Top Egypt court rejects islands transfer to Saudi Arabia
CAIRO – The Associated PressAn Egyptian court ruled on Jan. 16 against the government’s decision to hand over two Red Sea islands to Saudi Arabia - a landmark verdict likely to deepen tensions with the kingdom and embarrass Egyptian President Abdel-Fattah el-Sisi.
The ruling by the Supreme Administrative Court in Cairo rejected an appeal by el-Sisi’s government against a lower court’s decision in June last year to annul the islands’ handover agreement. That deal was signed last April during a high-profile visit by the Saudi monarch, King Salman, who during the visit pledged billions of dollars to Egypt in loans and investments.
The agreement was condemned by many Egyptians who perceived it as a land sell-off. Others saw the surrender of Egyptian territory by el-Sisi and his government as a worrying precedent.
The deal also sparked the largest protests against el-Sisi’s two-year rule. Ignoring the legal process, the government late last month sent the deal to parliament - a 596-seat chamber packed with el-Sisi supporters - for ratification.
The two islands, Tiran and Sanafir, are situated in the narrow entrance to the Gulf of Aqaba leading to Jordan and Israel. Saudi and Egyptian officials say they belong to Saudi Arabia and have been under Egyptian control only because Riyadh asked Cairo in 1950 to protect them.
In its ruling, the High Administrative Court said it was its “unanimous” decision that the two islands were sovereign Egyptian territories.
The Jan. 16 verdict was met by an eruption of jubilation by activists and lawyers in the Nile-side Cairo courtroom, with some singing the national anthem and chanting patriotic slogans.
Outside the court, a small number of activists chanted: “Saudi Arabia, take your money back, for tomorrow, the Egyptian people will trample on you.” There were minor scuffles between police and several dozen people who attempted to hold a demonstration.
The court verdict may further complicate ties between Egypt and Saudi Arabia, a main financial backer of Sisi since the former army chief toppled his Islamist predecessor in 2013.
Saudi Arabia has already signaled unease by stopping a promised flow of oil to Egypt, leaving Cairo scrambling to find a new supplier.