The Tiran and Sanafir Islands at the Heart of an Online Protest

Michael Barak analyzes the reaction on Egyptian and Saudi social media to the transfer of the Tiran and Sanafir Islands from Egypt to Saudi Arabia.

In April 2016, the Egyptian government announced the signing of an agreement which transferred control of Tiran and Sanafir Islands from Egyptian to Saudi Arabian sovereignty. Since then, there has been heated debate around the issue on Egyptian social networking sites (SNS). On one side, the discourse is characterized by support for Egyptian President ‘Abd al-Fattah al-Sisi and his foreign policy, with an emphasis on the importance of improving the relationship between Egypt and Saudi Arabia. On the other, it is characterized by serious opposition to the prospect of “forfeiting” Egyptian territory and a deep disgust with the al-Sisi regime and its alleged oppression of citizens. This discourse has already resulted in two large demonstrations involving thousands of protesters in Cairo and Alexandra, and opponents of the regime there calling for the continuation of the revolution of January 25.

The Tiran and Sanafir Islands, located in the Gulf of Aqaba, were under Saudi jurisdiction until 1950. At that time, they were transferred to Egyptian sovereignty for fear that Israel would take control of them. Since al-Sisi came to power, the relationship between Egypt and Saudi Arabia has been strengthened, against the backdrop of the increasing threat that the two countries face from both Iran and Islamic terrorist groups. In the context of these improved relations, and as an acknowledgment of the extensive economic aid that Saudi Arabia has granted Egypt, the Egyptian government recently accepted the Saudis’ request that the two islands be returned.

Extensive public discourse around the issue developed on SNS in Egypt. Some described the move as high treason against the Egyptian people and a reflection of Egyptian sycophancy toward Saudi Arabia.[1] For example, one Egyptian user wrote, “The people feel betrayed. Egyptian land was sold cheaply.”[2] Others claimed that al-Sisi sold the islands for personal financial benefits from the Saudi regime. Activists in the April 6 Movement, a youth movement opposed to the regime, called on the army to not remain silent in the face of lost territory and coined the slogan, “al-Sisi does not represent me in the sale [of the islands].”[3] Among the angry posts was a song, entitled, “Awad sold his land.” “Awad” is a character taken from an old Egyptian song, which expresses the negative, repulsive image of someone who sells his land.[4]

There was also extensive discussion regarding the legal ownership of the islands. Many Egyptian users claim that the islands belonged to Egypt even before Saudi Arabia was established. According to their version, there is historical documentation proving that the Ottoman Empire transferred the two islands to Egypt in 1906, and that historically the countries of the world related to them as Egyptian.[5] The Ghad al-Thawra party, a strident opponent of the regime, posted a note on its Facebook page, which stated that “the two islands, and indeed all the territory of the Arabian Peninsula up to the border of Yemen should actually be under complete Egyptian sovereignty… as well as Sudan and all of Palestine including the Gaza Strip, Jordan and part of the al-Shaman lands that were once under Egyptian sovereignty!!!”[6] MP Haitham Elhariri summarized the mood by noting that only public pressure would be effective in bringing about a change in the decision.[7]

Supporters of al-Sisi, for their part, claimed that transfer of the islands was executed legally, and was important for national security because of the need to strengthen ties with Saudi Arabia.[8] Some of them accused Ayman Nour, founder of Ghad Al-Thawra, of forging documents that show El-Sisi receiving monetary bribes in return for transferring the islands.[9] One user noted that even Israel keeps its agreements with Lebanon, Cyprus and Gaza regarding the gas fields that were discovered in the Mediterranean, and therefore agreements between Arab states should be considered even more legitimate.[10] Saudi users also joined the conversation and defended the agreement, presenting historical proof of Saudi Arabia’s prior claim to the islands.[11]

In some cases, the discourse on SNS developed into a confrontation between Saudi users and Egyptian users, regarding the relationship between Egypt and Saudi Arabia. For example, one Saudi user noted that strengthening the relationship between the countries was primarily important for Egypt, which needs the Saudis’ financial assistance to maintain fiscal stability. In response, an Egyptian user wrote that it would be better if Saudi Arabia would stop supporting tyrannical regimes, and added that its support for Egypt is based purely on Saudi Arabia’s interests, and its need to reinforce its geopolitical status in the region, since “the fall of Egypt would lead to the fall of Saudi Arabia.”[12] Users identified with the Muslim Brotherhood, the April 6 Movement, and leftist movements such as “Socialism and Revolution,” used the issue of the islands to initiate a demonstration against the government and called on their supporters to take to the streets in protest. For this purpose they launched a hashtag “Friday: Land is honor,”[13] that was used in more than 100,000 tweets. In response to this organizing effort, the Egyptian Ministry of the Interior published a warning on Facebook that the Muslim Brotherhood intended to take advantage of the demonstration to create chaos and confrontation between citizens and security forces, exposing, inter alia, the seriousness with which Egypt takes SNS, since the fall of Mubarak.[14] Supporters of al-Sisi also disparaged the planned demonstration and expressed their support for the president with the hashtag, “We all are with al-Sisi.”[15] Another user wrote that the people stand by the president, “against the plot of those calling for a poisonous demonstration; and against the traitors who work against Egypt…”[16] Saudi users also expressed their disapproval and accused the Muslim Brotherhood of attempting to destabilize Egyptian security.

The demonstrations in streets of Cairo and Alexandria on April 25 were accompanied by the intensification of SNS discourse against the regime of al-Sisi, which included reports and videos uploaded from the scene.[17] The arrest of many demonstrators further fanned the flames; many took advantage of the opportunity to protest against other issues, including the lack of personal freedoms in Egypt. For example, one user tweeted that, “handing over the islands was the final straw that broke the camel’s back. It is an expression of a much larger problem prevailing in Egypt.”[18] Many demonstrators were filled with a feeling of euphoria and described the protest as continuation of the ‘Arab Spring’ in Egypt. One said that “This is not another revolution but rather the same revolution of January 25” which, in his words, has the potential to continue until corruption is eliminated and freedom and justice are established for Egyptians. Monael Tahawy, a well-known Egyptian activist, expressed great satisfaction with the demonstration: “I am happy to see that the people of Egypt have broken through the barrier of fear that al-Sisi imposed on the country.” [19]

The Internet discourse shows the dissatisfaction of large portions of the Egyptian population with the regime, and what may be the growing disintegration of its power base in light of the territorial price Egypt was forced to pay to Saudi Arabia. Saudi support of Egypt is considered problematic, and opponents of the Egyptian regime do not consider it support for their country but rather support for the al-Sisi regime that perpetuates the suppression of individual liberties.


[1] ‫#‏تيران_مصرية; ‫#‏صنافير_مصرية ; #‏الحجاز_مصرية; ‫#‏عواد_باع_ارضك

[2], viewed on April 9, 2016.

[4], viewed on April 12, 2016.

[5], viewed on April 10, 2016.

[6], viewed on April 11, 2016

[8] Ibid.

[10], viewed on April 13, 2016.

[11] #مصر_ترحب_بالملك_سلمان

[12], viewed on April 16, 2016.

[13] #جمعة_الأرض

[14], viewed on April 14, 2016.

[15] #كلنا_يد_واحده_مع_السيسي

[17] See for example the videos at

[18] ‫#‏عواد_باع_ارضك

[19], viewed on April 15, 2016.