Tuesday,21 May, 2019
Current issue | Issue 1328, (19 - 25 January 2017)
Tuesday,21 May, 2019
Issue 1328, (19 - 25 January 2017)

Ahram Weekly

Parliament to discuss Tiran-Sanafir deal

A court ruling puts Egyptian-Saudi relations at risk and a cabinet reshuffle intended to address the country’s economic woes is expected soon, Gamal Essam El-Din reports

Egyptian parliament
Egyptian parliament

Egypt is expecting a cabinet reshuffle “very soon”. In response to a question directed by editors-in-chief of the country’s three national daily newspapers in an interview on Tuesday, President Abdel-Fattah Al-Sisi said “yes there will be a cabinet reshuffle, and it will take place very soon”.

Al-Sisi’s remark came after MPs expressed dissatisfaction with the performance of the government of Prime Minister Sherif Ismail. MPs accused the government of adopting radical policies — such as signing a deal with the IMF and floating the Egyptian pound — without first consulting parliament. In a letter to Al-Sisi many MPs threatened to withhold confidence from the government.

Al-Sisi told the editors-in-chief that he still has confidence in Ismail. “This trust is based on my evaluation of his performance, work and the execution of responsibilities,” said Al-Sisi.

The expected cabinet reshuffle will come at a time of difficult challenges ahead.

On Monday the Higher Administrative Court ruled that the two Red Sea islands of Tiran and Sanafir should remain in Egyptian hands and not be transferred to Saudi Arabia. Many fear that the ruling might put already rocky Egyptian-Saudi relations in jeopardy. Egypt has long relied on Saudi Arabia for financial assistance and investment and an estimated two million Egyptians work in the oil rich kingdom.

During Saudi King Salman’s visit to Egypt in April, Cairo and Riyadh signed a maritime border demarcation agreement relinquishing the two Red Sea islands of Tiran and Sanafir to Saudi Arabia. Judicial appeals before administrative courts left the agreement in limbo and relations between Egypt and Saudi Arabia became frosty.

Late in September the giant Saudi oil company Aramco stopped supplying Egypt with cheap petroleum products. Some commentators now expect Saudi Arabia to rescind more of the 17 agreements which it signed with Egypt during King Salman’s visit.

In the wake of the ruling, Parliament Speaker Ali Abdel-Aal, in his first-ever TV interview on Monday, insisted that parliament will have the final say on the Red Sea agreement with Saudi Arabia. “It is up to parliament to decide whether this agreement is in line with the constitution and whether Egypt is ceding part of its land by implementing it,” Abdel-Aal told the DMC satellite channel. “In line with Article 151, and with full respect for the Egyptian judiciary, it is parliament that still has the final say on international agreements, including the maritime border demarcation agreement with Saudi Arabia,” said Abdel-Aal.

According to Abdel-Aal, international agreements must pass through five stages. “They have first to be negotiated then signed by the government, referred to parliament for discussion and voting, ratified by the president of the republic and finally published in the official gazette,” said Abdel-Aal, adding that these stages “are basic and necessary for any international agreement to be put into effect.” He pointed out that “it is up to parliament to determine whether agreements are in line with the constitution,” said Abdel-Aal. “Article 151 of the constitution is clear in that it allows the president to sign international agreements that will be officially ratified only after being approved by the House of Representatives.”

Abdel-Aal did say the final ruling issued by the Higher Administrative Court on Monday will be studied and reviewed by parliament when the agreement comes up for debate in parliamentary committees. “From a personal point of view, I have full confidence in the state authorities that negotiated and signed this agreement, and this confidence stems from the fact that those who fought in wars can never accept ceding part of their land territory,” said Abdel-Aal.

Abdel-Aal said when the Egyptian-Saudi agreement comes up for debate in parliament MPs will be keen to listen to all points of view.

“We will listen to institutions and individuals who have different opinions on this agreement and the hearing sessions will be open for everyone to express their viewpoints and present their documents as part of a fruitful dialogue. Given that the Egyptian-Saudi deal has become a matter of public concern parliament will summon experts and international law specialists to give their opinions.”

Abdel-Aal says he does not fear a showdown between parliament and the judiciary. “The constitution sets, in clear-cut terms, the roles of each authority and what should be done to settle disagreements that might arise among them — that is taking the issue to the Supreme Constitutional Court to give a final and binding judgement,” said Abdel-Aal. He concluded by saying he is not sure when and for how long parliament will discuss the Egyptian-Saudi deal.

Bahaaeddin Abu Shoka, head of the Legislative and Constitutional Affairs Committee, told reporters Monday that he has no comments on the Higher Administrative Court ruling. “We will deal with the agreement related to these two islands in accordance with the constitution and the law,” is all he said.

The cabinet referred the controversial agreement, which places the two Red Sea islands of Tiran and Sanafir in the Gulf of Aqaba under Saudi sovereignty, to parliament on 1 January.

“Article 151 of the constitution states that the president of the republic represents the state in its foreign relations and signs deals which will be ratified only after being approved by the House of Representatives,” pointed out Abu Shoka.

The court ruling has left MPs divided over whether the agreement should be reviewed by parliament. While some parliamentarians insist the House of Representatives has the final say over the matter, others welcomed the High Administrative Court’s verdict on Monday.

Alaa Abdel-Moneim, a member of the Legislative and Constitutional Affairs Committee, told journalists that parliament must respect final judicial rulings. “This is a final judicial ruling and it has clearly stated that the two islands are Egyptian; parliament should respect this.” Abdel-Moneim added that the government still has the right to appeal the ruling before the Supreme Constitutional Court.

Independent MP Mohamed Abu Hamed says that as long as the agreement has been referred to parliament it should be discussed. “Parliament has the final say on the maritime border demarcation deal between Egypt and Saudi Arabia in accordance with Article 151 of the constitution,” he argued, adding that Saudi Arabia could resort to international arbitration to get a final resolution on whether the two islands of Tiran and Sanafir are Egyptian or not.

In a statement to reporters, the pro-government Support Egypt bloc of MPs said the ruling does not change the fact that it is parliament that has the sovereign right to decide the fate of the border agreement between Egypt and Saudi Arabia. Head of the bloc Mohamed Al-Seweidy told reporters that “while there should be a separation among powers parliament has the absolute right of giving a final say on foreign agreements signed by the president of the republic”.

The opposition 25/30 bloc said in a statement shortly after the court ruling that parliament no longer has the right to discuss the deal and called on state institutions to respect the court ruling. In a short statement issued on Monday afternoon the bloc described the court ruling as “a death sentence” that has ended the deal forever. The bloc also demanded the release of protesters arrested for demonstrating against the deal.

Independent MP Mohamed Anwar Al-Sadat urged parliament not to discuss the demarcation deal to avoid “a clash” between the legislative and judicial branches. “This is a final verdict that should be respected by parliament,” Al-Sadat said in a statement issued following the court’s decision. He called on the Egyptian government to respect the “public will” and “the judicial rulings” and warned against “challenging the verdict” before the Supreme Constitutional Court. “The Egyptian government should also reopen a dialogue with Saudi Arabia about the two islands,” he said. Sadat called upon fellow MPs to go to Tiran and Sanafir to raise the Egyptian flag.

Leftist MP Samir Ghattas slammed the Support Egypt bloc’s position. “The [Support Egypt] bloc does not respect the constitution. If they did they would have rejected the [2016] IMF loan deal which did not pass through the House of Representatives as is required by Article 127 of the constitution,” Ghattas told reporters. “These MPs used to say that we should wait until the High Administrative Court’s verdict is issued then they claimed the verdict is a judicial infringement on the powers of  the House of Representatives.”

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