The building of a bridge over the Red Sea to connect Egyptian and Saudi lands dictated the need to demarcate the maritime borders of Egypt and Saudi Arabia.
When Egypt’s government announced that this meant that two islands at the mouth of the Gulf of Aqaba, Tiran and Sanafir, would be returned to Saudi Arabia all hell broke loose. The media and the social media choked full, not of questions on the matter, but of condemnation that the political leadership was selling Egypt’s land to Saudi Arabia in exchange for the dollars it was pouring into Egypt. Even though the government declaration on the topic unequivocally stated that the islands fall within Saudi regional waters, and that the determination of this fact was the culmination of a six-year process of studies and eleven rounds of negotiations between the two sides, a loud-voiced considerable sector of Egyptians was unconvinced.
Egyptians were divided on the issue. A Watani online poll indicated that 50 per cent of those polled believed the government’s claims that the islands were Saudi land in the first place—they had been since 1950 under Egyptian administration and were merely being turned back to their rightful owners. The other 50 per cent were equally divided between those who insisted that President Sisi had ‘sold’ Egyptian land, and those who felt the entire matter was vague and required official explanation.
The two tiny islands lie almost midway between the Saudi and Egyptian shores and are uninhabited except for the presence of an international peace keeping corps and a small Egyptian police squad, as stipulated by the 1979 peace agreement between Egypt and Israel.
On social media, sarcasm and scepticism abounded; with those who insisted that the islands had been sold coming up with bitter jokes and maps that went as far back as the second AD century proving that the islands were Egyptian. Video footage of Gamal Abdel-Nasser, Egypt’s president from 1954 to 1970, giving a speech in which he stressed that the islands belonged to Egypt went viral online.
Those who, on the other hand, had cooler heads, insisted that if we distrust the official information offered by the government, we should go to international law and official documents for the truth. Significant effort was obviously, exerted on that score because, sure enough, information began surfacing that put many thoughts at ease. It was made clear that the only internationally-recognised border were the post-WWII ones; ancient or old borders cannot apply today—the world has since then changed considerably and repeatedly. A document dated 28 January 1950 from the Egyptian government officially informed the United States of the occupation of Tiran and Sanafir, “in full accord with the Government of Saudi Arabia”. That was during the Arab Israeli War that started in 1948, and Saudi Arabia at the time wished to secure the islands against any possible Israeli aggression, so asked Egypt to occupy them for defence purposes.
Other documents found included January 1968 telegrams between the US Department of State and Israeli Foreign Minister Aba Eban informing of negotiations with Saudi Arabia to turn over to them the islands which had come under Israeli occupation following the Six Day War in June 1967. These were signed by Secretary of State Dean Rusk.
It took a couple of days for the dust to settle, then Egyptians directed their interest elsewhere.
13 April 2016