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THINK AGAIN: Egypt looks south, finally
28 April 2016

In early April, King Salman of Saudi Arabia went Cairo on a high-profile visit. He came laden with treasure – specifically, billions of dollars’ worth of trade deals, low-interest loans and grants – but left with something that the Saudis consider ever more valuable: the Red Sea islands of Sanafir and Tiran.

On first appearances, it looked like Egypt’s President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi, under huge economic pressure, had done something few other world leaders would countenance. In return for substantial financial support, he’d just sold off bits of his country.

The public backlash, even among Sisi’s supporters, was swift. A huge demonstration against the decision was staged in Cairo, the largest show of people power since Sisi’s administration introduced harsh laws against protesting in 2013. ‘We sleep and wake up to mistakes which range in magnitude from a stray word in a presidential speech, to a decision that relates to sovereignty over land,’ said Mahmoud al-Kardoussi, editor-in-chief of the usually government-friendly al-Watan.

In a rambling televised speech, Sisi rejected all criticism. ‘Obscuring truth and falsifying reality, that is what is happening and what we need to be aware of,’ he said. ‘In brief, [the aim is] to undermine confidence in everything that is good and maximise criticism for everything that is not good… that is exactly what is being done to us to push us to reach [a state of] national suicide.’

Whoever owns Sanafir and Tiran can restrict the movement of Israeli ships
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Sanafir and Tiran are of huge strategic importance. They stand at the gateway to the Gulf of Aqaba, which is Israel’s only direct access to the Red Sea, and as such have historically been a vital geopolitical pawn. Whoever owns Sanafir and Tiran can restrict the movement of Israeli ships.

This strategic value explains why they are part of Egypt in the first place. They haven’t always been; in fact, until 1950, they belonged to Saudi Arabia, then a relatively weak state. Fearful of Israeli expansion, and in the spirit of the pan-Arabism that characterised the decade, Saudi Arabia ceded the islands to Egypt, the regional superpower of the day, thinking that Egypt would be best-placed to defend the islands – and thus restrain Israel.

It didn’t work out quite like that. In the 1967 Arab-Israeli War (also known as the Six-Day War), Israel humbled the Egyptian army and seized Sanafir and Tiran, among other territory. Although the islands were returned to Egypt in a subsequent peace deal, this was on the strict condition that Israeli shipping would be guaranteed free passage through the Strait of Tiran.

The islands symbolise something Egypt has already lost: its key importance in Middle East geopolitics
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Egypt is no longer the Arab superpower. That mantle has passed to oil-rich Saudi Arabia, who now wanted the islands back – along with the strategic value they represent. President Sisi, in desperate need of Saudi’s billions, didn’t need much persuading. Nor did Israel object. Although there are no formal diplomatic relations between Saudi Arabia and Israel, Saudi Arabia used informal channels to reassure the Israelis that they would uphold Egypt’s obligations under the peace deal.

And so, when the tens of thousands of Egyptians protested against Sisi’s decision, they weren’t really mourning the loss of the islands, which didn’t really belong to Egypt in the first place. Instead, they were angered at Egypt’s diminished stature in the Arab world – and Sisi’s refusal to put up a fight to maintain it.

Sisi, however, has a plan to regain the country’s superpower status – albeit in a different geographical arena. Two months ago, at a lavish jamboree in the Egyptian resort town of Sharm el-Sheikh, the president emphasised the importance of Africa to Egypt’s future in front of an audience of African heads of state, businessmen and diplomats. He highlighted the opportunities inherent to Africa’s enormous markets, and urged Egyptian businesses – as a matter of national priority – to take advantage of these opportunities. This was the centrepiece of concerted efforts to shift Egypt’s focus towards more and better engagement on the African continent.

After ignoring its Africanness for so long, has Egypt left it too late to engage with the continent?
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Sisi’s predecessors largely spurned or ignored Egypt’s geographical status as an African nation, choosing instead to focus on the country’s Arab culture and heritage. Hosni Mubarak, especially, was mentally scarred by a failed assassination attempt in Addis Ababa in 1995.

For Sisi, however, greater engagement with African nations – both diplomatically and commercially – has become an existential challenge. Literally: the construction of the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam threatens to limit Egypt’s access to the waters of the Nile River, which would cripple the country, and has forced Egypt’s diplomats to engage as equals with their African counterparts.

In this context, the islands of Sanafir and Tiran are a symbol of something Egypt has already lost: its central importance in the geopolitics of the Middle East. They are also a harbinger of Egypt’s southward-facing future; a future in which relations with Sudan and Ethiopia are prioritised above those with Israel and Saudi Arabia.

It’s a hard sell. At the Sharm el-Sheikh conference, there was plenty of enthusiastic rhetoric, but little in the way of concrete deals or future plans. After ignoring its Africanness for so long, has Egypt left it too late to really engage with the continent? 

Simon Allison, ISS Consultant

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