North Africa, West Asia

Egypt without Egyptians: the story of the Red Sea islands

Egyptian nationalism, as an ideology nurtured by the military elites and embraced by the middle class, marginalizes the mass of Egyptians.

Maged Mandour
13 February 2017
NurPhoto SIPA USA/PA Images. All rights reserved.

Egyptian lawyer and leftist opposition figure Khaled Ali celebrates in courthouse in Cairo after the verdict. NurPhoto SIPA USA/PA Images. All rights reserved.In April 2016, an agreement was reached between Egypt and Saudi Arabia to transfer two islands in the Red Sea from Egyptian to Saudi sovereignty.

Human rights lawyer and ex-presidential candidate, Khalid Ali, took the case to court and much to people’s surprise, the agreement was annulled in January 2017.

However, in what appears to be an attempt to circumvent the courts, the Egyptian government sent the agreement to parliament for ratification, with the head of parliament stating that the ratification will proceed regardless of the court verdict.

This court ruling was the regime’s first major defeat and the first instance, leading up to the annulment, that sizable protests had taken place against Sisi’s regime.

However, as the opposition were claiming a legal and moral victory, human rights organizations published figures on state repression in 2016, which include more than 4000 cases of extra-judicial killings and 3000 forced disappearances.

Interestingly, the transfer of two islands triggered the eruption of the first large protests against the regime (a number of activists and protesters remain behind bars even though the agreement was annulled), but mass repression did not.

State repression has failed to galvanize mass societal opposition

State repression has failed to galvanize mass societal opposition, especially within the ranks of the middle class. These events shed light on the nature of Egyptian nationalism and how it is an ideology of this class.

This nationalism marginalizes the mass of Egyptians, as an Orientalist perception is held of the periphery. And the memory of the 1973 war fuels their nationalistic pride, as explained below.

The 1973 war

In order to gain a deeper understanding of this latest episode, one needs to examine the process of myth building, perpetuated by the regime, regarding the war of 1973. This process plays a central part in the legitimization of the military regime.

The military is glorified for the “sacrifices” it made in order to liberate Sinai, and these myths have instilled deeply rooted feelings of nationalism in the hearts of the middle class.

There are a plethora of songs and films about the liberation of Sinai, one of the most notable is the operate popularly known as “We chose you” which reenacts the events of the war.

However, the most notable section is a song that praises Mubarak as the head of the air force at the time, followed by promises of “Bay’ah”, an Islamic oath of allegiance to the leader.

This involved an exaggeration of the role the air force played in the conflict, which in reality was marginal. The war was appropriated by Mubarak only because he was the head of the air force at the time, and to reinforce the legitimacy of his regime.

This even included the insertion of Mubarak into a picture taken of the operations room removing Saad El Din el Shazly, the Chief of Staff, who later voiced criticism of Sadat’s and Mubarak’s narrative of the war.    

The sacrifices and stories of the ordinary men and women, overwhelmingly from the periphery, are casually ignored from official narratives.

After the defeat of 1967, the collapse of Nasserism, and the wide social transformation that followed, the war of 1973 served to legitimize the regime, and was the anchoring myth on which its power was in its role as the “protector” of Egyptian land.

One of the most potent attacks against the Muslim Brotherhood during their year in power was the accusation that they were planning on selling the Suez Canal to the Qataris, and that they were planning on using Sinai as an ersatz homeland for the Palestinians.

The myth of the “protector” of Egyptian lands was revived by the Sisi regime to legitimise the coup of 2013

Thus, the myth of the “protector” of Egyptian lands was revived by the Sisi regime to legitimise the coup of 2013 –  this time against an internal rather than external enemy.

This helped create the regime’s support base, most notably among the middle class, which is still under the influence of the myth of the 1973 war.

This also explains the strong backlash against the regime, when it decided to transfer the Red Sea islands to Saudi Arabia, since it goes against its own founding myth and undercuts its own ideological base in a move that was bound to create cognitive dissonance, even amongst its staunchest supporters.

It has, in essence, done what the Brotherhood was accused of doing, namely give up Egyptian sovereignty in exchange for aid.      


Coupled with this process of myth building is the orientalist dynamic, which dominates the center/periphery relationship in Egypt, where the majority of Egyptians living in the periphery are considered alien to “modern” Egypt.

This is most apparent in the case of Sinai, which paradoxically is mythologized as a geographic location, however its people are not only marginalized and repressed, but also considered to be outside the nation.

The regime, for example, has embarked on a massive campaign of repression in Sinai, which has hardly made any impact on Egyptian public opinion. One of the notable cases was the demolition of thousands of houses on the border of Rafah to create a buffer zone with the Gaza strip, which has aroused little domestic condemnation.

Another example of this orientalist dynamic is the struggle of the Nubians to return to their homelands, which also goes unnoticed by most.

There is a strong orientalist view of the periphery as the domain of backwardness and barbarism, justifying repression and the use of violence. Thus, the repression of the periphery does not arouse much anger, and is sometimes justified as necessary for the protection against its backwardness.


This helps explain the level of opposition that rose due to the transfer of the Red Sea islands. What became clear is that the attachment of the middle class to the myth of the “place” has no equivalent to the inhabitants of this place.

the attachment of the middle class to the myth of the “place” has no equivalent attachment to the inhabitants of this place

This attachment is so strong that it created a crisis within the ranks of the state apparatuses, namely the judiciary, which has so far supported the executive branch and the military, as it ruled against the transfer of the islands, even though it has been subjected to intense pressure not to do so.

For example, in a rare corruption probe, a judge in the administrative court was arrested, later to hang himself in his cell in suspicious circumstances. Thus, the move away from the myth has created inter-elite conflict, which the regime has avoided until now.           

One can argue that Egyptian nationalism, as an ideology nurtured by the military elites and embraced by the middle class, produced an urban center oriented vision of Egypt; a nationalism that glorifies the land, but not the people that inhabit this land.

The image of Egypt that dominates discourse is that of the urban centers, anchored around the middle class, seeing itself as the bearer of modernity.

In other words, Egypt without the Egyptians!   

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