Ruling reignites Red Sea islands’ controversy in Egypt
Cairo - Acourt ruling supporting an agreement to handover the Red Sea islands of Tiran and Sanafir to Saudi Arabia opens the door for approval of the deal by the Egyptian Parliament but also threatens to stoke public anger.
The verdict by the Court of Urgent Matters, which rules on cases that require immediate judicial intervention, reverses a decision by the Higher Administration Court, which looks into legal disputes between citizens and the state. It had nullified the islands’ handover agreement with Saudi Arabia.
“The government insists to abdicate control of the islands for money,” said Khaled Ali, a lawyer who was among those leading the legal battle against the islands’ handover, “but I want this government to know that it will open the door for a new public uprising if it goes ahead with giving the islands to Saudi Arabia.”
The potential handover of the islands has been divisive since the Egyptian government signed a deal with Saudi King Salman bin Abdulaziz Al Saud in April 2016 during a visit to Cairo.
Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, who strongly advocated the islands’ control transfer to Saudi Arabia, said Tiran and Sanafir moved to Egyptian control before the 1967 war against Israel when the Saudis asked Egyptians to protect them against potential Israeli occupation.
Many Egyptian politicians and historians agree with him but others say there are documents proving that the islands have been Egyptian for hundreds of years.
In December, the government referred the agreement to parliament, which is controlled by backers of the president, for approval. A few days later, the Higher Administrative Court revoked the deal and said the islands were Egyptian.
The Court of Urgent Matters’ ruling on April 2, however, gives the government the right to move ahead with the referral of the deal to parliament, lawmakers said.
Mohamed Orabi, a former foreign minister who is a member of the Egyptian Parliament’s Foreign Affairs Committee, said parliament would debate the deal anyway.
“Parliament members are mindful that there is opposition to the deal on the streets,” Orabi said. “Nevertheless, they must be mindful of the rights of others.”
The latest verdict was issued only days after Sisi met with King Salman on the sidelines of the Arab summit. The meeting followed months of tension between Cairo and Riyadh on several fronts, including Egypt’s opposition to Saudi Arabia’s stance on the war in Syria.
Saudi Arabia called for unseating Syrian President Bashar Assad and was reported to have heavily invested in backing the armed opposition to him. Egypt, however, sought to retain Assad’s presence in power for a transitional period during which his army kicks what it calls the “radicals” out of Syria.
In November 2016, Saudi oil giant Aramco suspended the delivery of oil shipments to Egypt — based on a deal signed seven months earlier giving Cairo preferential financial treatment — in what was seen as a sign of growing Saudi problems with the Cairo government.
Tensions between the two countries seem to be on the way out. Aramco in mid-March said it would resume shipping oil to Egypt. King Salman has invited Sisi to visit Riyadh and a Saudi Foreign Ministry delegation is expected in Cairo to prepare for Sisi’s visit.
These developments give Ali the impression that the mending of fences between Cairo and Riyadh will come at the cost of Egyptian control of the islands. Ali has appealed the Court of Urgent Matters’ ruling. He warned that the islands’ transfer would sound the death knell for Sisi’s regime.
“There are worrying signs that Sisi will move ahead with giving the islands to the Saudis but this is very dangerous,” Ali said.
Soon after the islands’ handover deal was announced, protests erupted in Cairo and other provinces. Behind the anti-deal fervour is the sacredness of land in Egyptian culture, hence expectations that the handover of the islands would cause nationwide unrest.
Legal expert Shawqi al-Sayed called for a solution that does not destabilise Egypt nor anger the Saudis.
“Legal experts can find a solution that causes no harm to anybody,” Sayed said. “The government cannot sacrifice its ties with Saudi Arabia but also cannot risk angering the people.”
Sayed did not say, however, what this “harmless” solution could be.