Today is Sinai Liberation Day. On April 25, 1982, the then-governor of the South Sinai governorate, Fouad Aziz Ghali, hoisted the Egyptian flag over Sharm el-Sheikh, in view of two islands called Tiran and Sanafir. The same day, former President Hosni Mubarak gave a speech before the People’s Assembly and laid wreaths at Egypt’s Tomb of the Unknown Soldier and the graves of Gamal Abdel Nasser and Anwar al-Sadat. These solemn events marked the official end of Israel’s occupation of the Sinai (with the exception of a place called Taba that remained under Israeli control until 1989).
Egyptians do not much like their peace treaty with Israel, and the restoration of Egyptian sovereignty over the Sinai Peninsula is highly emotive and complicated. For all the fanfare associated with today’s celebration and the national myths around the October 1973 war that made the peace treaty and return of the Sinai possible, there remains a nagging sense that this liberation is frustratingly incomplete. Egyptians actually do not enjoy full sovereignty in the Sinai Peninsula. When Sadat signed the treaty documents in March 1979, he clearly believed that the limitations on Egyptian forces in the Sinai contained within them was a price worth paying for the return of Egyptian land. Short of another costly war, it was the only way to get the Israelis to withdraw. I am told that in the subsequent thirty-seven years, Israelis have never denied an Egyptian request to exceed the prescribed numbers of troops and equipment around the Sinai. Still, it takes a fair amount of creativity and/or denial to argue, as Egypt’s leaders do, that the country exercises full control over its own land. For obvious reasons, this makes Egyptians feel weak. As the anniversary approached this year, Egyptians were forced to endure what many seemed to consider another cruel turn of events. On April 9, the government announced that it was returning—though many believe the correct term is “ceding”—the islands of Tiran and Sanafir to Saudi Arabia. The large protests in opposition planned for today did not materialize likely because of the government’s massive show of force, but the disposition of these two islands has the potential to sow trouble for President Abdel Fatah al-Sisi in ways that mass arrests, restrictions on the press, pressure on nongovernmental organizations, police brutality, and other repressive measures never will.
In the last 150 years or so, Egyptians have not exercised full sovereignty over their own territory, with the exception of the period between July 26, 1956, when Nasser nationalized the Suez Canal, and June 5, 1967, when the Six Day War began. In the 1870s, Egypt increasing fell under European control as its debts to British and French banks piled up. Among a number of issues including austerity measures that cut the size of the military, Europe’s growing role in Egypt fueled dismay that led to Colonel Ahmed Urabi’s revolt in 1882. The 1919 nationalist revolution was a response to Egypt’s status as a protectorate of the British crown that London seemed determined to maintain, though the proximate cause was the Foreign Office’s refusal to permit a delegation of Egyptian nationalist politicians to attend the Versailles peace conference—which only underlines the point. On January 25, 1952, parts of Cairo burned under mysterious circumstances, but the precipitating event was the death of fifty Egyptian policeman at the hands of the British army in the Suez Canal zone. In July 1956, Egyptians celebrated deliriously when Gamal Abdel Nasser announced the nationalization of the canal—“the gift” that Egyptians of a certain age refer to with profound reverence. Israel’s occupation of the Sinai Peninsula revealed a yawning gap between what Nasser told Egyptians about their country and objective reality, contributing to a student uprising in February 1968. In the fall of 1972, students took to the streets again to denounce what they regarded as Sadat’s dithering when it came to the Israeli challenge. And, although the January 25, 2011, uprising was undoubtedly inward-focused, a sense of waning national power was an important part of the political context in which the collective desire for change was expressed.
The unhappy history of Egypt’s submissions to or encounters with foreign powers has been a continuous blow to national dignity. This is why it seemed so odd for the Egyptian government to conclude and announce an agreement to transfer Tiran and Sanafir to the Saudis now, a moment when everything in Egypt’s politics is contested. I have heard compelling arguments establishing that the islands are Egyptian and others making equally powerful claims that they are Saudi. Even if international law, treaties, geography, and ancient maps favor the latter, it nevertheless carries little weight in the context of Egypt’s present politics and the circumstances around the Egyptian government’s announcement that Tiran and Sanafir would henceforth fall under the sovereignty of Saudi Arabia. In early April, King Salman visited Cairo and announced $22 billion worth of investments in Egypt. While the Saudi leader was still in Cairo, the Egyptians announced that the islands would be returned to Saudi Arabia. That is what we folks inside the Beltway call “bad optics.” Regardless of the merits of the case, the longtime negotiations between Egypt and Saudi Arabia over the disposition of the islands, it seemed to everyone that Sisi was selling Egyptian territory for much needed Saudi cash. One need not be an Egyptian nationalist to understand why this would rub people the wrong way and stir discontent with Sisi.
I suspect that the Egyptian government and its supporters are breathing a sigh of relief that planned protests today failed to materialize. They should not rest easy given the magnitude of the unforced error that is the deal over the islands. It has been clear for some time that the Egyptian president and his advisors seem unwilling to comprehend that the use of force and coercion are often counterproductive ways to establish political control, but they have also proved that they do not understand their own history. They may not have paid an immediate political price for the Tiran and Sanafir agreement, but the deal evokes a variety of factors—land, sovereignty, foreigners, Saudis (who also make Egyptians feel weak)—that can be used to widen that gap between what Sisi has been telling people and how they actually experience their lives. Until now the struggle for Egypt has generally pitted groups of elites against each other, but the blow to dignity and national pride that ceding what Egyptians believe to be their land to Saudis has the potential to mobilize broader sections of the population. The irony of leaders who have consciously defined themselves as nationalists par excellence, especially in contrast to their predecessors from the Muslim Brotherhood, is almost too much to take, which is precisely why the government should worry.