Ruling on islands brings new chapter in Cairo-Riyadh ties
Cairo- A decision by Egypt’s Higher Administrative Court to revoke an agreement between Cairo and Riyadh for the handover of the Red Sea islands of Tiran and Sanafir put to rest an 8-month heated debate about what should happen to the two islands.
The ruling came after Saudi-Egyptian relations had been improving due to mediation by regional powers, opening the door for various other options to end the emerging crisis.
The Higher Administrative Court on January 16th annulled an agreement signed by Egypt and Saudi Arabia last April for the handover of the two Red Sea islands to Saudi Arabia.
The agreement triggered protests in Egypt as the opposition accused the government of abdicating control of the islands in return for Saudi aid.
While Egyptians engaged in an uproarious debate, Saudi Arabia remained calm, not even commenting on a ruling last June that revoked the agreement. The Egyptian government appealed that ruling but the Higher Administrative Court upheld it.
“Egypt’s sovereignty over the islands of Tiran and Sanafir is beyond any doubt,” said Judge Ahmed al- Shazly in the decision.
There had been doubts that the government was willing to hand the islands over to Saudi Arabia. Sources in Cairo said documents presented to the court by the government were either weak or proved that the islands were Egyptian.
In one instance, the government’s lawyer presented a document from a February 1954 UN Security Council session that showed the islands were Saudi. The same document said.
Egyptian troops were deployed on the two islands during the second world war and that they had been occupied by the Egyptian Army since 1906 as boundaries between Egypt and the Ottoman empire were demarcated.
The document said the two islands were exclusively Egyptian after Egypt became independent from the empire.
Lawyer Essam al-Eslamboli said the head of the office of the late intelligence chief Omar Suleiman had given him a document proving that the islands were Egyptian. He added that he and his colleagues had had two other documents — one from the intelligence agency and another from the Foreign Ministry — proving that the islands were Egyptian.
Observers said the government found it difficult to convince many Egyptians to support the agreement and feared protests against the islands’ transfer would threaten the country’s stability.
Government lawyers said the agreement was an act of sovereignty and that the judiciary should not be involved. However, Shazly said the case fell under court jurisdiction, since it was an administrative dispute.
Lawyer Khaled Ali, who also challenged the government in the case, said the Higher Administrative Court was the only court with jurisdiction over the case.
“This is why the verdicts of this court are final,” he said, adding that the government could not have the ruling overturned by resorting to the Higher Constitutional Court.
“The government’s decision to refer the agreement to parliament is also unlawful,” Ali said.
Mahmoud Kobeish, the former dean of the College of Law at Cairo University, said the Higher Constitutional Court could only say whether the agreement was an act of sovereignty, adding “this does not mean that the court can overturn the ruling of the Higher Administrative Court that nullifies the agreement”.
He said parliament would make matters worse if it insists on discussing the agreement, noting that the government should find a way out of the crisis other than pitting the legislative and judicial powers against each other.
A diplomatic source from Cairo referred to three options for ending the crisis: Freezing the agreement and launching joint Saudi-Egyptian projects on the two islands; renegotiating the fate of the islands; or Saudi Arabia turning to international arbitration.
Observers say the two countries must reconsider their relations and get over the islands issue.
The ruling opens the door for rifts between the two countries on other regional issues, including Yemen and Syria as well as the relations with Iran.
There are, however, opportunities for cooperation between them, such as investments in labour, tourism and trade.