Has Egyptian President Abd el Fattah el Sisi lost his charm?
By Col. (ret.) Dr. Jacques Neriah
Things are getting tough in Egypt for Abdel Fattah el Sisi who is suffering from a steep fall in popularity and open criticism in recent months. The latest events to spark the unparalleled attacks against Sisi's tenure are the agreement to cede the two islands of Tiran and Sanafir, commanding the entrance to the Gulf of Aqaba, to Saudi Arabia and the questions arising from Egypt's behavior in the case of the death of the Italian student Giulio Regeni, a PhD student at Girton College, Cambridge, who was researching Egypt's independent trade unions. Abducted in Cairo, Regeni was found a few days later in a ditch with marks of severe torture on his body, allegedly the work of the Egyptian secret service.
Most of the Egyptian press and opinion makers did not comment on the Regeni case but limited themselves to reporting factually the deteriorating relations with Italy. The Italian government recalled its ambassador for consultations following the stuttering explanations given by the Egyptian government relating to the case. But the transference of sovereignty of the two islands to Saudi Arabia has been the issue met with open anger and protests.
Since the beginning of the 20th century, Egypt and Saudi Arabia have disputed the sovereignty over the two islands of Tiran and Sanafir commanding the maritime traffic to Israel, Jordan and Saudi Arabia. Whether Tiran and Sanafir islands belong historically to Saudi Arabia or to Egypt is not the purpose of this paper. However, in a well-documented presentation, the Egyptian government said the case was a restoration of usurped sovereignty to Saudi Arabia, and in Sisi's words, "We have returned to Saudi Arabia its rights."
It is an accepted historical fact that in 1950 "under the prevailing circumstances of hostilities facing Israel, Egypt had invaded with Saudi benediction" (as stated by the official Egyptian version) and taken full control of the Tiran and Sanafir islands to use them as military outposts. The strategic position of the islands was twice put into practice when President Nasser of Egypt ordered in 1956 and then again in 1967 a maritime blockade denying Israeli ships, as well as all ships bound to and from Israel, to pass through the Straits of Tiran. It appears now, according to information released by the Egyptian government following the announcement made by Egypt and Saudi Arabia, that the islands were part and parcel of the Wahhabi Kingdom of Saudi Arabia. Negotiations had been conducted in 11 rounds of meetings between the disputing sides during the presidential tenures of Hosni Mubarak, Muhammed Morsi, and finally Sisi in order to reach the decision to return the two islands to Saudi Arabia.
The official explanations did not appease public opinion in Egypt. Short of accusing Sisi of betrayal, his critics reproached him for in effect selling the islands to Saudi Arabia in return for lavish economic assistance. Ahmad Sayyed AlNajjar, chairman of the prestigious state-owned Al-Ahram newspaper wrote, "The homeland is not a room for rent or a travelling station…"
AlNajjar added on Facebook, "Umm Rashrash (the Arab name for Eilat) remains a stolen jewel, and I am deeply convinced that we will get it back one day. From all our border areas, Sanafir and Tiran appear as a jewel Egypt defended with outstanding courage and shed blood and souls in order to keep the straits that command the entrance to the Gulf of Aqaba in dire times of destiny. I say goodbye to our untouchable national borders because they are the blood and flesh of Egypt and the map of the heroic deeds of its people and the frontiers of its existence forever."
Egyptians charged their once-popular president, Sisi, of surrendering the islands to win the Saudis' favor. One cartoon showed the Sphinx wearing a Saudi kaffiya; On Twitter, a popular hashtag was "I feel like selling what to Saudi Arabia? "
A media prominent person, Jaber AlQarmouty, stated that Sisi lost popularity because of his decision to hand over the two islands to Saudi Arabia and added, in a very unusual statement addressed to Sisi, "If the matter continues in this pattern, it is not going to be in your interest…" Turning to the issue of Regeni and the disastrous state of tourism following the ISIS terrorist bombing of a Russian civilian aircraft over Sinai, AlQarmouty referred to the Egyptian government's bumbling press statements, "I doubt you agree with the Regeni and the Russian airplane files!"
Politicians were quick to react and to accuse Sisi of a loss of legitimacy and that the act may even contradict the newly voted constitution. Others argued that the issue was "too important not be presented in a referendum according to article 151 of the constitution." Amro AlShubaki, a political commentator, added that the executive branch should not be given "an open check… while deputies in parliament should fulfill their role in controlling the actions of government and its legislation in introducing a motion of non-confidence in the government because of misbehavior."
No doubt that Sisi's decision to cede the islands to Saudi Arabia became in the hands of the opposition a hatchet to throw against him in order to expose his shortcomings since the beginning of his tenure as president. His bitter opponent living in exile in the Emirates, General Ahmad Shafik, once a presidential candidate, published a pamphlet in which he pointed at Sisi's failures in running Egypt's foreign policy. Shafik pointed at Egypt's failure to stop Ethiopia's Renaissance Dam on the Nile and the deterioration of Egypt's relations with "the Italian people." Shafik asked what caused such a situation and wondered whether the shortcomings were the result of slow governmental decision-making or the result of Sisi's own decision-making. Mocking Sisi's arguments against his predecessor Morsi, Shafik asked to "go back to the people before making any decisions."
Facing the growing anger against his policy, President Sisi, unlike in the past, chose to confront his detractors in an open speech in which he defended his policies and pointed at his opposition as being part of those who want to harm Egypt: the Muslim Brotherhood and the Salafists. Sisi concluded that the Egyptian army was the sole defender of Egypt while he had no political inclinations at all. Furthermore, Sisi declared that in any case the parliament will have to debate the issue; it is up to this institution to accept or to reject the agreement with Saudi Arabia.
Sisi is well aware of the many criticisms against his regime:
Almost two years since his election, Sisi has lost much of his luster. Sisi is no longer criticism-proof. He is no more the "wonder kid," the magician with the magic wand, the man whose portrait used to be printed on candy boxes and loafs of bread. He is no more compared to Nasser as he was at the beginning of his presidential campaign. His opponents are either in jail, waiting for trial or on the run in other Arab states. Criticism against his regime is widespread today.
Sisi's reactions show that the criticism has taken a toll on him. He has become intolerant to an extent that during his last speech he forbade the audience to ask questions, claiming that he was the only one allowed to speak, igniting instantaneous reactions in the social networks and protests in the streets. State television stopped live transmission immediately after Sisi's reaction, which became an issue of free expression in Egypt. The hashtag "speech does not need permission" trended on Twitter, with Egyptians mocking the fact that Sisi had invited people to a debate in which only he aired his views. "This is a country, not a school, and those are two islands, not two cheese sandwiches," tweeted one commentator.
In this reality, political reforms and western-style democracy are far from being the focal subject of conversations. Newspaper editors no longer hide their disappointment as the crackdown on dissent has spread from the Muslim Brotherhood to liberal and secular activists. Sisi could not have dreamt that less than two years after taking office he would be confronted by protesters defying government orders against demonstrations against the regime and chanting "the man who sold the land should go" like the chants five years ago calling for a different president to "go away!"
The regime's reaction has been firm and unequivocal. Sisi understands very well that his ill-advised island decision has been "hijacked" by the Muslim Brotherhood and the liberal opposition in order to slam his regime and to force him to resign. Since the decision on the islands has been made public, hundreds of Muslim Brothers and "liberal" opposition members have been arrested, and repressive measures have been adopted to contain any major protest against the regime. At this point, protests have been waged in different areas in Egypt. It is too early to assess whether the protests are going to grow and become uncontrollable.
Among all the decisions Sisi made in the last two years, the one to cede the islands to Saudi Arabia might become the decision with the direst consequences to his regime.
There is one sentence that depicts the Egyptian regime's situation today. It will uncompromisingly fight for its survival.
Col. (ret.) Dr. Jacques Neriah, a special analyst for the Middle East at the Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs, was formerly Foreign Policy Advisor to Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin and Deputy Head for Assessment of Israeli Military Intelligence.