Will the Ceding of Islands to Saudi Arabia End Al-Sisi’s Rising Popularity in Egypt

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Egypt Lost Islands

President Abdel Fattah al- Sisi of Egypt had a pretty rough time in the aftermath of his overthrow of President Morsi, the Muslim Brotherhood’s candidate in elections for the office of the Presidency in the immediate post Mubarrak era. Alarmed by the speed at which the Brotherhood attempted to change the sociopolitical complexion of Egypt from a moderate Islamic state to a fundamentalist one where Sharia law would be given enormous prominence, the Egyptian Army, officially Muslim but in practice a thoroughly secular institution, stepped in to remove Morsi. Egypt was thrown into a period of political instability as the Brotherhood resisted the coup. But Al-Sisi over time consolidated  power and endeared himself to multiple segments of Egyptian society—intellectuals, Christians, moderate Muslims, etc.

The Egyptian economy, severely battered by a number of crises—the Arab Spring which had blown over from Tunisia, the fall of Mubarak, Morsi’s turbulent presidency and his overthrow—began to mend as Sisi systematically weakened the Brotherhood and made tough decisions to promote economic growth.

The tourists started to come back, in spite of the destabilizing actions of Islamic State operatives. Sisi’s popularity improved significantly. He rode on this crest of public trust until the Saudi King landed in Cairo on April 7. The king was supposed to bring with him $22 billion in investments in the Egyptian economy.

The official purpose of the king’s visit was to discuss bilateral issues facing the two countries, particularly the current turmoil in the Middle East, where the Saudis are knee deep in Yemeni politics and war. Sisi’s decision to hand over the Tanafir and Tiran islands, strategically located at the mouth of the Gulf of Aqaba, was seen by many Egyptians as selling off  a part of the Egyptian patrimony for oil money from the Saudis. He has denied this and claimed the islands were Saudi in the first place and that the factors of international politics placed them in Egyptian hands a long time ago until the Saudi’s asked for their return.

Sisi, whose fans see in him many of the strong leadership qualities associated with the iconic Gamal Abdel Nasser has faced severe challenges lately, including the controversial death of an Italian student and the destruction of a Russian airliner from a terrorist bomb, an act which struck the reeling tourist industry. Sisi built his popularity by restoring order in the aftermath of the Morsi overthrow, and reversing the dangerous course Morsi had set for the country in his hewing to the path of extremism. Although he has burned some bridges by going after some in the secular establishment who gave him crucial support in the beginning, the deal with the Saudis, which has wounded Egyptian pride, may cost him significant support among his people.

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