishment are reportedly angry over the transfer, since for the military the issue is invested with national pride and is seen through the lens of Egypt’s wars with Israel. Nonetheless, it remains highly unlikely that the security establishment as a whole would undertake another major political intervention, particularly since the senior leadership of the armed forces is closely connected to the president.

On the regional level, Israel has been notably silent on the transfer, which reflects an evolution in Israeli thinking on the peace treaty and regional dynamics. In both 1956 and 1967, during the outbreak of war with Israel, Egypt blockaded Israeli access to the Straits of Tiran. Ever since, Israel has made countering the threat of future closures a major strategic imperative. Until recently, Israel has also been quite cautious with the prospect of altering the peace treaty’s stipulations, which delegates security administration of the islands to Egypt. However, in recent years it has become much more flexible about Egyptian troop deployments in the Sinai beyond the specified limits and zones of the peace treaty. Its reaction to the deal is further evidence of a more relaxed approach, but it is also notable for involving Saudi Arabia, with which Israel does not have official relations. In comments to the press, Israeli Defense Minister Moshe Yaalon said, “We reached an agreement between the four parties—the Saudis, the Egyptians, Israel, and the United States—to transfer the responsibility for the islands, on condition that the Saudis fill in the Egyptians’ shoes in the military appendix of the peace agreement.”

Saudi Arabia’s foreign minister, Adel al-Jubeir, has emphasized that Saudi Arabia will not have direct relations or contacts with Israel, but will respect the “agreements and commitments related to the islands and approved by Egypt.” However, Israel’s comfort with the arrangements appears to be linked to written assurances from Saudi Arabia that the transfer will not negatively affect Israel’s freedom of navigation through the Straits of Tiran. This level of indirect diplomatic interaction reflects the increasing convergence of interests between Israel and Saudi Arabia with respect to the regional threat posed by Iran.

However, these shifts have boundaries, and despite predictions of major regional alignments along an anti-Iran axis, this form of indirect public interaction (in distinction to secret contacts) will most likely be the limit. Although the Palestinian issue has lost much of its centrality to the Arab world, the lack of a resolution to the conflict will continue to block any further formal steps toward Israel’s normalization in the region.

In short, although Egypt’s transfer of Tiran and Sanafir, in substantive legal terms, is not a major concession, the unexpected move has had major ramifications for domestic and regional politics and has exposed underlying realities in both spheres.

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  • MICHAEL WAHID HANNA is a Senior Fellow at the Century Foundation and an Adjunct Senior Fellow at the Center on Law and Security at New York University School of Law.
  • More By Michael Wahid Hanna