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President Sisi of Egypt’s transfer of two Islands to Saudi Arabia is unprecedented and rejected by much of its population. However, it is part of a new larger reversal in the Arab World’s effort to normalize relations with Israel explains Professor Seif Da’na

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Sharmini Peries: It’s The Real News Network. I’m Sharmini Peries coming to you from Baltimore. Egypt’s regional role in the Middle East is rapidly changing with the administration of President el-Sisi forming a strong alliance with Saudi Arabia and turning somewhat against Qatar, which was more allied with the previous administration of President Morsi. Demonstrations broke out in Cairo this month after the Egyptian parliament approved the transfer of two islands; Tiran and Sanafir to Saudi Arabia. These islands are very symbolic to the Egyptian people and to find out more about all of this I’m joined by Professor Seif Da’na. He is an associate dean at the College of Social Sciences and Professional Studies at the University of Wisconsin – Parkside, and a professor at the Department of Sociology and Anthropology as well. Thank you so much for joining us today. Seif Da’na: Thank you Sharmini. Sharmini Peries: Doctor, so let’s get to the point of the significance of this island to the Egyptian people, and I understand there’s a military significance as well. Just outline the two for us. Seif Da’na: Well, yes. It is very significant. Both islands are very significant, really, because they were the subject, or the highlights of two confrontations between Israel and Egypt in the region. And many Egyptian soldiers lost their lives defending or trying to recover the Sinai Peninsula from the Israeli occupation that took over this area in 1967. So, it is personal to many Egyptian families because they lost their children in this area, and it is the symbol of the Arab-Israeli conflict or the Arab-Israeli struggle for many Egyptian families and many Arab families actually, not only Egyptian families. So to surrender these islands to Saudi Arabia is highly humiliating to the Egyptian and demoralizing to many Egyptians. The other side is we’ve seen overwhelming rejection of this agreement, the demarcation of order between Saudi Arabia and Egypt, that entails surrendering these two islands to Saudi Arabia by most of the Egyptian people. And despite that, despite that the Egyptian government and the Egyptian president is going ahead with this agreement and disregarding the public opinion, despite all the rejection of the Egyptian public opinion. The other thing is, there are two rulings by Egypt’s administrative courts declaring these two islands as Egyptian islands and not Saudi islands. And again, the government is disregarding the courts’ rulings, two courts’ rulings. The other thing is the scene in the Egyptian parliament was not only demoralizing, but it was really very strange, because it was the first time in history that we see a country struggling to prove that part of its land belongs to another country. It’s strange because the Saudi Arabian government did not provide a single document, did not even try to argue that these islands were not Egyptian islands. It was the Egyptian parliament, actually, who did that and tried to prove that these islands are Saudi land. That was a very strange scene. But the second significance I guess is the military one, or the security one. Because the only potential threat that could come to Egypt could come from the North and these .. I mean Israel. These islands are strategically located, that would make the Egyptian northern borders literally defenseless in the face of an Israeli attack or in the future if that actually happens. If we look at the map, Egypt’s map, we see that in the South there is Sudan. There is no threat coming from Sudan or nobody would even imagine a threat coming from Sudan to Egypt. They’re both Arab and Islamic countries, they’re both neighbors and Egypt is much more powerful than Sudan. Similarly, Libya in the West. So the only potential threat could come to Egypt from the North, from Israel. These islands are strategically located and surrendering them to Saudi Arabia would render Egypt’s northern borders literally defenseless. The other side of this, is that the area around these two islands will become international waters now, rather than being Egyptian waters. So again, Egypt would lose control of a massive area in the Red Sea in that region. But surrendering these two islands to Saudi Arabia would enable and actually would have to make Saudi Arabia part of the Camp David agreement between Israel and Egypt, part of the Camp David political and military arrangements in the region. In some sense, this is a way for Saudi Arabia to start political and military relations with Israel in a nontraditional way. Basically that there are arrangements — political arrangements and economic arrangements and security arrangements — for these islands, according to the Camp David agreement between Egypt and Israel, that Saudi Arabia must respect now and must be part of at this point. So what we’re seeing is that these two islands are being used as part of a regional deal, basically, that many commentators assume that, or basically think that this is part of. The regional [inaudible 00:06:10] grant deal that President Trump talked about, basically, normalization of relations between the Arab companies and Muslim countries with Israel prior to resolving the Palestinian question, which is putting the Arab peace initiative on its head, upside down. Because the Arab peace initiative basically calls for an Israeli withdraw from the Palestinian land that was occupied in 1967, establishing the Palestinian state in the 1967 border or on the 1967 borders in return for normalizations of relations between Arab and Muslim countries with Israel. Now, the equation is being reversed now, that we’re going to start with normalizations of relations with Israel first, leading to some sort of a political agreement or a political deal for the Palestinian question. And of course, that is serving Israel basically, because Israel wouldn’t have to provide any concessions in the future. Because the Arab normalizations of relations with Israel was a condition [inaudible 00:07:23] withdrawing from the Palestinian occupied land in 1967. Now there is no condition for Israel that could force Israel to withdraw from the 1967 borders. So this is part of a regional, really, plan too. Sharmini Peries: Professor, the current situation with the transfer of the islands is being explained by many experts as a way in which Egypt could actually come out of its economic crises that it is in; a currency crises, not enough food supply and just basic needs for the Egyptian people, and that Egypt is highly dependent on aid and Saudi Arabia has been providing some of that aid. And with the Sisi government in power, that dependency has grown. Now, recent reports show, for example in The Economist, that the Egyptian economy, as a result of Sisi policies might just be in a upward swing at this moment, but that hasn’t been the case in the last few years. So is Egypt dependent on Saudi Arabia economically in terms of aid? Seif Da’na: Well, that is true to some extent. Saudia Arabia provided aid to, massive aid actually, to the Sisi regime but I doubt that Saudia Arabia could resolve the Egyptian economy crisis. We’re talking about a country with almost 100 million people in Egypt now. And all the Saudi Arabian money cannot resolve this without a sound economic plan in Egypt. And what President Sisi has been doing really, is just following the same Mubarak line of neoliberalism and borrowing and getting loans from the World Bank and also now from Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates. So there is no sound economic plan in place to use the aid and the resources Egypt is getting from Saudi Arabia, accepting or resolving the daily issues and daily problems of Egypt. I doubt that Saudia Arabia could continue in doing that and supporting them with billions, especially that Saudia Arabia is facing its own problems. But one of Egypt’s main sources of income, now, is the Suez Canal, the canal that connects or links the Mediterranean with the Red Sea. It provides about five to $7 billion annually to Egypt. Now, transferring these islands to Israel is encouraging Israel now … sorry, to Saudi Arabia … is encouraging Israel now to rethink an old plan to construct a similar canal that connects the Mediterranean with the Red Sea as well. And that is because transferring these two islands to Saudia Arabia, it change not only the border demarcation in the area, but also enable Israel to assume that some of the areas until recently that were considered maritime areas, that were considered Egyptian, are international now. So there is an Israeli plan, has been for years there, the Israelis spoke about it many times, to construct a competitive canal to that of the Suez Canal. Now, transferring these islands to Saudi Arabia actually makes the conditions better for Israel and makes it more logical for Israel to start this endeavor. Are they going to do it or not? We don’t really know, but the talk about it increased recently. And if they do it, they would actually significantly harm Egypt’s economy because the Suez Canal is very central to the Egyptian annual revenues, the government annual revenues and the Egyptian economy. But I think the primacy here is political. That is the Sisi regime is accepting the political dictates of the United States for a regional deal as a preparation to resolve the Palestinian Israeli conflict as they call it. And instead of considering these long-term implications, whether the security or the economic, or even the domestic implications, which are related to the symbolism of these islands to the Egyptian people, and the symbolism of the Sinai Peninsula as a whole, and that order and the symbolism of the Arab-Israeli conflict to the people of Egypt, I think he’s thinking short term. That’s tragic because if these islands were transferred, that is irreversible, in the sense that as of now the Egyptian courts have shown documents and agreement, historical documents and agreements and maps that confirm that these islands are Egyptian islands or Egyptian land. After the agreement is implemented, all of this will be documented. The demarcation of [inaudible 00:12:43] the agreement will be documented in the UN and these islands will become Saudi by international law, so this is irreversible. That’s why it is very dangerous. Sharmini Peries: And lastly Professor, why is there such a close relationship between Egyptian President el-Sisi and the US President Trump? El-Sisi was the first world leader to congratulate President Trump on his election victory and this week the two actually spoke over the phone and presumably to discuss measures against Qatar, but we also know that the US provides quite a bit of military financial aid to Egypt. And of course, given that Israel is such a close ally of the United States, what are your thoughts on all of this with the new administration? Seif Da’na: Well the dominant view in the region, and I think to some extent that view is actually in some aspect is true, is that the Obama administration was, if not supporting, at least understanding the Muslim brotherhood control over certain countries in the region; in Egypt, in Tunisia and other places. So they have been framing the … at least the Sisi government and commentators … that the Obama administration was behind the Muslim brotherhood movement in the region. They were using the Muslim brotherhood movement as a tool of regional hegemony and to maintain control over the region. Of course the Muslim brotherhood failed in Egypt, failed in Tunisia, and President Trump came with a different perspective on this, very different perspective on the region. He was very critical of the Muslim brotherhood movement from the start. I don’t think that President Trump made any distinction between the Muslim brotherhood movement and the jihadi Islamic movements like Al Qaeda and others. And to be honest, they are significantly different so we should not mix them. But I think this is one of the common points of views that President Sisi, whose regime was not recognized by the Obama regime immediately, because it was a military coup basically and President Morsi, despite any criticism, he was a democratically elected president. And President Sisi overthrew him militarily so President Obama did not immediately recognize the new Egyptian government. At that same time, President Trump, at least candidate Trump at that time, was basically against the Muslim brotherhood movement and declared support for the military coup in Egypt. That, I guess is one of the common points of views between both sides. Let alone, I guess that President Trump’s unwillingness to criticize the Egyptian regime’s violation of human rights and other practices is encouraging President Sisi and other Arab regimes as well. Despite any criticism of President Obama’s policies in the region, and they were to some extent harmful in many regards; the American role in Syria wasn’t really great but at least the Obama administration gave a lip service sometimes through human rights and criticized certain violations of human rights. Yes, it was selective. For example, not in Saudi Arabia but in Syria and something like that, but they at least provided some lip service which we miss actually at this point. We see no criticism of human rights violation from close American allies, and I think that is comforting to President Sisi at this point because conditions in Egypt are very, very drastic at this point and very terrible. Violations of human rights are worse than the times of Mubarak at this point, but the criticisms from the US are less, so I think that is a good reason why would President Sisi like President Trump. Sharmini Peries: All right. Professor I thank you so much for joining us. There is so much more to talk about in terms of Egypt, the economic crisis, the plight of everyday people in Egypt and post-Tahrir Square revolution we don’t hear very much about what’s happening in Egypt, so I look forward to having you back to further our discussion. Seif Da’na: Thank you. Thank you for having me. Sharmini Peries: And thank you for joining us here on The Real News Network.

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Seif Da'na is Professor and Chair of the Sociology and Anthropology Department at the University of Wisconsin-Parkside. He specializes in the Middle East and North Africa.