A senior constitutional panel in Egypt has concluded that two courts, which ruled to annul an agreement to transfer control of two Red Sea islands to Saudi Arabia, acted within their jurisdiction.
The panel’s report, published Thursday in Egyptian media, defies Egypt’s parliament, which the previous day overwhelmingly backed the 2016 deal on the islands transfer. It also signals the start of what is potentially a destabilizing legal battle between the judiciary and the legislative branch of government.
The outcome of the vote was a foregone conclusion since the legislature is packed by supporters of Egyptian President Abdel Fattah el-Sissi whose government insists the islands belong to Saudi Arabia.
The panel’s report is meant as a guideline for the Supreme Constitutional Court, which is due to start hearings July 30 on whether the courts had acted within their jurisdiction when they ruled in June 2016 and in January this year to annul the deal. The panel’s findings are not binding, but are rarely ignored.
Sissi must sign off on parliament’s ratification of the agreement before the transfer of the islands can take place. It was not immediately clear whether the president would do that before the constitutional court meets next month.
Government supporters in parliament have insisted that the 596-seat chamber alone had the right to ratify or reject the agreement, signed during an April 2016 visit to Cairo by Saudi King Salman.
The government insists the islands of Tiran and Sanafir at the mouth of the Gulf of Aqaba were always Saudi but placed under Egypt’s protection in the early 1950s amid Arab-Israeli tensions. Critics have linked the islands transfer to the billions of dollars in Saudi aid given to Sissi’s government, saying it amounts to a sell-off of sovereign territory.
The government, loyal media and lawmakers have gone to great lengths to support Saudi ownership of the islands, a stand that many Egyptians have found to be unusual and vexing given the strategic value of the islands.
Tiran, a popular destination for Red Sea divers, controls a narrow shipping lane that leads to and from the ports of Eilat and Aqaba, in Israel and Jordan respectively. Egypt’s unilateral closure of that lane was among the main reasons behind the outbreak of the 1967 Arab-Israeli war, in which Egypt lost the entire Sinai Peninsula. Control over Sinai was restored to Egypt under its 1979 peace treaty with Israel.
“It is the first time in history … that a state volunteers to prove the right of another state to territory that is under its complete sovereignty and is linked to its national interest,” prominent columnist Abdullah el-Sennawy wrote Thursday. “So much so, that some officials and lawmakers seemed more enthusiastic than the Saudis themselves” about the transfer of the islands.