Egyptians Outraged at Plan to Transfer Red Sea Islands to Saudi Arabia

CAIRO (Reuters) -

Egypt’s announcement during a five-day visit by Saudi King Salman that it would transfer two Red Sea islands to its Saudi ally has outraged Egyptians, who took to social media to criticize the move, which now faces a legal challenge.

The Egyptian government said in a statement on Saturday that the two countries had signed maritime demarcation accords that put the islands of Tiran and Sanafir in Saudi waters, a process it said had taken six years.

Saudi and Egyptian officials said the islands belong to the kingdom and were only under Egyptian control because Saudi Arabia’s founder, Abdulaziz Al Saud, asked Egypt in 1950 to protect them.

But the accord, which still needs ratification by Egypt’s parliament, caused consternation among Egyptians, many of whom said they were taught in school that the islands were theirs.

The repeated  hashtag “Awad sold his land” on social media after the announcement, referred to a song about an Egyptian who sold his land, seen as a shameful act.

Egypt has struggled to restore economic growth since the 2011 uprising that ended Hosni Mubarak’s 30-year rule.

Saudi Arabia, which opposes the Muslim Brotherhood, has showered Egypt with billions of dollars in aid since general-turned-President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi ousted elected President Mohammed Mursi of the Brotherhood in 2013 and banned the group.

That has led many to wonder if Egypt sold the islands.

Egyptian comic Basem Yousef, exiled after lampooning successive leaders, compared Sisi on social media to a bazaar merchant willing to sell his country and its heritage: “Come closer sir, the island is one billion, the pyramid is two with two statues on top for free.”

As anger spread on Monday, veteran lawyer Khaled Ali filed a complaint with the administrative court, arguing that according to a 1906 maritime treaty between Egypt and the Ottoman Empire, the islands are Egyptian and the move amounts to a transfer of sovereignty. The treaty precedes the founding of Saudi Arabia in 1932.

Ali is alleging that the accord violates article 151 of Egypt’s constitution, which requires all treaties related to sovereignty to be approved by referendum. The court will hear the case on May 17.

But Egyptian Foreign Ministry spokesman Ahmed Abu Zeid told Egypt’s CBC channel: “This land is Saudi and Egypt administered it based on a request from the kingdom and this door that spreads doubts, which have no foundation in truth, must be closed.”

The island issue has put Sisi, who once enjoyed widespread support, under renewed pressure.

Once-fawning newspaper editors no longer hide their disappointment as the crackdown on dissent has spread and critics say the government has mishandled a series of crises including the killing of a driver by a policeman in a fare dispute.

Five of 11 people who held a protest against the accord in Cairo on Sunday were arrested and later freed, security and judicial sources said. Thousands of people have supported an online campaign calling for protest on Friday “to protect our country.”

Egypt’s state-owned Al Ahram newspaper reported on Monday that Israel had been informed in advance about the treaty, as Egypt is entangled in a 1979 peace deal with Israel. Many Egyptians were upset that their government thought of Israel but not them.

“Even if Saudi Arabia is entitled to the islands … to hand them over to Saudi in this way, without consideration for Egyptians, showing no respect for their feelings, presence and even their pride in their nation?” television chat show host Wael El Ebrashy said on Sunday night. “We are all shocked.”