Egypt’s Sisi defends Red Sea islands deal with Saudis

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Amid heavy criticism, Egyptian President Abdul Fatah Sisi has defended the transfer of two strategic Red Sea islands to Saudi Arabia.

In a TV address on April 13, Sisi said Egypt did not give up the territory but rather “restored” the rights of Saudi Arabia to the islands. The islands, Sanafir and Tiran, were transferred to Saudi Arabia on April 9 during Saudi King Salman’s visit.

Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi (R) greets Saudi King Salman bin Abdulaziz at the Presidential Palace in Cairo on April 9. /AFP
Egyptian President Abdul Fatah Sisi greets Saudi King Salman at the Presidential Palace in Cairo on April 9. /AFP

Critics said Sisi only handed over the islands after Salman pledged $16 billion in aid and investment to Egypt.

Israeli government officials said Saudi Arabia has guaranteed that it would not try to stop Israeli shipping through the area where the islands are located. Sanafir and Tiran are situated off the coast of Eilat, Israel’s southernmost port city and provide Israel’s only access to the port of Aqaba.

Egyptian blockage of the passage in 1967 was said to be one of the reasons Israel launched the Six Day War.

Under the 1979 peace treaty with Egypt, Israel handed the islands back to Egypt.

Meanwhile, Sisi said Egypt, whose economy is struggling after years of unrest and a severe drop in tourism, could have taken advantage of the chaos in oil-rich Libya and invaded it to avenge the killing there last year of 21 Egyptian Christians by Islamic State of Iraq and Levant (ISIL).

“We cannot invade our friends there and usurp their land. It could have happened, but we said ‘no,’ ” Sisi said. “That’s what my late mother had taught me: never covet what belongs to others.”