Tuesday,17 July, 2018
Current issue | Issue 1291, (14 - 20 April 2016)
Tuesday,17 July, 2018
Issue 1291, (14 - 20 April 2016)

Ahram Weekly

Parliament divided over Tiran and Sanafir

Parliament is expected to review an agreement aimed at demarcating maritime borders between Egypt and Saudi Arabia, reports Gamal Essam El-Din

Al-Ahram Weekly

Parliament will soon discuss a number of economic, financial and technical deals that were concluded between Egypt and Saudi Arabia this week. The deals, signed during a five-day official visit by Saudi King Salman to Cairo, include two landmark agreements on setting up a free trade zone in North Sinai and financing Egypt’s oil needs for the next five years.

While political and economic analysts heaped praise on the economic assistance deals between Cairo and Riyadh, they were deeply divided on a technical deal aimed at demarcating the maritime borders between the two countries in the Red Sea.

A statement by the Egyptian cabinet on Sunday said that a joint Egyptian-Saudi Technical Maritime Border Drawing Agreement, signed on 8 April, places the two Red Sea islands of Tiran and Sanafir — long believed to be under Egyptian sovereignty — within Saudi maritime territory.

Tiran and Sanafir islands lie at the southern entrance of the Gulf of Aqaba in the northern part of the Red Sea.

The statement indicated that the agreement concerning the two islands will be presented to parliament for legal and constitutional review and for final ratification, should MPs vote in favour. The cabinet said that while the agreement simply shows that Tiran and Sanafir are in regional Saudi waters, it also allows Egypt to use shared Red Sea waters around the two islands for extraction of natural resources, which would benefit the Egyptian economy.

As much as the cabinet statement sounded optimistic, it did not go down well with some law professors and MPs who said they will question the constitutionality of the agreement.

Alaa Abed, the parliamentary spokesman of the Free Egyptians Party, told reporters that the agreement on Tiran and Sanafir came as a “big surprise” to most MPs. “In order to approve this agreement, parliament must first review all international documents and maps that indicate Tiran and Sanafir are really part of Saudi Red Sea waters,” Abed said.

MP Mohamed Anwar Al-Sadat, chairman of the liberal Reform and Development Party, told Al-Ahram Weekly, “Parliament must form a committee including professors of international law and history to provide MPs with all the facts about the two islands of Tiran and Sanafir.” Sadat added, “The agreement must also be revised in constitutional terms.”

He said parliament “will not hesitate approving the agreement if documents and historic facts are in agreement that Tiran and Sanafir are part of Saudi territory.”

Other MPs, including political researcher Samir Ghattas, argued that the agreement must be voted on in a plebiscite. “According to Article 151 of the constitution, agreements related to sovereignty issues must be put to a public referendum,” Ghattas said.

Mustafa Al-Guindi, an independent MP, begged to differ. “This is an agreement that must be voted upon only in parliament, not in a public referendum,” he said, adding, “The agreement deals only with demarcation — rather than sovereignty — issues between two Arab countries.”

He continued, “It is similar to other agreements Egypt made with other neighbouring countries that were ratified by parliament.”

Article 151 of the Egyptian constitution, which critics say was violated by the agreement, stipulates that agreements related to issues of sovereignty, alliance or reconciliation must be put to a public referendum, as well as a parliament vote and presidential ratification.

Mustafa Bakri, an independent MP and a high-profile journalist, said the agreement “should not be viewed in sovereignty terms”. Said Bakri, “It is just a technical issue, not to mention that a bridge will be built to connect Egypt and Saudi Arabia via the two islands and Sinai.”

Ihab Ghatati, an MP affiliated with the pro-government bloc Support Egypt, said he would vote “yes” for the agreement if documents prove that the two islands are part of Saudi regional waters. “I, however, have doubts that the huge Saudi economic assistance to Egypt — estimated at $25 billion — might be offered as a price for Egypt giving up the two islands.”

The divisions over the technical agreement among MPs were absent when King Salman addressed Egypt’s parliament, the first ever by a Saudi king.

Salman, in a landmark speech to parliament on Sunday, stressed that Egypt and Saudi Arabia should step up their economic, political and military cooperation in the coming period. To achieve this objective, Salman said Riyadh and Cairo have agreed to set up what he described as a “free trade zone” in the Sinai Peninsula. He added that both nations will also continue with efforts to form a pan-Arab military force to combat terrorism.

The Saudi monarch’s speech, which was repeatedly interrupted by huge rounds of applause and enthusiastic ovations, also stressed that the bridge via the two islands will connect the two continents of Asia and Africa for the first time, and will boost commercial exchange between them through Saudi Arabia and Egypt.

In his opening address, Parliament Speaker Ali Abdel-Aal welcomed Salman, highlighted the strong ties between the countries, “integration” and anti-terrorism cooperation between Egypt and Saudi Arabia. Abdel-Aal praised Saudi Arabia’s support for Egypt’s “great revolution against a group that tried its best to hijack the country for its own ideological interests and at the expense of its moderate identity”.

King Salman said Egypt and the Gulf kingdom had agreed to establish a free trade zone to develop Egypt’s border Sinai region as part of a series of deals and memorandums the two countries signed during the visit. He added that the two “brotherly nations” were working together “to go ahead with setting up the joint Arab [military] force,” which will allow both countries and their allies to intervene in regional areas of conflict.

In 2015 Egypt’s President Abdel-Fattah Al-Sisi proposed the creation of a joint Arab military force. In February, Al-Sisi said that the need for military force was “growing every day” as the region faces the threat of Islamist militancy.

During his six-minute speech, Salman said there was a need to find “practical solutions to combating terrorism,” while stressing that the two Arab allies will “cooperate to achieve common goals”.Salman added that the intercontinental bridge connecting Egypt and Saudi Arabia will be built across the Red Sea to “boost Saudi-Egyptian trade, provide job opportunities for youth in the region ... and serve as a passageway for pilgrims”.

Around 100 Saudi officials wearing traditional Saudi attire sat in the front rows of the chamber, along with Egyptian MPs, to hear Salman’s speech.

Some Egyptian lawmakers waved Egyptian and Saudi national flags while others shouted “Welcome, welcome”, “All Egypt greets you”, and “Egypt and Saudi Arabia are one hand”. Some parliamentarians recited poems praising the king and Egyptian-Saudi relations. Salma Al-Roqie, an independent deputy for North Sinai, delivered a long poem that described King Salman as “the Islamic nation’s saviour”.

The Saudi king arrived in Egypt on 7 April on a five-day visit, his first to Cairo since ascending the throne in January 2015. He attended the Sharm El-Sheikh economic conference in March last year.

International Cooperation Minister Sahar Nasr told reporters on Sunday that Cairo and Riyadh signed final agreements during the king’s visit worth more than $24 billion, including $22 billion to finance Cairo’s energy needs for the next five years. Nasr said that Cairo and Riyadh signed other memoranda of understanding on deals valued at around $20 billion.

While the two Arab nations have appeared at times to be at odds over some regional issues, including the civil conflicts in Syria and Yemen, Parliamentary Speaker Abdel-Aal stressed that both countries now enjoy “identical visions on all Arab and regional issues”.

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