Islands of Trouble


Reactions to Egypt’s transfer of the Red Sea islands of Tiran and Sanafir to Saudi Arabia have generally ranged from the factually inaccurate to the emotionally febrile. The merits of the case (likely to favor Saudi Arabia) and the long negotiations leading up to it made hardly a dent in the public attitudes. In fact these attitudes, especially the Egyptian ones, shed a harsh light on a dark picture.

Egypt has never recovered from Nasser’s capitulation to King Faisal in Khartoum in August 1967. During that conference of Arab leaders Nasser issued “3 Nos” to Israel and a “Yes” to Saudi Arabia by withdrawing from Yemen, which Egypt had secured for the republican cause and had nearly pacified. In subsequent years the “Nos” to Israel became “Perhaps” and finally “Yes” at Camp David. The “Yes” to Saudi Arabia became “Yes, Sir”. Although few Egyptians now fully understand the history of how their country was brought low, nor can pin responsibility with any clarity, most,it seems, feel humiliated and betrayed by the country’s decline. Every discourse, on all sides, resonates with accusations of conspiracies and stabs in the back. Add to this the often unjustified Egyptian sense of superiority toward the Gulf countries, and you have a lethal dose of inferiority/superiority complexes. Such labile states rarely evolve to something healthy. The islands, central to Israel’s maritime security and subject to Camp David restrictions, are unlikely to be Saudi property in a free and unfettered manner. For this tiny acquisition Saudi Arabia will likely offer cash to Egypt and earn anger in return. This was a bad deal for Saudi Arabia, made worse by the Saudi leadership’s inability to sense that.

For Egypt, the situation is likely worse. Sooner or later the combination of inferiority/superiority will work its way in a public fashion. The results will not be pretty. Europe’s descent to hell a century ago began with miscalculations and one large country feeling badgered by its neighbors, humiliated by the world, and betrayed by its leaders, and seeing no recourse beyond a loud assertion of nationalism. One can only look with disbelief as Arab states, or at least those that still exist as such, find ways to damage their prospects for paltry returns. The public reaction to a minor tweak of the map, and one with little strategic value, points to darker times ahead.

— Maged Atiya


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