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Robert Springborg

Tiran and Sanafir: Turning the political tide for Sisi?

Tiran and Sanafir sit in key international shipping routes [AFP]

Date of publication: 17 January, 2017

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Comment: The honeymoon is over for the Egyptian president, and his support may ebb away in the wake of the islands debacle, writes Robert Springborg.

When President Sisi is history we may realise retrospectively that Monday's Supreme Administrative Court ruling overturning his rash decision to hand Tiran and Sanafir islands to the Saudis marked the definitive turning of the political tide against him.

Although not a military defeat equivalent to the Falkland Islands or Cyprus catastrophes that drove military rulers from power in Argentina and Greece respectively, the Red Sea islands debacle similarly involves emotional issues of sovereignty and nationalism and reveals the country's leadership to be arrogant, incompetent and insensitive to the popular will.

Just as Argentina's generals and Greece's colonels failed to appreciate the probable backlash to their precipitate actions by the British and Turks respectively, and then failed to prepare to meet it, so did Sisi neither foresee the strongly negative domestic response to his April "gift" to Saudi King Salman and his son, Deputy Crown Prince Muhammad bin Salman, nor engage effectively in damage control.

The present of Tiran and Sanafir was obviously intended as a symbol which the king and his ambitious son could present to their Saudi domestic audience as a sign of Egyptian gratitude and respect for previous and future Saudi aid, an important symbol, given Saudi grumbling about the cost of that aid and Muhammad bin Salman's increasing political vulnerability resulting from the Yemeni debacle.

Unwilling to give the Saudis anything of real substance, such as military support in Yemen, Sisi settled upon the islands as a suitable, more or less costless present, presumably without so much as a thought about the likely domestic reaction.

Immediately faced with an unanticipated strong domestic challenge, including the most intense demonstrations against him since becoming president, he reacted in knee-jerk fashion, ordering the arrest and imprisonment of demonstrators, who he referred to as "evil people", while pledging to proceed with the transfer of sovereignty.

 
Analysis: Sanafir and Tiran are Egyptian, after all



Clearly he did not want to incur the loss of face involved in reneging on the gift, nor to aggravate King Salman and his ambitious son, who had gone out on a limb in April by pledging to renew flagging Saudi assistance to Egypt. Sisi presumably calculated that the merits of the case were at least sufficiently mixed that a bit of executive leverage on the courts would be sufficient to produce the outcome he desired.

And he had, after all, invested heavily in first courting the judiciary against the Muslim Brotherhood and in granting it privileged status in the 2014 constitution, and then in asserting steadily greater executive influence over it.

But Sisi's ill thought-out plan began to come apart in June, when on the 21st, Judge Yahia al-Dakrury of the Court of Administrative Justice ruled that Prime Minister Sherif Ismail violated the Constitution by signing the agreement and that the legal substance of the agreement would have to be ruled on by the Supreme Administrative Court.

This kicked off an ever-intensifying struggle between Sisi and key elements of the judiciary he sought to bend to his will. Not only was the issue of Tiran and Sanafir at stake for Sisi, but so too was that of the now increasing independence of the judiciary, virtually the only actor left within or outside of the state with any meaningful autonomy from the executive.

 
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This focus of the struggle between Sisi and the judiciary has been the administrative court system, within which several battles have now been fought.

Judge Dakrury, having demonstrated his willingness to cross the president and a candidate to become the head of the Maglis al Dawla, or State Council, at the end of June 2017, was a threat Sisi could not ignore.

If he were to assume that position, he would head the Supreme Administrative Court, which presides over the administrative judicial structure - and which on Monday handed down the Tiran and Sanafir ruling. So Sisi instructed his Ministry of Justice to draft a law that would transfer power from the senior judiciary to himself to make that appointment. That law is presently pending in parliament.

At the end of December, when Sisi must have calculated that the court would over-rule his decision, and when the Judge's Club was considering how to rebuff Sisi's efforts to take control of judicial appointments, the pressure was ramped up. Gamal al-Din Labban, the head of procurement for the State Council and the son of its former supreme judge, was arrested on corruption charges, with state television broadcasting pictures of bags of cash allegedly found in his apartment.

Immediately thereafter, Wail Shalabi, secretary-general of Administrative Courts, was also hauled in, but before he could be charged he was found hanged in his cell. The coroner immediately declared it suicide, a verdict which Shalabi's father hotly contested.

Sisi's impulsive decision to transfer Tiran and Sanafir to the Saudis thus set a course that is strewn with political wreckage



During that same fateful week, the cabinet, obviously acting on direct, urgent instructions from the president - because Prime Minister Ismail Sharif did not sign the document as required by administrative procedure - re-approved the decision to give the islands to Saudi Arabia and sent it to parliament for approval.

This brazen attempt to pre-empt the impending court ruling divided parliament itself, with the small opposition joined by even a few typical supporters of the government, protesting that it would be unconstitutional for parliament to interfere prior to the court ruling. In the event, parliament did not have time to act, possibly because the court accelerated its decision-making to ensure that its ruling would be issued prior to parliament's approval.

Sisi's impulsive decision to transfer Tiran and Sanafir to the Saudis thus set a course that is strewn with political wreckage. Protesters were widely viewed as defending the country's patrimony and standing up to the unpopular Saudis, whereas Sisi was seen as having sold Egypt out while muzzling his justified, brave critics.

The attack on the judiciary in general and the administrative court system in particular became increasingly crude, possibly including the murder of one of its highest-ranking members. After the military, the judiciary is the most popular institution in Egypt. It serves as a barometer of regime acceptability.

Clearly the honeymoon between it and the Sisi government is now over, signaling to the broader public that something, other than just economic mismanagement, is wrong with their president. Parliamentary opposition has been emboldened and the regime's yes men in it discredited.

As if the domestic consequences were not bad enough for Sisi, those for foreign policy are at least equally so. Saudi-Egyptian tensions at the popular level have been exacerbated yet further, rendering even more remote the possibility that the kingdom will resume its assistance to Cairo, suspended dramatically in September with cancellation of oil shipments.

 
Read more: Egypt presses ahead with Saudi island deal despite uproar



As the Tiran/Sanafir decision has been unravelling, Sisi has been moving away from the Saudis toward Iran, the only country in the world less popular than the US among Egyptians. He has accepted promised oil from Iraq to replace that from the Saudis, that oil clearly being dispatched on orders from Tehran.

In early January, the formation of a new Southern Fleet Command was announced, its area of operation implying it would be in direct competition with the Saudi navy off the Horn of Africa, where rivalry between the two is already intensifying as a result of Saudi support for Ethiopia in its conflict with Egypt over its new Renaissance Dam.

Paradoxically then, Sisi is moving in tandem with his own population in an anti-Saudi direction, but he is perceived by that population as kowtowing to the Saudis.

By any measure then this was a disastrous decision, symbolically similar to the miscalculations that led to the downfall of military governments in Argentina and Greece. While that is unlikely to happen as quickly in Egypt as it did in those two countries, when and if it does, Tiran and Sanafir will be remembered as the islands that marked the high tide of political support for Sisi, from which it began to recede.   


Robert Springborg is Kuwait Foundation Visiting Scholar at Harvard University's Middle East Initiative, Belfer Center. He is also Visiting Professor in the Department of War Studies, King's College, London, and non-resident Research Fellow of the Italian Institute of International Affairs. 

He has innumerable publications, including Mubarak's Egypt: Fragmentation of the Political Order; Family Power and Politics in Egypt; Legislative Politics in the Arab World (co-authored with Abdo Baaklini and Guilain Denoeux), Oil and Democracy in Iraq; Development Models in Muslim Contexts: Chinese, ‘Islamic’ and Neo-Liberal Alternatives, among others.


Opinions expressed in this article remain those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of The New Arab, its editorial board or staff.

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