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Analysis: Egypt's Sinai Liberation Day - tension trumps triumphalism

Egyptian military vehicles positioned near Cairo's Tahrir square on January 26, 2014
Ahmed Tarana (AFP/File)
Tensions are high this year after government decided to return Red Sea islands to Saudis

In the official history of contemporary Egypt, no event outranks the importance of the 1973 war against Israel and the subsequent return of Egyptian sovereignty over the Sinai Peninsula.

The country marks its success in overrunning Israeli positions along the Suez Canal annually with a October 6 Army Day while the April 25 Sinai Liberation Day celebrates the 1982 withdrawal of Israeli military forces back to the approximate borders of the 1949 armistice agreements.

But this year official triumphalism of Sinai Liberation Day has been replaced with tension after President Abdel Fattah el Sisi's government decided to return the Red Sea islands of Tiran and Sanafir to Saudi control.

Even the president's supporters think he committed a public relations faux pas by bundling the handover announcement with plans to name a new bridge across the Tiran Straits after Saudi King Salman.

And while the Tiran Straits bridge would bolster Egypt as a global crossroads for cargo and passengers, “the government should have talked transparently to the public about the maritime border agreement with Saudi Arabia,” said political scientist Amr Hamzawy.

“Some people simply want to oppose Sisi and are therefore turning a blind eye to documents that prove the islands are Saudi,” Hamzawy said.

Saudi Arabia controlled the islands until 1950, when Egypt was granted “custodianship” of Tiran and Sanafir by Riyadh which then supported Cairo’s attempt to block Red Sea access to the newly created state of Israel.

Access now is guaranteed both by international law and the terms of the 1979 Egyptian-Israeli peace accord - reaffirmed to Jerusalem by the Saudis through diplomatic channels before the deal was made public.

For Sisi’s foes, the handover is a chance to slam his patriotic credentials.

The discourse of the Muslim Brotherhood increasingly bundles Egyptian nationalism with a critique of government economic policies and limits on free expression.

“Egyptians' rage is spreading fast,” said a Brotherhood spokesman.

“We are expressing rejection of the sale of pieces of the homeland by the corrupt military-appointed regime which is making the poor even poorer and whose brutal police feel free to callously kill them for the most trivial reasons.”

The secular-revolutionary April 6 Youth Movement has called on its supporters to “stop the unconstitutional decision by the regime” and seize the symbolism of Sinai Liberation Day to mobilize broadly against the government’s restrictive policies.

Room to criticize el Sisi’s direction has clearly narrowed in recent weeks.

Scores of activists from across Egypt have been detained by security forces ahead of the planned protests.

Some anti- government intellectuals and leaders of dissent groups were pulled away from their hangouts in the shisha bars and cafes of downtown Cairo.

On Saturday Prime Minister Sherif Ismail ordered the sacking of the head of Egyptian Radio and Television after a news presenter called for Sinai Liberation Day demonstrations and denounced the islands handover.

The Interior Ministry- which controls Egypt’s police force- has warned the public to stay off the streets.

"The ministry will stand hard against any maneuvers to destabilize national security and any vital public or police facilities," said Interior Minister Magdy Abdel-Ghaffar adding that there would be “no leniency for anyone who breaks the law .”

Permits for protests are rarely granted in Sisi’s Egypt. And the call for demonstrations by the April 6 Youth Movement and the Brotherhood will put their followers in the crosshairs of police sharp shooters and army swat teams deployed in the streets of Cairo and beyond.

Yet, it’s not only an intimidating show of force by the state that is likely to limit the scope of the planned protests.

Egypt’s business community backs the handover.

In their minds, Saudi pledges of $22 billion in new aid and investment will do more to bolster the country’s security than retaining two desert islands thirty four years after their evacuation by Israel.

The realist approach was exemplified in an opinion piece for the Cairo daily Akhbar el Youm written by billionaire telecom tycoon Naguib Sawiris .

“I doubt that an army man who spent his career defending our soil could turn over and sell land that truly belongs to Egypt,” wrote Sawiris who praised President Sisi’s ability to attract international investment and assistance for the country’s armed forces.

Jacob Wirtschafter is a Middle East correspondent for Associated Reporters Abroad and a contributor to i24News from Cairo. His Twitter handle is @levantreporter

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