By Dr. Abdul Ruff
In a surprising setback for President General Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, Egypt’s State Council, an administrative court on June 22 annulled a maritime border accord with Saudi Arabia that would have seen Egypt lose control of two Red Sea islands. The Egyptian court has in effect nullified an agreement that would transfer control of two islands in the Red Sea to Saudi Arabia.
Egyptian judge has quashed a government decision to hand control of two Red Sea islands to Saudi Arabia. Judge Yehia al-Dakroury’s ruling that Egyptian sovereignty over the islands, which are located at the mouth of the Gulf of Aqaba, couldn’t be amended in favor of another state, came as somewhat of a surprise.
The conflict over the dry, uninhabited Tiran and Sanafir islands had gripped Egypt for months, since Sisi announced the transfer during a visit by Saudi King cum premier Salman in April. The Egyptian president portrayed the transfer of the islands as a return to Saudi Arabia for the first time since 1950, when the Saudis placed them under Egyptian control following fears that Israel could seize them. The land transfer came amid a variety of economic agreements Sisi signed with the Saudi government, including a development deal in the Sinai Peninsula.
Uninhabited Tiran and Sanafir lie between Saudi Arabia and Egypt’s Sinai Peninsula at the narrow entrance to the Gulf of Aqaba, a strategic part of the Red Sea bordered by Israel, Jordan, Egypt and Saudi Arabia. Egyptian troops have been stationed there since 1950 at Riyadh’s request. Saudi and Egyptian officials say they belong to the kingdom and were only under Egyptian control because Saudi Arabia asked Egypt in 1950 to protect them.
The anti-land deal protesters rooted the conflict in a deeper sense that the islands were Egyptian, while critiquing Sisi’s leadership in the years since he led the military ouster of Muslim Brotherhood leader Mohammed Morsi, Egypt’s first democratically elected president, in 2013. The maritime demarcation accord, announced in April, caused public uproar and prompted rare protests in Egypt where many people say they were taught at school that Tiran and Sanafir were Egyptian.
The timing of the announcement, during a visit to Cairo by the Saudi king that coincided with the signing of aid deals, created the impression among many that the islands were sold. “By nature the Egyptian people are attached to their land, and historically most Egyptians worked in agriculture,” said political activist Ahmed Abdullah in April. “Land for Egyptians is a matter of honor.” Crowds in Cairo have shouted, likening Sisi to the protagonist of a folktale about a man who brought shame to his family by giving up his family farm. The protests prompted a police crackdown.
More than 200 people were arrested in connection with protests over the islands. At least 85 have since been acquitted but more than 150 have been handed jail sentences or fines, judicial sources said, while lawyers are pushing for their release.
As anger rose, Sisi made an impromptu speech denying the islands were sold and urging Egyptians to end the debate. But a group of lawyers, including former presidential candidate Khaled Ali, challenged the agreement in court. Ali argued that according to a 1906 maritime treaty between Egypt and the Ottoman Empire, the islands are Egyptian. The treaty precedes the founding of Saudi Arabia in 1932.
The demarcation agreement was also due to be discussed by parliament in the coming weeks. Two parliamentarians said the debate would go ahead and take into account the verdict. It was not clear whether the government could activate the accord if parliament approved it but the higher administrative court did not.
The government said it would appeal the verdict. “The government is studying the reasons for the ruling and will … challenge it at the higher administrative court of the State Council and request that … it be canceled,” Magdy al-Agaty, minister of legal and parliamentary affairs, said.
Saudi Arabia and other wealthy Gulf Arab states have showered Egypt with billions of dollars in aid since Sisi toppled President Mohamed Mursi of the Muslim Brotherhood in 2013 following mass protests against his rule. But a sharp drop in oil prices and differences over foreign policy issues such as the war in Yemen have raised questions over whether strong Gulf Arab support can be sustained.
While Sisi is overseeing a crackdown on the Muslim Brotherhood, his government has also increased prosecutions of people accused of blasphemy. Now, the judge’s ruling against the land deal with Saudi Arabia could potentially set some senior Egyptian officials up for prosecution themselves.
Under Egyptian law, officials who negotiate a deal with foreign government that harms national interests can face a life sentence, though legal experts are divided on whether this could be the case with the land deal.
The verdict stated that the two islands would “remain under Egyptian sovereignty”. The lawyers who filed the case called the decision a victory. The judge’s decision demonstrates the courts “are fair and only care about the interests of the country,” Essam el-Eslamboly, one of the Egyptian lawyers who challenged the transfer said.
If it is approved by the country’s High Administrative Court it will become legally binding. However, the State Lawsuits Authority, which represents the Egyptian state in lawsuits, said on Tuesday evening that it would challenge the ruling, state television reported.
Sisi has cracked down on all dissent since leading the military’s overthrow of President Mohammed Morsi in 2013. Since then, more than 1,000 people have been killed and 40,000 are believed to have been jailed, most of them supporters of Mr Morsi’s Muslim Brotherhood.
Tiran sits at the mouth of the Gulf of Aqaba, on a strategically important stretch of water called the Strait of Tiran, used by Israel to access the Red Sea. The islands are uninhabited, apart from Egyptian military personnel and multi-national peacekeepers, since 1982. Egyptian troops have been stationed on the islands since 1950 at the request of Saudi Arabia. Israel captured the islands in 1956 and 1967, subsequently returning them to Egypt both times. Egyptian President Abdul Fattah al-Sisi was criticized for “selling” Egyptian territory after deciding in April 2016 to hand the islands to Saudi Arabia
Egyptians are eager for economic revival after years of political upheaval. But the islands issue hurt national pride, prompting thousands of protesters to take to the streets in April chanting “people want the fall of the regime”, a slogan from the Arab Spring uprisings of 2011.
One is not very sure if there is a new conspiracy in Middle East, which is in a state of deadly crises and destabilization, to obstruct the ongoing effort by Riyadh and Cairo to bury the differences and resume better relations because Israel-US duo does not want any peace in the region. Saudi-Egypt effort for reconciliations could lead to more such realignments, leading to Pan Arabism that would strengthen the cause of Palestine and oppose Israeli dominance in the region.
How can Israel or USA allow that to happen?