On 9 April, Egypt's cabinet announced it would transfer sovereignty over the strategic Red Sea islands, Tiran and Sanafir, to Saudi Arabia. The deal has sparked widespread anger in Egypt. Many Egyptians consider the transfer — announced during a five-day visit by King Salman to Egypt — as payment for continuing Saudi financial support for Egypt.
Protesters outside the Press Syndicate building in Cairo, 15 April (Photo: Anadolu Agency/Getty Images)
Shortly after the decision was made public, Twitter users started expressing ire towards President Sisi under the hashtag #AwadSoldHisLand, a reference to an Egyptian folktale about a man named Awad who brought his family shame by giving up the family farm. On 15 April, 2000 people protested the decision in front of the Press Syndicate building in downtown Cairo in the largest anti-government protests since President Sisi took power in 2014.
Much has been made of the significance of these protests. Indeed, the 15 April protests were bigger and more diverse than many had anticipated, and touched a raw nerve even among Sisi's staunchest supporters. Large pro-Sisi media outlets, such as the private Egyptian daily al Watan and the state-owned Al Ahram paper, expressed rare criticism.
The regime went to great lengths to limit further protests announced for 25 April, Sinai Liberation Day. Dozens were arrested by the security forces in synchronised raids across Egypt in the lead up to the protests, and the locations of many planned demonstrations were cordoned off by the military who deployed across the country. The crackdown was successful; there were no sizeable demonstrations on the day other than those organised by the regime celebrating the liberation of the Sinai.
But mostly, the protests merely confirm what we already know. Discontent with the Sisi Administration has grown over the past year and the president's broad support structure has been shrinking. Crucially though, the security establishment remains firmly behind Sisi while many Egyptians who are not normally politically engaged — the so-called 'sofa party' — continue to accept his regime's transgressions.
A survey carried out by Baseera, an Egyptian polling organisation, showed that 30% of respondents believed the islands were Egyptian while almost half were unsure or even unaware the islands existed. But in a country where public opinion polls are notoriously unreliable and political engagement remains low, an important measure of the public mood will be the level of parliamentary resistance. According to the Egyptian constitution, parliament will have to vote on the deal. Egypt expert Michael Hanna has rightly argued that 'if a legislative body that is often seen as little more than a rubber stamp chooses to assert itself on such a highly contentious and sensitive matter, it will be a major setback for the Sisi regime.'
Sisi chose closer Egyptian-Saudi relations at a time of considerable economic distress for Egypt. The coinciding territorial concessions were always going to be controversial. Yet, it was the administration's handling of the case — the 'absence of politics' and the lack of transparency as Egyptian journalist Maged Atef called it — that has done much of the damage to its reputation at home.
Crucially, the anger over the islands deal has obscured scrutiny of the pay off; a package of 21 economic agreements worth US$25 billion. Contrary to previous installments of Saudi aid, the current package no longer includes direct financial assistance and is generally thought to be no longer free of political charge. Saudi analysts have argued that 'any aid Riyadh offers is to be repaid either by political support for Saudi positions at the Arab League and the Organization of Islamic Cooperation against Iran and Hezbollah or by military backing, such as Egyptian participation in the Saudi-led Islamic Military Alliance to Fight Terrorism'.
If true, this would further increase the political costs at home for the Sisi Administration.