Friday,22 February, 2019
Current issue | Issue 1326, (5-11 January 2017)
Friday,22 February, 2019
Issue 1326, (5-11 January 2017)

Ahram Weekly

Clash of authorities

A government decree referring the Egyptian-Saudi Arabian maritime border agreement to parliament threatens a constitutional crisis, writes Mona El-Nahhas

Dozens protest at the Press Syndicate against forwarding the Egyptian-Saudi Arabian maritime border agreement to parliament
Dozens protest at the Press Syndicate against forwarding the Egyptian-Saudi Arabian maritime border agreement to parliament

On Thursday evening, with many glued to the TV watching a premier league football match between Ahly and Zamalek, the government was busy trying to push the Egyptian-Saudi maritime borders demarcation agreement forwards.

Under the agreement, which met with widespread public anger when it was signed in April, Egypt will cede control of the strategic Red Sea islands of Tiran and Sanafir to Saudi Arabia.

Government arguments that the islands were only being temporarily administered by Egypt on behalf of Saudi Arabia have carried little weight with public opinion so far. Yet the government went ahead and announced its backing for the agreement. By Monday Prime Minister Sherif Ismail had forwarded the agreement to the House of Representatives for endorsement, prompting dozens to protest at the Press Syndicate’s headquarters.

Under the constitution the House of Representatives must approve agreements before they are ratified by the president. The constitution also stipulates that treaties that effect sovereignty rights must be put to a public referendum, a condition opponents of the agreement fear the government is attempting to circumvent.

The timing of the referral to parliament has also caused concern in political and legal circles. 

The cabinet move comes two weeks ahead of a final court ruling on the deal by the Higher Administrative Court and was made despite a first-degree ruling by the Administrative Court passed in June 2016 annulling the maritime border demarcation agreement. An appeal against the June ruling was quashed by the Higher Administrative Court in October. On 16 January the same court is due to give its final say on the treaty.

An advisory report issued last month by the Higher Administrative Court Commissioners Authority found the agreement in violation of the constitution and recommended “a final ruling annulling the agreement”.

Some legal experts argue the latest cabinet decree referring the agreement to parliament is not only a violation of the law and the constitution but a direct insult to the judiciary. Fourteen legal activists filed a petition on Saturday with the administrative judiciary contesting the governmental decree and calling for its halt.

“The government should be questioned over its decision to refer an agreement to parliament when there is a court ruling that annuls that same agreement,” says lawyer Malek Adli. Adli was arrested in May and detained for two months on charges related to his opposition to the agreement.

Article 123 of the penal code stipulates that public employees who fail to implement court rulings be dismissed and prosecuted. 

Legal activist Tarek Al-Awadi has launched a campaign to encourage members of the public to petition MPs to refrain from discussing the agreement and withdraw confidence from the cabinet. 

On Sunday representatives of six leftist and liberal parties called for a conference to be held on Friday to decide on how best to oppose the agreement and a protest in front of the parliament has already been mooted for early next week.

Medhat Al-Zahed, acting chairman of the Socilalist Popular Alliance, says participants in the Sunday meeting called for legal action to be instigated against officials who violate the law and constitution by pursuing the agreement.

The Egyptian Socialist party issued a statement on Saturday claiming the latest cabinet move “places the judiciary in confrontation with both the executive and legislative authorities should the court back earlier rulings on 16 January”.

Rights lawyer Khaled Ali believes the cabinet decree as tantamount to political suicide.

“The decree is politically, legally and constitutionally invalid,” he says. Ali used his Facebook account to call on the public to defend the administrative judiciary against “the ferocious campaign targeting its independence and attempts to tarnish its image”.

“The cabinet’s decree violates the law and the constitution and reflects a lack of respect for judicial rulings,” said independent MP Haitham Al-Hariri in a statement issued on Thursday.

“How can MPs be expected to discuss an annulled agreement which violates the constitution and allows the ceding of part of our homeland?” asked Al-Hariri.

Nadia Henry, a member of parliament’s Economic Committee, questioned the legality of the decree referring the agreement to parliament while the agreement is still subject to legal procedures. She called for any discussion of the treaty by MPs to be delayed until after the 16 January court ruling.

Rafiq Omar Sherif, a member of the State Litigation Authority, told Al-Shorouk that the Higher Administrative court ruling on 16 January is unlikely to have much impact on the fate of the maritime border agreement.

“Once the agreement is referred to parliament the judiciary is no longer in a position to rule on its legality,” argued Sherif.

Popular Current member Maasoum Marzouk wonders why the government did not refer the agreement to parliament immediately since it now appears to be arguing the House of Representatives has the ultimate say on its fate.

On Thursday cabinet spokesman Ashraf Sultan said the delay in referring the agreement to parliament was to allow time to settle future security arrangements.

Many commentators say it is no coincidence the decree was issued shortly after an unannounced visit by a Saudi delegation to Egypt. The delegation was headed by Torky bin Abdel-Mohsen, a consultant to the Saudi royal court. Days after Torky’s visit a senior Egyptian diplomatic delegation headed to Riyadh to clear the air after months of tense bilateral relations. According to Russia’s Sputnik news agency, the Saudi delegation had made it clear any improvement in Egyptian-Saudi relations would be dependent on the maritime border agreement being honoured. 

“Realising that the judiciary may not take its side,” says Marzouk, “the government has been left with no choice but to appeal to parliament in a clear challenge to the judiciary and to public opinion.”

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