Egyptians have reacted angrily after their government announced it would cede two disputed Islands to Saudi Arabia, a decision which came during a visit from the oil-rich Gulf state's King Salman that led to numerous aid and investment projects.
A bilateral agreement announced by the two countries on Saturday places the islands of Tiran and Sanafir — which are administered by Egypt — within Saudi territorial waters. Both are arid and inhabited only by military personnel, but hold strategic value due to their location at the entrance to the Gulf of Aqaba, Israel's only direct passage to the Red Sea.
The announcement happened in the middle of a five-day visit to Egypt by King Salman, during which he made a number of promises of aid and investment, including a Red Sea bridge linking the two countries that Egyptian President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi said would be named after the Gulf monarch. At least a dozen other new deals and initiatives were also unveiled, including a $16 billion investment fund, an economic free-zone to develop the Sinai, and an electricity plant.
As a result, the ceding of Tiran and Sanafir drew widespread outrage among Egyptians, leading tens of thousands to take to social media to express their displeasure, with the hashtag #Tiran_Sanafir quickly topping the country's Twitter top trends. Many described the land as being "sold" by Sisi, who also awarded King Salman with the Order of the Nile, Egypt's highest state honor.
"The island for a billion, the pyramid for two, and a pair of statues thrown in for free," satirist Bassem Youssef tweeted.
Others pointed out that Sisi himself had introduced a constitutional clause specifically prohibiting giving up Egyptian territory. The amendment was made after opponents of President Mohamed Morsi — removed from power in 2013 by Sisi in his former capacity as armed forces head — accused him of plans to give Hamas control of part of the Sinai.
A far smaller group of protesters gathered in central Cairo on Sunday to demonstrate against the agreement, before police dispersed the crowd and arrested several, according to local media.
A number of legal complaints are set to be filed against the decision, including one from Khaled Ali, a former head of the Egyptian Center for Economic NGO and a 2012 presidential candidate .
But Egyptian officials said the islands have always been within Saudi waters, and a cabinet statement noted the decision was based on the "latest scientific methods" and came after six years of negotiations and 11 rounds of meetings. The deal still requires final approval from Egypt's House of Representatives, an additional statement said on Sunday.
The controversy comes at a relative low point in Sisi's popularity as the economy continues to falter and opponents level sharp criticism at the government's handling of the investigation into the murder of Italian graduate student Giulio Regeni.
It may well be worth it, however. Egypt's financial woes, exacerbated by the 2011 revolution and subsequent instability, have meant it has relied on injections of cash from Gulf allies. The cozy Cairo-Riyadh relationship has soured somewhat since King Salman's inauguration due to policy differences over Yemen and Syria. For Sisi, losing control of two small, disputed islands, will likely seem like a small loss in exchange for future Saudi billions.