Court ruling puts Egypt-Saudi ties on the line
CAIRO - An Egyptian court ruling overturning a government agreement to hand back control of two Red Sea islands to Saudi Arabia could raise diplomatic tensions between the countries and threaten Saudi economic aid to cash-strapped Cairo, experts said.
“The ruling will just mean that the two islands will continue to remain under Egyptian sovereignty,” legal expert Shawqi al-Sayed said. “It will also halt border demarcation understandings reached in the agreement.”
The maritime border demarcation agreement in which Egypt was to transfer control of Tiran and Sanafir islands to Saudi Arabia was signed in April in Cairo during a visit by Saudi King Salman bin Abdulaziz Al Saud.
Egypt occupied the islands in 1950 at a time of tension with Israel at the request of Saudi authorities. The agreement is important for Egypt to obtain minerals in its Red Sea territorial waters, according to Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al- Sisi.
The ruling on June 21st by Egypt’s State Council, an administrative court, revokes the agreement and states the two islands must remain under Egyptian sovereignty.
The deal between Cairo and Riyadh triggered protests in Egypt. Scores of political activists were put in jail for protesting against the deal.
The court decision embarrasses Sisi, puts Saudi economic aid in jeopardy and could lead to diplomatic tensions if it is approved by the Higher Administrative Court and becomes legally binding, observers said.
“Relations between the two states will inevitably be negatively affected in case of a final ruling in the case,” said Alia al-Mahdi, a political science professor at Cairo University. “Saudi economic aid to Egypt will be unimaginable in this case.”
When he visited Egypt in April, Salman threw a lifeboat to Sisi, whose country is in a serious economic crisis, by pledging billions of dollars in aid, encouraging Saudi investors to pour money into Egypt and donating $1.5 billion for the development of the Sinai peninsula.
The countries also agreed to build a bridge to link the two countries and ease trade and the movement of people between them. The bridge is expected to revolutionise economic ties between the two states, economic experts said.
All this could be brought to a halt by the court ruling, Mahdi said.
Advocates of the agreement, including lawmaker Mustafa Bakri, are angry. Bakri, who wrote a book about Sanafir and Tiran in an attempt to prove they are Saudi, not Egyptian, said the ruling goes beyond the constitutional jurisdiction of the Higher Administrative Court.
“Article 151 of the constitution gives the president the right to sign agreements and decide the country’s foreign relations,” Bakri said. “The other thing is that this court has no jurisdiction over high state issues.”
However, it was Egyptian Prime Minister Sherif Ismail, not Sisi, who signed the agreement with the Saudis. This, legal experts said, is the main reason the Higher Administrative Court has jurisdiction in the case.
The State Lawsuits Authority, a judicial body that represents the government in legal disputes, appealed the verdict only hours after it was announced.
Sayed said he expects Sisi to sign the agreement, enclose a copy with the appeal and request the ruling be overturned.
“I fault the president’s legal advisers in this,” Sayed said. “They should have alerted the president that he should have signed the agreement from the beginning.”
If the ruling is overturned, the agreement will be referred to parliament — which has a pro-Sisi majority — for approval, Bakri said.