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  • Islands Apart:Why the Saudi-Egypt Alliance is on the Rocks
  • Sarah El Sirgany (bio)

CAIRO—In May, 47 prisoners went on a hunger strike, adding fuel to the largest protest in Egypt since 2014. Held in overcrowded cells and denied medical care, they were only 23 days into their five-year sentences—but poor conditions were not the reason for their dissent. Security forces had arrested them in April for demonstrating against the government’s decision to hand over two Red Sea islands to Saudi Arabia.

Six days into the hunger strike, an appeals court struck down the prison sentence but left each of the protesters with a LE 100,000 Egyptian pound ($11,200) fine.

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Lawyer Khaled Ali holds up historical documents, which he says proves the islands of Tiran and Sanafir are Egyptian, on June 22.


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At first, the idea of collecting LE 4.7 million ($534,000) to free all the detainees in the two weeks before the month of Ramadan seemed impossible. The sum was too large, the time too short, and the security risks too high. But the fines provided a tangible cause that Egyptians, furious over the loss of land, could rally around. “You already had mobilization over the islands. … People already wanted to take to the streets,” said Randa, a pseudonym because she fears government reprisal.

Every day, Randa and other veteran activists posted on Facebook which café or cultural event they would attend, and strangers would show up and contribute money for the prisoners’ release. The activists and donors had no legal cover to accept or give donations, and they knew they risked arrest.

Inside the prison, the men listed the order of who should get out first—at the top were students with final exams and breadwinners with families. In the following days, lawyers paid fines for groups of five and eight detainees at a time, and those initial releases energized the campaign.

In the end, Randa and her fellow activists raised enough money for everyone. Even with her initial optimism, Randa was puzzled; no other issue—not mass killings, torture, or soaring food prices—had united people in the same way as Egypt’s decision to give up Tiran and Sanafir, two rocky uninhabited islands in the Gulf of Aqaba best known to scuba divers and history buffs. The demonstrations and the donation campaign reversed the street action fatigue that had marked the previous three years. Since a restrictive protest law was passed in November 2013, protesters had been killed, injured, or detained without any notable effect on decision-makers or public opinion. Most Egyptians had lost faith in the effectiveness of rallies.

Supporting the 47 was different. “People felt that they could do something with this contribution: They would deliver a political message,” said Nagy Kamel, an engineer and a father of three, who was the final protester to be released.

That message was twofold: Domestic opposition could still mobilize, and the public objected to Egypt’s perceived submissive role in the emerging regional order. Since then, the row has strained the already tense relations between the two countries. While both governments say they want to maintain close ties, conflicting expectations and national transformations threaten to destabilize this crucial alliance.


In April 2016, King Salman bin Abdul-Aziz Al Saud’s convoy brought Cairo’s already snarling traffic to a halt as it zigzagged across the city for a series of meetings. It was his first visit to Egypt since his ascension to the throne in January 2015. During the five-day visit, the king met with the grand sheikh of Al-Azhar, spoke with the pope of the Coptic Orthodox Church, and co-chaired a parliamentary session.

Building on the Cairo Declaration, an outline of areas of cooperation signed with the deputy crown prince in October 2015, the visit was a formal assertion that the alliance could withstand the countries’ growing disagreements over the Syrian and Yemeni conflicts.

King Salman signed 17 agreements in a televised meeting with Egyptian President Abdel-Fattah el-Sissi. The bundle of investments, grants, and...


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