Problems on hold
Tiran and Sanafir
Egypt’s parliamentary experience goes back in time some 150 years during which parliament gained a reputation for honourable, respectful performance. Different regimes came and went, various majority parties succeeded one another, representation and democratic practice went through ups and downs; the constant features, however, were reverence for freedom of opinion and the right to differ and argue with respect. Under parliament’s famous dome there thrived a language of elegant, civil rhetoric; discussions were governed by decent behaviour and commitment to parliamentary tradition. All this under competent speakers who masterfully orchestrated the parliamentary experience to ensure it was an honourable one that fostered confidence in MPs.
I recall the above as I observe with sorrow and frustration our current parliament and the manner in which discussions are conducted these days. I do not especially mean the recent discussions on the issue of the Tiran and Sanafir islands even though I will be getting to that later. I mean the general performance of the current parliament, two years into its five-year round, which leaves a lot to be desired. I admit that I have time and again resisted the urge to criticise this performance in hopes that it would mature down the path. Then came the Tiran-Sanafir discussions, and they acted as the straw that broke the camel’s back.
To those unfamiliar with the issue: Tiran and Sanafir are two barren islands in the Tiran Strait at the mouth of the Gulf of Aqaba. They are, according to the peace treaty between Egypt and Israel, unarmed and uninhabited; only a small Egyptian police squad is there. The islands have been under Egyptian administration upon request of the Saudis since 1950, and have remained so to this day, interrupted only by brief spell of Israeli occupation following the Six Day War in 1967. An agreement signed in April 2016 by Egypt and Saudi Arabia to demarcate the maritime border between them returned the islands to the Saudis, but this gave rise to huge controversy among Egyptians. Some saw that the islands were being returned to their rightful owner after decades of Egyptian administration; others saw them as belonging to Egypt, and that the Egyptian administration was handing Egyptian soil to Saudi Arabia on a plate of gold in return for economic advantages.
The issue got mired in media clamour, misunderstanding, debate, accusations, insolence, and mistrust, with a general rush towards unsubstantiated, undocumented, unproved views on who the islands really belonged to. The lack of vision and objectivity left the public confused and divided. The experts apparently preferred to stay away from the absurd boisterous scene, possibly waiting for parliament to have its say. They probably thought parliament would investigate and study the matter seriously in order to have viable grounds on which to base a decision on the matter.
Last week, the agreement was referred to the House of Representatives for approval—or rejection. I was preparing myself for a rich discussion on the islands issue, but what actually took place in parliament’s Legislative Affairs Committee was a disaster. Prejudice and antagonism on both sides were all too obvious, as were intentions to slay any ‘other’ opinion. The scandalous unruliness, screaming, interruption, threats, abuse, and verbal and physical fighting were televised live for Egypt and the whole world to see. Amid all that, there were desperate attempts to display and discuss relevant documents and views of experts who utterly failed to air these views owing to the avalanche of interruptions, offence, and accusations of treachery.
The facts were lost, and all reasonable discussion and serious investigation stood no chance in face of the hysterical screaming and violence. All through, Speaker of the House of Representatives Ali Abdel-Aal stopped short of controlling the unruliness; he even stoked the hysterical screaming. So it is with pain that I say that no matter what decision parliament reached regarding the islands, the manner in which this decision was reached will forever remain a blemish in the history of parliamentary life in Egypt, and a miserable sample of democratic practice.