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The Egyptian-Saudi islands issue   

Arab News - 12 January, 2017
Author: Mohammed Nosseir

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 disputes involving 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. Cairo signed an accord without considering the current political dynamic in Egypt, which refuses to accept the agreement. This has left Egypt and Saudi Arabia in an awkward situation.
We Egyptians are born and raised with a cultural attachment to our national soil, which epitomizes our identity and sense of belonging. The long years of war and conflict with Israel further strengthened our veneration of this sovereignty issue.
The close ties between Egypt and Saudi Arabia are the most long-lived and deep-rooted in the region. Two million Egyptians live and work in the Kingdom, in addition to an equal number who visit for religious purposes yearly. 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 the three-decade rule of former President Hosni Mubarak. Nevertheless, the country has changed completely, for better or worse, since the 2011 revolution.
We are not yet a democracy, but we are a strong, vibrant nation with a new political dynamism that Mubarak’s four successors have failed to deal with. The era of Gamal Abdel Nasser, when a clear majority of citizens blindly and sincerely supported a strong, popular leader, is long past.
President Abdel Fattah El-Sisi, who is probably both the articulator and victim of the current ruling mechanism that often addresses political issues from a unilateral perspective, would have done better to advocate for the maritime border agreement in a completely different manner.
The government recently sent the accord to Parliament for ratification, further complicating our internal dispute. The State Council had ruled that the maritime border agreement was legally invalid.
El-Sisi’s opponents not only rejected the agreement, but broke the anti-demonstration law and were sentenced to prison terms.
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, which 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 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 bilateral relationship must be salvaged without leaving either party feeling bitter.
The most appropriate course to adopt to sustain and strengthen the relationship is to freeze implementation of the accord for a 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 they are properly and completely convinced of the true ownership of the islands.

• Mohammed Nosseir, a liberal politician from Egypt, is a strong advocate of political participation and economic freedom. He can be reached on Twitter @MohammedNosseir.
 
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