The Egyptian government will soon finalize the concession of Tiran and Sanafir Islands to Saudi Arabia. “A few weeks maybe, but less than two months,” says a source in the Egyptian government who spoke to Mada Masr on condition of anonymity about the timeframe for the deal’s approval. Handing over the two Red Sea islands will put an end to an issue that has made headlines since April 2016, when the Egyptian government first signed the maritime border agreement with the Saudi Kingdom, prompting public protest and legal contests.
Despite a Supreme Administrative Court ruling in January to vacate Prime Minister Sherif Ismail’s signature on the agreement, the government has insisted, under Saudi pressure, to go ahead with the transfer, turning to Parliament after making a series of arrangements to ensure the deal will be passed. “Members of the Committee of Constitutional and Legislative Affairs: Please attend the meetings of the committee scheduled to be held as follows: Sunday June 11, Monday, June 12 and Tuesday, June 13, 2017 to look into ways to approve the agreement on the delimitation of maritime borders between the Arab Republic of Egypt and Saudi Arabia,” read a statement signed by the committee’s chairman MP Bahaa Abou and posted on MP Haitham al-Hariri’s Facebook. The parliamentary committee will discuss the agreement during its next three sessions, a development that comes after Parliament Speaker Ali Abdel Aal referred it to them on April, four months after Ismail submitted it to the legislative body.
According to the government source, the state arranged high-level meetings weeks ago to ensure that the agreement would pass Parliament with an agreeable majority. The meetings also aimed to work to close the door on political escalation, stemming the possibility of parliamentary resignations in protest of the agreement or other political maneuvers, as well as working to foreclose on popular political action taken on the ground once Parliament passes the agreement.
Over the past few days, the government has arranged meetings with members of Parliament that were attended by Ismail, Abdel Aal and Moufeed Shehab, the former minister of state for parliamentary and legal affairs whom the government has called upon to be party to the legal proceedings in the deal in the past given his legal expertise. The government sources says that, during one of the most recent meetings, the prime minister said it is “unacceptable” for Parliament to abandon the state at this difficult time, without clarifying further. In another meeting, an MP suggested that the government should publicly announce the financial promises Saudi Arabia has pledged to deliver once the islands are transferred, according to the source. “Saudi Arabia will make us happy. We should tell the people to make them happy,” the MP reportedly said.
Discussion of the agreement coincided with the Supreme Media Regulatory Council’s May decision to end broadcast of the state-owned Voice of the People channel, which had televised parliamentary sessions, due to what the council said were financial losses. MP Ahmed Tantawy, a member of the 25-30 Coalition, a body that notably has contested some of the government’s decisions, linked the council’s decision to the scheduled parliamentary sessions to discuss the Tiran and Sanafir deal. Tantawy made his comments amid observations on the authorities’ decision to block access to a number of news websites, including Mada Masr, a development that he said is an attempt to marginalize media voices critical of the islands transfer.
Meanwhile, the Cabinet has published a report compiled by the Center for Information and Decision Support. Titled “The most prominent questions and reservations regarding the maritime border demarcation agreement between Egypt and Saudi Arabia,” the report defends the decision to approve the agreement.
A parliamentary source, speaking to Mada Masr on the condition of anonymity, says that discussion inside the legislature is that the government will not accept less than a 500-vote majority of the 596 MPs eligible to back the agreement. Such a landslide is not out of the question says the source, pointing to the “current pressures, blackmail and major security threats to parliamentarians who were determined to reject the vote in favor of the agreement.” However, the parliamentary source thinks it is likely that a number of MPs will vote against the agreement to avoid legal consequences that could be troublesome in the long run. According to the government source, MPs supporting the agreement nonetheless expressed concern during their meetings with state executives. This concern is reportedly why they have categorically refused to conduct a roll call vote.
The legal team contesting the deal in courts has pledged to pursue legal action against anyone who signs or advocates for the agreement, including the president of the republic. Khaled Ali, one of the lawyers who filed a lawsuit against the signing of the agreement, previously submitted an injunction to suspend and annul Ismail’s December decision to refer the deal to Parliament. Last week, Ali also filed a lawsuit with the State Council, to force the president of the republic to dissolve Parliament in accordance with Article 137 of the Constitution, which stipulates such a measure when the legislature represents a source of danger to the national security of the country’s territories.
The Supreme Constitutional Court is also set to rule on the jurisdiction dispute raised by the State Council’s decision to invalidate what the Egyptian State Lawsuits Authority contends was an act of sovereignty. In June 2016, the Court of Administrative Justice initially stuck down the deal, ruling that Ismail violated the Constitution by signing the agreement and nullified his signature, a decision that was upheld by the Supreme Administrative Court in January. However, a Court of Urgent Matters ruling moved to annul the SAC’s initial ruling in April.
Parliament will begin discussing the agreement on Sunday, without waiting for the Supreme Constitutional Court’s decision, despite previous assurances to the contrary. “Parliament will not discuss the agreement before the ruling of the Supreme Constitutional Court,” Afify Kamel, a member of Parliament’s Constitutional and Legislative Affairs Committee and the pro-state Alliance to Support Egypt coalition, told Mada Masr previously. “Parliamentary norms prevent Parliament from discussing any issue that is under judicial review. The Supreme Constitutional Court will have the final say, because it is the highest judicial authority in the country.”
Media reports have captured the dilemma in Parliament, showing MPs to be worried about the impact of approving the agreement on their reputation on the one hand, and on their relation with the authorities on the other. Egypt’s media is also speculating that some MPs will not attend the sessions, with their absence being a way out of the dilemma. Mohammed Aboul Ghar, the founder and former head of the Egyptian Social Democratic Party, took to his his Facebook page to announce that a parliamentary delegation comprised of MPs who had previously announced their opposition to the agreement will travel to Washington DC. Aboul Ghar described the planned visit as a gentle security solution. The delegation left on Saturday, according to media reports, and includes key critics of the agreement like Emad Gad.
On Thursday, the 25-30 Coalition issued a statement rejecting the decision to discuss the agreement on the parliamentary floor. “Not only it is not acceptable to discuss giving up of a piece of Egyptian land, but also [the discussion should not happen] out of respect for the rule of law, the principle of the separation of powers and respect for a court ruling which has looked into this agreement and ruled in favor of its cancellation and annulment. It is not acceptable to claim that the ruling was made by an unqualified court, unless the Supreme Constitutional Court rules as such. In that case, we would accept to discuss the agreement,” the statement asserted.
On Friday, the Alliance to Support Egypt parliamentary bloc also issued a statement. “This state of polarization and accusations of treason by some MPs who stand against the agreement, the attempt to monopolize patriotism and to disseminate documents proving that the islands are Egyptian and the tendency to impose views through loud voices is unacceptable,” the statement asserted. “The coalition won’t accept the pressure and intimidation of MPs using slogans which do not reflect the truth about facts.” The Alliance to Support Egypt coalition stressed that the Tiran and Sanafir agreement, like any other agreement, will be considered by Parliament in accordance with the provisions of the legislature’s bylaws. The coalition’s statement added that discussion will take place in the presence of experts and will accommodate all necessary questions in order to make the right decision. The coalition proclaimed “its trust in the institutions that negotiated and drafted the agreement over several years,” adding that political issues “are considered by state political institutions in accord with the information and documents available to it and that may not be available to everybody, which is why there are elected institutions.”
The government source predicted that, if the government is confident that the agreement will be passed by Parliament, a decision would be made to extend the state of emergency for an additional three months to avoid demonstrations against the handover. The source also spoke of the approval of a strict security plan to preempt political protest on Egyptian streets. President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi declared a three-month state of emergency that began on April 10, following the twin Palm Sunday bombings in Tanta and Alexandria. The state of emergency is set to expire on July 10. Political groups have also spoken out over the past two days to announce that they would use all peaceful and political means afforded by the Constitution, to challenge Parliament’s discussion of the agreement.
According to the government source, the state’s preparations to secure approval of the agreement over the past week have included meetings with former officials, such as former President Hosni Mubarak. Mubarak told his interlocutors that he was acting upon a request from Saudi Arabia when he decided in 1990 to specify that the Egyptian base points and maritime territory are subject to the country’s mandate and sovereignty. The meetings also included one with a former foreign minister, who told current state executives that he had informed Saud al-Faisal, the former Saudi foreign minister, that the issue of Tiran and Sanafir should not be raised, since Mubarak’s decision does not grant Saudi Arabia sovereignty over the two islands. The former minister advised current officials to form a joint committee to examine the legal and historical records, provided its work is public and open. However, his opinion was not considered. Mubarak also voiced a similar opinion.
Saudi Arabia “expects a conclusion to the matter soon.” This is the opinion of two European diplomats who recently met with Saudi Arabian diplomats in the kingdom and abroad and spoke to Mada Masr on condition of anonymity. Saudi Vice Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman spoke of Saudi Arabia’s sovereignty over the islands in May, following Sisi’s visit. “I know Sisi informed Saudi officials that he had taken the decision to refer the agreement to Parliament in preparation for its approval,” the government source says.
According to one of the European diplomats, a senior Saudi official said that the failure to deliver the islands would have significant consequences on the course of bilateral relations between the two countries, while a decision to finalize the handover would open the door for economic support and cooperation, including an increase in Saudi tourism to Egypt and an expansion of the Egyptian labor force in the Gulf country.
According to the other diplomat, the office of the Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu sent a letter to the office of bin Salman, stating that Israel “has been informed and is appreciative” of the ongoing arrangements between Egypt and Saudi Arabia regarding the transfer of sovereignty over Tiran and Sanafir. Riyadh responded with a short thank-you letter. The diplomat confirms that Egypt and Israel, with US assistance, are working on the reassignment of the US Multinational Force and Observers (MFO) troops stationed in Tiran to a point in South Sinai.
A third diplomat, from one of the 12 countries contributing troops to the MFO, said that the MFO command has informed participating countries of the imminent delivery of the islands to Saudi Arabia. According to the diplomat’s account, the countries are considering whether to leave forces in Tiran to monitor the strait, station them on a boat flying the Italian flag, or transfer them to South Sinai.
One of the European diplomats says that meetings between Saudi Arabia and Israeli officials have been underway in European cities, despite the Gulf country’s refusal to sign a memorandum of understanding with the MFO concerning the post on Tiran. This fact makes the government source nervous, as the islands’ transfer would not alleviate Egypt of its responsibility to secure the strait, as per the 1979 peace agreement with Israel. Saudi Arabia has not signed such an agreement with Israel. MPs are expected to raise this point during Parliament’s discussions, according to the parliamentary source.
Other issues to be discussed, according to the source, include the fate of Egyptians working in tourism on the two islands and whether they would need work permits and custodians if they were to remain. The government source says that limited diving permits have been granted to Egyptians working around the islands, while two local mobile operators now provide roaming service. According to the government source, many government officials advised the president’s office to convince Saudi Arabia to postpone the handover of the islands for a year. Their logic is rooted in a desire not to worsen the relationship between the government and the Egyptian public in a year that has already witnessed difficult economic conditions and will feature presidential elections. Saudi Arabia, however, does not seem to be interested in delay.