Red Sea Islands fiasco: Egyptian honour and Sisi's treason

#EgyptTurmoil

Why did Sisi insist on taking such a political risk when he is so weakened domestically by security and economic failures?

Amr Khalifa's picture
Sunday 18 June 2017 17:28 UTC
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A retired Egyptian army officer burned his military uniform on Wednesday. “It is no longer a source of pride but shame," he said.

June 14 2017, the day Abdel Fattah al-Sisi gifted away Egyptian sovereignty over the Red Sea islands, will come to be known as the second Naksa (In Arabic, "the setback" - the first being the 50-year-old Six Day War).

There have been and will be countless articles arguing that the Red Sea islands are Egyptian or Saudi. This conversation is not about that.



Tiran and Sanafir islands in the Strait of Tiran between Egypt's Sinai Peninsula and Saudi Arabia (AFP)

Rather - and something that Western analysts consistently fail to understand - this is a decoding of the emotional makeup of a nation.

Contrary to general opinion that this is a simple islands-for-cash trade for Egyptian strongman Sisi, the matter is really one of unrelenting ego and a need for Saudi approval.

Behind Sisi's risk-taking is a belief that if he doesn't kiss his chief sponsor's golden ring, he risks an even bigger blow to his regime, one that is teetering more than many a prototypical DC think-tanker believes.

Rubber stamp

But Sisi would better equip himself against an early political death by knowing what makes his most important constituency tick: the Egyptian linkage of land to the metaphysically emotional notion of honour.

This lack of understanding has placed the Egyptian leader at the dangerous intersection of Egyptian honour and presidential treason.

Sisi would better equip himself against an early political death by knowing what makes his most important constituency tick: the Egyptian linkage of land to the metaphysically emotional notion of honour

That Tiran and Sanfir are Egyptian is something to which international law, the law of the sea and geography experts have attested and Egypt’s highest court has certified. Ownership is not the issue. Rather the story must begin with a parliamentary betrayal of the national will.

First came an all-important building block: a pliable parliament handpicked to reflect Sisi’s will. Hossam Bahgat, one of Egypt’s leading investigative journalists, did seminal work uncovering the ugly truth: Egypt’s deep state hand selected the parliamentarians.

The nefarious efforts by various security outfits to fabricate a national consciousness in this way was further confirmed in November 2016 - and again this week - by Dr Hazem Abdel Azim, the often controversial politician - important because, at the time, he was part of the Sisi camp.

With a rubber-stamp body muscling its way past the judiciary that Sisi has also sought to castrate legally and illegally, the treasonous gift to the Saudis was all but a certainty.

16 seconds

Doubt that the clear majority of Egyptians vehemently opposed this cynical thievery of Egyptian land?

One need only look so far as the latest poll from the Egyptian Centre for Public Opinion Research (Baseera), a well-known polling service and a pro-Sisi one at that: Egyptians opposed the transfer 4.27 to 1. That is, 47 percent of the respondents were against the surrender of the islands and only 11 percent approved, while 42 percent said they didn't know.

So how and why, according to those watching the sessions, did the vote to approve the transfer only take 16 seconds?



There were “tens of requests” to speak before parliament speaker Ali Abdel Aal Sayyed Ahmed, and the hall was “brimming with parliamentarians”, Anissa Hassouna, one of the MPs, said.

“Suddenly, the parliament chief suddenly decides to shut down discussion and says ‘the session has approved’,” said Hassouna.

But the $25bn question (that's the amount of Saudi aid to Egypt since the 2013 coup) is why did Sisi insist on taking such a political risk when he is so weakened domestically by security and economic failures? Sisi’s psychological map holds the answer.

Saving face

Abdel Fattah is a stubborn man for whom saving face is paramount. In his mind, he cannot make a promise to his Saudi patrons and break it.

At some point, after numerous shaky moments with the Saudis who didn’t receive the full support they had expected from Egypt in Yemen and Syria, Sisi decided to reverse course and show gratitude lest the “rice” stop. 

The Saudis will now, more than ever, not trust Sisi. If he can sell out his land and his own people, then he will, at first chance, sell them out as well.

Indeed, Saudi largesse had come to a halt as Sisi’s economic management faltered even before the devaluation of the Egyptian pound in November 2016.

As Sisi consolidated his power domestically by sheer force – and lost political capital in the interim - his arrogance led him to believe this deal would be filed under “this too shall pass”.

Sisi could not be more wrong. Within hours after the islands deal became public in April 2016 and shortly after Saudi King Salman’s departure from Cairo, Twitter’s hashtag blared #SonOfABitch and #AwadSoldHisLand, a line from a famous Egyptian song



Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi and Ali Abdel-Al, speaker of Egypt’s parliament last year in parliament headquarters in Cairo (AFP)

Sisi is so deluded, he hasn’t grasped how transparent his megalomaniac tendencies are. So heavily dipped in the ink of naivete was Sisi’s Red Islands strategy, he didn’t realise that even if mass protests fail to materialise, it will still monumentally impact his presidency.

First, the Saudis will now, more than ever, not trust Sisi. If he can sell out his land and his own people, then he will, at first chance, sell them out as well.

Badge of treason

Secondly - and no less politically fatal – Sisi’s chest will be permanently decorated with the wrong kind of medal: a gold badge for treason.

A man who is surrounded by a mini army of body guards every step of every day will face a “horror of the available potentialities that will kill (him) twenty times a day,” as the astute Egyptian journalist Yosri Fouda wrote of Sisi this week.

Anyone with a modicum of understanding of the complex relationship between Egyptians, land and honour should have seen the potential for an explosive clash on this issue.

Last April, I tweeted out “Sisi has handled the Islands deal as an orientalist who does not understand the simplest levels of linkage between Egyptians and the notion of land. Disastrous mistake and he will pay a hefty price.” With more than 65,000 "impressions" the tweet struck a nerve and reflected the lack of political sophistication of the Sisi decision.



Saudi King Salman addresses the Egyptian parliament during a five-day visit to Egypt in April 2016 (AFP/Saudi Press Agency)

This tie between Egypt, land and honour is obvious to Egyptians who grew up on a diet of literature and films like The Earth.

In a masterful scene in the 1968 classic by Egyptian genius director Youssef Chahine, an Egyptian security officer, operating on behalf of the British occupiers, drags a farmer from a horse as his blood seeps into the land which is the symbol of everything that he is, his honour and his soul.

Those expecting this disastrous, uncalculated move to be the quick political death of Sisi will find that wishful thinking does not translate into miracles.

The Protest Law of November 2013 with its punishing three-year jail sentences for anyone caught protesting and the prospect of torture in an ever-expansive labyrinth of Egyptian jails, where 60,000 Egyptians already languish, make opposition prohibitively risky.

Above all else, for the better part of six years since the great revolution, multiple regimes have invested unlimited time and energy building the great Egyptian wall of fear.

Those expecting this disastrous, uncalculated move to be the quick political death of Sisi will find that wishful thinking does not translate into miracles

Sisi is working his way towards North Korea 2.0 with heavy handed attempts at quelling both the press, with 64 sites blocked in Egypt, and with a new punishing NGO law.

But even with all of these measures, the government is still cowardly after its 2011 spanking and, on Wednesday evening hours after the dishonourable giveaway, went on with its now traditional campaign of preventive political arrests.

Flood of anger

In less than 24 hours, it will be Friday, the traditional day for protests. There may be two people in the streets or 20,000. What happens in the coming days is anyone’s best guess.

There is a tremendous flood of anger still building. Just take a look at Egyptians on social media and you will see on any given hour, hundreds of Egyptians calling Sisi the grand traitor of the armed forces, a thief and a damaging spy.

Had Golda Meir, the former Israeli prime minister, returned from her grave and recruited a Manchurian candidate to infiltrate the Egyptian hierarchy and destroy the country from within, he would not have done more damage than Sisi.

These facts, however, do not guarantee social uprising.

Sisi, go to sleep tonight knowing that you have survived another day, but know this: your lack of understanding of the complex interplay between honour, land and treason will cost you dearly one day.

Sisi, those islands, and this is said with the arrogance of legal and geographic certitude, are as Egyptian as the blood soaked in the sands of Sinai.

And don’t mistake the bright glow emanating from the ground as light, Mr President. It is lava.

Amr Khalifa is a freelance journalist and analyst recently published in Ahram Online, Mada Masr, The New Arab, Muftah and Daily News Egypt. You can follow him on Twitter@cairo67unedited.

The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Eye.

Photo: A handout picture provided by the Saudi Royal Palace on 23 April 2017 shows Saudi Arabia's King Salman bin Abdulaziz al-Saud (R) receiving Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, upon the latter's arrival in the capital Riyadh. (AFP)

This article is available in French on Middle East Eye French edition.