Parliament votes to challenge transfer of islands to Saudi Arabia
Photo: Heba Afifiy

Egypt announced the transfer of sovereignty over two Red Sea islands to Saudi Arabia on April 9, during a Cairo visit paid by Saudi King Salman Bin Abdelaziz. One of several political and economic agreements signed by the two countries, it is now facing two challenges.

On May 17, an Egyptian administrative court will review a lawsuit filed by several Egyptian lawyers against the transfer of sovereignty over Tiran and Sanafir to Saudi Arabia, and on a date yet to be scheduled, Parliament is also set to vote on the decision.

Egyptians have contested the handover due to the obscurity of the negotiations which, according to official statements, took place over a period of at least eight months. On April 15 and 25, street protests denounced what is widely seen as a sale of Egyptian land to Saudi Arabia, and hundreds were arrested.

In an April speech, President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi acknowledged that the issue was shielded from public exposure for months and said this was to avoid negative reactions.

Responding to the swell of opposition, Egypt’s Cabinet announced the agreement would be presented to Parliament for voting and cited its economic benefits as “it grants Egypt the right to excavation of natural resources.”

According to the Cabinet statement, the transfer decision was reached based on the findings of “an international technical committee” that the two islands fall within Saudi borders, yet the agreement is frozen until the Parliament votes.

Egyptian Foreign Ministry spokesperson Ahmed Abu Zeid tells Mada Masr that it is Egypt’s “sovereign right” to conduct such negotiations before public exposure, adding that at any rate, the public was going to know about it — at least through the parliamentary vote. He vehemently denies claims that authorities attempted to hide news of the islands’ transfer.

Meanwhile the first court session to hear a lawsuit filed before the State Council by at least Egyptian lawyers is scheduled for May 17.

The transfer decision violates Article 151 of the 2014 Constitution, according to Tarek al-Awady, Malek Adly and Khalid Ali, who were among lawyers who filed the suit. A provision of Article 151 states that “In all cases, no treaty may be concluded that is contrary to the provisions of the Constitution or which results in ceding any part of state territories.”

Ali explains that there are three possible outcomes to the case.

“If it’s proven that these islands fall within Egyptian territory, then the court will revoke the agreement before it is even voted upon by the Parliament or placed for a public referendum, as per article 151 of the Constitution that clearly prohibits ceding any part of state territories,” he says. “Not even the president can decide on this matter.”

“There are another two probabilities,” Ali continues. “If the court finds that the islands fall under Egyptian sovereignty, even if not within its territory, it will freeze the agreement until it’s voted upon by Parliament and put to a public referendum. But if the court endorses the government’s claim that Egypt has neither ownership nor sovereignty over the islands, and was only serving an administrative role on them, that’s when we lose the case.”

According to the lawyers, territoriality proves Egypt’s ownership of land and nothing can contest that, even Parliament, while sovereignty is when a territory is not owned by Egypt but Egypt is practicing sovereignty over it. The latter case can be contested through a parliamentary vote.

For Awady, proving Egypt’s ownership of the islands will be much easier than having to treat the case as one of sovereignty. “It will facilitate winning the case without having to enter a battle of political and legal jargon with the state,” he tells Mada Masr, “or having to wait for a public referendum or the parliament’s vote on the matter.”

Awady explains that the lawyers’ team is gathering documents from all over the world, some dating back to 1840, to prove that Tiran and Sanafir are Egypt’s.

Adly says that besides working with researchers, they are filing a lawsuit against the Egyptian government before the African Commission on Human and Peoples’ Rights, in case the Egyptian judiciary does not serve justice.

Awady describes this lawsuit as “the first of its kind in the history of Egypt.”

“Usually countries fight for their land rights,” Awady tells Mada. “It’s the first time you see a government fighting tirelessly to prove that land does not belong to them, and worse, claim they have documents to prove another country’s ownership of their own land.”

“The government is arguing that Egypt only served an administrative role on Saudi soil, and that it had no sovereignty over the islands,” he says. “How could this be true when both islands fall under the terms of the Camp David Accords? That alone proves they fall within Egyptian territory.”

In the 1978 Camp David peace accords between Egypt and Israel, Tiran and Sanafir are indeed mentioned. The treaty stipulates that Egypt must not obstructed the sending of multinational forces and observers to Tiran to ensure maritime navigation and access to the Gulf of Aqaba.

Parliament member Haitham al-Hariry says the Parliament will likely endorse the transfer agreement, although he personally does not.

“I can only officially speak for myself, yet I believe we should affirm our land rights until the ownership of the two islands is identified once and for all,” Hariry says. “In all cases, I believe it should be left to the people to decide what should be done about these two islands, especially as they have a strategic importance in terms of their geographical location — one that could put our national security in imminent danger if the agreement is endorsed.”

The Foreign Ministry spokesperson, Abu Zeid, defends the documents presented by the government proving Saudi ownership of the islands.

But he adds that diplomatic relations between the two countries will not be negatively affected if the Parliament votes against the decision and the agreement is revoked.

“It might be early to speculate, yet the two countries share a long history of strong bilateral relations with multiple political and economic aspects, regardless of the islands issue,” he tells Mada Masr. “One revoked agreement will not damage the strong relationship between them.”

Heba Farouk Mahfouz 

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