Egypt-Saudi Islands Dispute: A Crisis beyond the Realm of Governments!

Most international crises arise and persist not out of evil intentions, but due to poor handling and management, principally the fault of overlooking policy implementation consequences. Border dispute conflicts involving ambiguous historical claims and arguments are common among many countries. The demarcation of maritime boundaries in the Red Sea between Egypt and Saudi Arabia symbolizes this phenomenon; the Egyptian government hurriedly signed an accord without taking into consideration the current political dynamic in Egypt that refuses to accept the agreement – leaving Egypt and Saudi Arabia in a peculiarly awkward situation.

We Egyptians are born and raised with a cultural attachment to our national soil that epitomizes our identity and sense of belonging. For us, national soil can never be the subject of any kind of barter or exchange. The long years of war and conflict with Israel further strengthened our veneration of this sovereignty issue. At the same time, the close ties between Egyptian and Saudi citizens are the most long-lived and deep-rooted in our region; Saudi Arabia hosts two million Egyptians who live and work in the Kingdom, in addition to an about equal number who visit the country for religious purposes yearly, while nearly half a million Saudis study and invest in Egypt.

Egypt has come to be known worldwide as a strong state that was strengthened and reinforced during Mubarak’s three-decade long rule. Nevertheless, the country has changed completely – for better or worse – since the 2011 revolution. We are not yet a democratic country, but we are a strong, vibrant nation with a new political dynamism that the Mubarak’s four successors have failed to deal with. The Nasser era, when a clear majority of citizens blindly and sincerely supported a strong, popular leader, is long past and it won’t be resuscitated.

Al Sisi, who is probably both the articulator and the victim of the current ruling mechanism that often addresses political issues from a unilateral perspective, would have done better to advocate for the agreement in a completely different manner. Our president who is applying Nasser’s approach of “trust me and let’s move forward” is underestimating both the magnitude of his opposition and his people’s attachment to their land. Egyptians tend to react emotionally rather than rationally; they should have been addressed differently – regardless of the technical points of the legal dispute, which many are not in a position to assess accurately.

The Egyptian government recently sent the accord to Parliament for ratification, further complicating our internal dispute. The State Council had ruled that the maritime border agreement is legally invalid. Moreover, many statesmen implicitly rejected the accord. As for Al Sisi’s opponents, not only did they reject the agreement; it provoked them to break the demonstration law and eventually be sentenced to terms in prison. Many Al Sisi supporters also backed their determination and insistence. This dispute has gathered so much momentum that its resolution is certainly beyond the capacity of the Egyptian government – even if it does manage to enforce the agreement.

Egypt is still going through a difficult and challenging political transition in which the drawbacks have been greater than real progress on the ground. We are experiencing a very polarized state of affairs that was clearly further inflamed with the signing of the accord. Activating the agreement will compound our polarization. Meanwhile, to maintain solid relations, we should distance our neighbors from involvement in our internal debate. The deep-rooted relationship between Egypt and Saudi Arabia should prompt both governments to avoid imposing an agreement on their citizens and to exert every effort to reach a fair settlement.

Egypt and Saudi Arabia must try to ensure that this dispute is as short-lived as possible. The deep, long-standing relationship between both nations must be salvaged without leaving either party feeling bitter. The most appropriate course to adopt to sustain and strengthen the relationship between the two countries is to freeze the implementation of the accord for few months until citizens of both countries make genuine efforts to establish a constructive dialogue on this contentious issue. Egyptian and Saudi citizens should work together to ensure that they are properly and completely convinced of the true ownership of the islands.




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