The debate rages on concerning the sovereignty of the Tiran and Sanafir Red Sea islands, which President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi transferred to Saudi Arabia in an agreement last April.
However, an administrative court then nullified the deal, which the government appealed, and a final ruling is expected on January 16. In the meantime, the government referred the case to parliament in late December, ahead of the verdict.
A team of lawyers presented historical documents in support of Egypt’s ownership of the islands at a press conference led by the Egyptian Center for Economic and Social Rights (ECESR) on Wednesday.
The government claims the uninhabited islands are Saudi Arabian territory but were administered by Egypt since the 1950s, prompting a backlash from critics, who cite a close relationship between the Egyptian government and the Gulf monarchy based on grants amounting to billions of petrodollars over the last three and a half years.
The team of lawyers, presided over by the ECESR’s Khaled Ali, who has been involved in the defense of Egyptian sovereignty of the islands since the case began, presented documents referencing Egypt’s control over the islands dating back to 1906, at the time of the Ottoman Empire.
“We are holding this press conference in response to popular demands to understand the legal status of the islands,” after the cabinet referred the Egyptian-Saudi maritime demarcation treaty to Parliament, Ali says.
Lawyer Essam al-Islambouli describes the referral to Parliament before a final judicial verdict in the case as an “act of thuggery” and “direct intervention in judicial affairs,” claiming the courts sought to annul the government’s decision.
“In light of international law, I have no doubt that these two islands are Egyptian,” former ambassador Masoum Marzouq says, adding, “Egypt considered the Straits of Tiran to be a national waterway, falling within its territorial waters. However, following the Camp David Peace Accord, it was considered an international waterway.”
Marzouq points to historical claims of Egyptian sovereignty over the two islands prior to the establishment of the United Nations in 1945, and before the UN’s Convention on the Law of the Seas, which came into effect in 1982. He references the geographic proximity of the islands that are less than three nautical miles from the coast of the Sinai Peninsula, and lie significantly further from Saudi Arabia’s Red Sea coast.
“If the government, as in this case, deems that it does not have sovereignty over territory, or willingly cedes its sovereignty, then such a case could be referred to international courts for arbitration. But we will not let this happen,” Marzouq adds.
Legal researcher Dalia Hussein refers to living memory and the presence of fishermen on both Tiran and Sanafir, along with the formal establishment of the natural marine protectorate in Ras Mohamed, which includes both islands, as well as the documented scientific expeditions and exploration of the islands and police presence as proof of Egypt’s effective governance of the islands.
“There are no documents proving these territories are being administered by Egypt on Saudi Arabia’s behalf, as has been reported in several news outlets over the past year,” Hussein asserts, adding, “Egypt has proven its sovereignty over these two islands through the shedding of the blood of its troops in their defense,” in reference to the wars with Israel, including the Suez Crisis of 1956, the 1967 War, the War of Attrition (1967-70) and the War of 1973.
There is an Egyptian police station on Tiran island, lawyer Tareq Negeida argues. “Since 1979, decrees by Egypt’s ministries of interior and environment have proven Egypt’s sovereignty over the islands,” he adds.
According to lawyer Malek Adly from the ECESR, there are two main rumors surrounding Tiran and Sanfir: The first is that they have never been Egyptian islands, and the second is that ousted President Hosni Mubarak ceded sovereignty over the islands to Saudi Arabia. “Both are not true,” he asserts, adding that the testimonies of Egyptian naval officers point to Egypt’s control over the two islands since the Ottoman period.
“Bank documents from 1929 prove that money was withdrawn to establish an Egyptian fishing company on the islands,” Adly says, adding that the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, which was established in 1932, cannot possibly have laid claim to these islands during the time of the Ottoman Empire as it did not exist then.
Professor of engineering Mohamed Mohie presented slides of documents indicating Egypt’s control, occupation and sovereignty over the two islands, including a notice dating back to 1906 from the Ottoman sultan calling on Egypt to withdraw its military forces from the island of Tiran. Other documents included an Arabic language geography atlas from 1908 showing Tiran and Sanafir as being part of Egypt, an official geographic survey conducted by Egypt in 1912, another atlas from 1916 showing the islands belonging to Egypt and a 1936 Anglo-Egyptian geographic survey of the islands.
An article by Egypt’s state-owned Al-Ahram newspaper, dated January 12, 1950, reported that Israeli forces claimed there was no flag over the islands at the mouth of the Gulf of Aqaba. In response Mohie asserted, an Egyptian flag was hoisted over Pharaoh’s Island on January 13. Egyptian flags were also later hoisted over Tiran and Sanafir on January 26 and 28.
A PhD dissertation quoting Saudi king Abdel Aziz and royal officials from January 17, 1950, and referencing surveys relating to the ownership of the two islands, was also debated, with Ali explaining that this is the document the government has been using to prove Tiran and Sanafir are Saudi territories.
Ali claimed the government is forging historical documents and trying to cover up and destroy others and that press conferences like this one are being held in order to present the truth to the Egyptian public and those interested in learning more about the issue as the debate moves to Parliament.
He asserts: “We are holding this press conference in response to popular demand to understand the legal status of the islands.”
Meanwhile, a group of activists have planned a protest against the agreement in front of Parliament, for which they attempted to get authorization from security. However, the court of urgent matters ruled against holding the protest outside Parliament, confining it to a park instead. One of the organizers, Abdel Aziz al-Husseiny, says it hasn’t yet been decided if the protest will go ahead, although he would prefer it not to, in objection to the court ruling.
Opposition to the island transfer transcends this group of lawyers and activists and has gained momentum in parliament. Although it is not clear if parliament will look into the deal until after the final court ruling, a rare oppositional coalition is forming against it, MP Mohamed Abdelghani and member of the 25/30 alliance says.
The 25/30 alliance is made up of members who hold views that are largely independent of the government, as was seen in its opposition to the general state budget and controversial civil service law. The coalition hasn’t made an official statement regarding the island deal yet, nor has it asked members to vote along certain lines, but a new “list of honor” in opposition to the island deal includes members from the Alliance to Support Egypt coalition, who usually back government decisions.
“Opposition to the agreement is growing to include large numbers of MPs that may reject the government’s endorsement of the agreement, including groups and members usually close to the state,” Abdelghani confirms.
“Parliamentary opposition is larger than can be seen on social media networks,” member of Parliament and the Alliance to Support Egypt coalition Mohamed Zayed outlines.
A number of members of Parliament wore clothes with “Tiran and Sanafir are Egyptian” printed on them during a recent session, prompting criticism from speaker Ali Abdel Aal, who asked them to remove the slogans.
Parliament hasn’t yet had a formal discussion on the matter, according to Abdelghani, although such an agreement would usually be presented to the house as soon as it is received. He believes this may be a deliberate attempt to avoid opposition building before a final judicial decision is made.
Although Aal said a few days ago that Parliament would take all the time it needed for discussion and study of the matter, Ahmed Helmy, deputy to the parliamentary legislative committee, expects any discussion to be postponed until after the court makes its final decision.
If the court rules against the government appeal on the administrative court’s annulment of the agreement, parliament will be obligated to return it to the government, putting an end to all debate on the matter, Abdelghani says. However, if the court accepts the appeal, ruling the islands are not Egyptian, parliament would accept the agreement, provided there is a public referendum, in accordance with the constitution’s stipulations concerning Egyptian territories.