Sunday,22 October, 2017
Current issue | Issue 1292, (21 - 27 April 2016)
Sunday,22 October, 2017
Issue 1292, (21 - 27 April 2016)

Ahram Weekly

No referendum on Tiran and Sanafir

A majority of MPs say parliament, and not the public, will have the final say on Egypt’s return of two islands to Saudi Arabia, reports Gamal Essam El-Din

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Al-Ahram Weekly

The “border demarcation agreement” signed between Egypt and Saudi Arabia on 8 April will be presented to parliament “soon” for ratification, parliamentary speaker Ali Abdel-Aal said on Sunday.

“The government has the right to sign and announce border demarcation agreements at any time, and parliament has the right to discuss these agreements and have the final say on them,” he said.

A majority of MPs interpreted Abdel-Aal’s words as dismissing the possibility of a referendum on the Joint Egyptian-Saudi Technical Agreement, which places the two Red Sea islands of Tiran and Sanafir within Saudi maritime territory.

“Under the constitution this kind of deal only needs to be reviewed and voted on by parliament,” said Hatem Patshat, an MP affiliated with the Free Egyptians Party.

The 8 April announcement that Egypt was handing the two Red Sea islands to Saudi Arabia caused widespread controversy. Street demonstrations were organized in downtown Cairo on Friday to protest against the agreement.

Article 151 of the Egyptian constitution stipulates that agreements on matters relating to sovereignty must be put to a public referendum. But according to Patshat, Article 151 “does not apply to the new technical deal with Saudi Arabia because the deal redraws borders in a correct way”.

“It does not mean Saudi Arabia is stripping Egypt of part of its land, regional waters or sovereign control but corrects a wrong by handing over the two islands,” he said.

Patshat, a former intelligence officer, argued that the deal is a necessary first step towards building a suspension bridge between the two countries.

On 13 April President Abdel-Fattah Al-Sisi met with political figures to discuss the deal. Alaa Abed, parliamentary spokesman of the Free Egyptians party, praised the speech Al-Sisi delivered at the meeting.

“The meeting was necessary to clarify the circumstances surrounding several controversial issues, particularly the new maritime border deal with Saudi Arabia,” said Abed.

Abed and Patshat criticised local media outlets, accusing them of misrepresenting the new deal.

“I think media outlets seeking to spread poison should remain silent until all the documents related to this deal are presented to parliament and discussed,” said Abed.

“The media should not impose its say on the nation or spread unverified information that might harm relations between Egypt and Saudi Arabia.”

Said Patshat, “The most important question that should be asked about this deal is whether it helps safeguard Arab national security against the influence of Iran and Israel, and the answer should be yes.”

Abed said Al-Sisi was candid in clarifying the facts behind the deal.

“The two islands were not given to Saudi Arabia in return for economic assistance,” he said. “The islands were only placed under Egyptian administration — not sovereignty — for security reasons, and now the time has come to return them to Saudi Arabia. This does not need a referendum because this is not a sovereignty issue.”

MP Margaret Azer said that a presidential decree issued in 1990 on the two Red Sea islands “fully acknowledges they are part of Saudi Arabia’s territory”. She continued, “The deal ... will be an implementation of this decree and as such does not require a national referendum.”

Mohamed Al-Ghoul, a member of the Support Egypt parliamentary bloc, told reporters, “Our role as MPs is to thoroughly review this deal which will require commissioning technical and legal experts to study it in an objective way.”

Hesham Al-Hossary, an independent MP from the Nile Delta governorate of Daqahliya, said, “President Al-Sisi’s review of the deal with Saudi Arabia was conducted with transparency and respect for the constitution and state authorities.”

According to Al-Hossary, Article 151 gives parliament the final say on “border demarcation agreements as long as they are not related to sovereignty issues.

Nour Party parliamentary spokesman Ahmed Khalifa also told reporters, “the final say on the deal, under Article 151, belongs to parliament” and not a public referendum. He urged the local media not to use the issue to drive a wedge between Egypt and Saudi Arabia.

Mohamed Anwar Al-Sadat, chairman of the Reform and Development Party, said, “Nobody can make up their minds about the deal until all relevant documents have been reviewed.” Sadat believes the best way forward is for parliament to form a committee, including professors of history and international law, to review historical documents relating to the status of the two islands.

Mohamed Hani Al-Hennawy, an independent MP from the Nile-Delta Beheira governorate, accused the media of “spreading lies that could negatively affect the national security of Egypt” in its coverage of the deal.

“I think the time has come to impose some kind of control on media outlets so as to safeguard the national security of Egypt,” he said.

Only a handful of MPs argued that the agreement needs to go to a referendum.

Independent deputy and political researcher Samir Ghattas was expelled from the chamber on Monday after he interrupted speaker Abdel-Aal. Ghattas was also referred to a parliamentary committee for questioning after Abdel-Aal accused him of violating parliamentary rules and writing articles on the issue that transgressed the boundaries of freedom of expression and directed insults at parliament and MPs.

MP Nadia Henry also launched a scathing attack against the government’s handling of the deal, accusing it of keeping parliament “in the dark”.

“The agreement caused a lot of anger on the Egyptian street and made people question parliament for being the last to know about it,” said Henry.Commenting on the government’s 27 March policy statement, Henry accused the government of Prime Minister Sherif Ismail of showing “no respect” for the House of Representatives since the deal with Saudi Arabia had already been concluded yet Ismail chose not to inform MPs about it.

“The people and parliament were both surprised by the Saudi-Egyptian agreement ... and as a result some people resorted to protesting on the street to vent their anger over this failure to consult them,” she said.

“While the government was presenting its programme to parliament and seeking the confidence of MPs it is clear now it had no confidence of its own in either parliament or the people.”

She continued, “I am sorry to say that this government does not see parliament as a partner in drafting policies.”

 Henry argued that the return of the two Red Sea islands to Saudi Arabia must be put to a referendum “to calm the street and contain anger, especially as people no longer trust us”.

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