Despite parliamentary vote, Red Sea islands saga set to continue

Sunday 18/06/2017
Strategic location. The Red Sea’s Tiran (foreground) and Sanafir (background) islands in the Strait of Tiran between Egypt’s Sinai Peninsula and Saudi Arabia. (AFP)

Cairo- The saga over Egypt’s trans­fer of the uninhabited Red Sea islands of Tiran and Sanafir to Saudi Arabia is set to continue following an Egyptian parliamentary vote and constitutional panel report.
Egyptian parliamentarians on June 14 approved a controversial maritime demarcation agreement after a tense 3-day session. The next day, however, a senior consti­tutional panel concluded that two courts, which ruled to annul the agreement, had acted within their jurisdiction, contrary to govern­ment claims.
Egypt’s Supreme Constitutional Court is to start hearings July 30 on whether the courts acted within their jurisdiction to annul the deal. The panel’s report, issued June 15, is a guideline for the Supreme Consti­tutional Court.
The transfer of sovereignty of the strategic Red Sea islands has been a heated topic in both Egypt and Sau­di Arabia since it was announced during King Salman bin Abdulaziz Al Saud’s April 2016 visit to Cairo.
The latest legislative action an­gered opponents of the agreement. “By approving the deal, the parlia­ment is overlooking the views of the vast majority of the public, which is totally against it,” said Khalid Ali, a lawyer who has been party to a legal battle against the sovereignty trans­fer.
“This deal is catastrophic and ap­proving it will weaken public confi­dence in the president, the parlia­ment and the government.”
Egyptian Parliamentary Speaker Ali Abdel Aal described the vote as “final approval” of the deal and told MPs that court rulings that annulled the agreement ultimately had no ju­risdiction.
Egypt’s Higher Administrative Court, which rules on legal disputes between citizens and the state, re­voked the deal on January 16. How­ever, an April decision by the Cairo Court for Urgent Matters ruled that administrative courts have no ju­risdiction over issues relating to national borders. It is up to Egypt’s Supreme Constitutional Court to decide.
The islands, at the entrance to the Gulf of Aqaba and on the mari­time border between Egypt’s Sinai Peninsula and Saudi Arabia, are of extreme strategic importance to Egypt’s presence in the Red Sea.
Egypt took over administrative control of Tiran and Sanafir in 1950, with approval from Saudi Arabia, to prevent Israel from controlling the islands.
Egypt oversaw the closure of the Strait of Tiran in 1967, which led to the Six-Day War, and the two islands were included as part of the 1979 Egypt-Israel peace treaty. For many Egyptians, attachment to the two islands is a sentimental connection to Egypt’s past and any move to cede sovereignty comes at the expense of Egyptian patriotism.
Opponents of the deal submit­ted documents and maps they said prove the islands were Egyptian. However, government lawyers submitted documents and maps that showed that, while the islands were under Egyptian administra­tion, they remained under Saudi sovereignty.
There was strong opposition to the deal even inside parliament. “Those who had voted for the agreement should be ashamed of themselves because for the first time in this country’s history some people are willingly giving up na­tional territory to another country,” said MP Diaa Dawoud, who voted against the agreement.
Many MPs supporting Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi voted for the deal, non-implementation of which has placed Sisi in an awk­ward position in front of Gulf allies.
“Egypt cannot maintain control on islands that belong to another country,” Kamal Amer, the head of the Defence and National Security Committee said in parliament. “All documents prove the islands to be Saudi.”
In April 2016, Sisi said defining maritime borders with Saudi Arabia would enable Egypt to explore min­eral deposits in its territorial Red Sea waters.
In 2015, Egypt signed a maritime boundary demarcation deal with Greece and Cyprus. A year later, Egypt made a huge natural gas find off its Mediterranean coast.
Cairo hopes that Tiran and Sana­fir will be at the centre of future economic cooperation between Egypt and Saudi Arabia. The coun­tries declared a plan in April 2016 to construct a causeway connect­ing Sinai with the western side of Saudi Arabia, passing over the two islands.
In Egypt, deal advocates said the causeway would revolutionise trade between Gulf countries and Egypt but protests at the Journal­ists’ Syndicate and outside parlia­ment showed the scale of public discontent towards the deal.
Ali said he would maintain his le­gal battle against the deal and that he and like-minded activists would not allow the islands’ handover. Egypt’s Constitution bans abdica­tion of national territories. Ali said he could seek to take parliament’s decision to court.
“Our battle against the handover of the islands has not come to an end,” he said. “We cannot fall silent while a piece of our country is given to another country.”