This past week, Egyptian President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi finalized an agreement ceding sovereignty of the Tiran and Sanafir Islands in the Red Sea to Saudi Arabia. The controversial agreement follows more than a year of heated debate about whether Saudi Arabia or Egypt owns the islands. The dispute began after Sisi first pushed for the islands to be transferred to Saudi Arabia in April 2016. Before then, it was believed that Egypt had controlled Tiran and Sanafir. The decision was widely viewed as an attempt to court Saudi support for suspected financial gain for the Egyptian state.
While many commentators have claimed to know the answer to the ownership question, no one has yet pointed to any official documents or maps that clearly settle the issue. This is because the government treats information about Egypt’s borders as classified. Egyptian historian Khaled Fahmy has previously written in Mada Masr about the government’s sensitivity toward allowing the public to access basic facts about the country’s borders: “Since we have border disputes with all of our neighbors, not only can you not copy maps related to any border issue, you can’t conduct research on any topic vaguely related to borders.”
But, borders are not the only thing the Egyptian government is concerned about. It is nearly impossible, even dangerous, for any Egyptian or foreign scholar to access or freely use information found in the country’s national archives for research or other matters. A long-time advocate of greater accessibility to the archives, Fahmy has written extensively about his own encounters with security officials over using those materials. In his Mada Masr article, he noted one incident where a security guard at the archives, upon learning Fahmy was a professor of Middle Eastern studies at New York University, asked, “Oh, is that under the CIA?”
While the question may seem ridiculous, suspicions like these are real and dangerous. Giulio Regeni, an Italian PhD student at Oxford University, was killed while in police custody last year, after Egyptian officials suspected he was a spy because of his research on trade unions in the country. Indeed, these days many academics discourage their graduate students from conducting research in Egypt because of the serious risk involved.
As press freedom in Egypt becomes more restricted, with a growing list of news websites blocked, limiting access to the national archives underscores the state’s attack on every accessible channel that could threaten its authority. This is not a matter of “national security,” but rather one of ensuring the government controls what people can and cannot know.