Monday,27 May, 2019
Current issue | Issue 1328, (19 - 25 January 2017)
Monday,27 May, 2019
Issue 1328, (19 - 25 January 2017)

Ahram Weekly

Awaiting an official response

A final court ruling on the Red Sea islands of Tiran and Sanafir places the government in a dilemma, writes Mona El-Nahhas

Ali following the court ruling
Ali following the court ruling

The Higher Administrative Court has upheld an earlier first-degree ruling annulling the Egyptian-Saudi maritime border demarcation agreement. Under the agreement, signed in April, Egypt would cede the Red Sea islands of Tiran and Sanafir to Saudi Arabia.

When Judge Ahmed Al-Shazli delivered the verdict on Monday the courtroom erupted into cheers.

“Egypt’s sovereignty over Tiran and Sanafir is absolute,” said Al-Shazli, adding that the government had failed to provide any documents supporting its contention the islands were only being temporarily administered by Egypt. The court issued a 59-page document explaining its reasons for the verdict.

“The Egyptian army has never been an occupation force,” Al-Shazli added.

Lawyers and activists greeted the ruling with chants of “these islands are Egyptian” before breaking into the national anthem.

The National Campaign to Protect Land, aka “Egypt is not for sale”, had called on opponents of the demarcation agreement to gather in front of the State Council’s headquarters during the court session. On Monday morning police tightened security around the building in Dokki by blocking off access roads.

“This verdict is a victory for Egypt,” said lawyer Khaled Ali as he was carried on the shoulders of people who had gathered outside the court building following the ruling. Ali led the legal team contesting the agreement of which had provoked widespread public anger.

Legal experts say moves to transfer the two islands to Saudi Arabia must now come to a halt. Article 123 of the Penal Code penalises any public employee who refrains from implementing a court ruling with a jail term and dismissal. 

Rights lawyer Tarek Al-Awadi, a member of the legal team that opposed the deal, said on Monday that the team was considering whether it should now sue whoever signed the agreement, as well as those who promoted it.

The government has released no statements since the ruling was delivered. Sources close to official circles have hinted that the government may appeal to the Supreme Constitutional Court (SCC) as a last resort. On 12 February the SCC is due to resume hearing two appeals filed by the government seeking to overturn the first-degree ruling passed by the administrative court in June. “Now, with the issue of a final ruling backing the earlier judgement, the possibility of the SCC taking the government’s side is unlikely,” say constitutional expert Shawki Al-Sayed.

“Today’s ruling is a crown on Egypt’s head and on the heads of the Egyptian judiciary,” said prominent lawyer Essam Al-Islamboli. “It brings an end to the groundless judicial conflicts still being filed before courts.”

Al-Islamboli added that parliament has no mandate to discuss an agreement annulled by the judiciary.

Constitutional expert Nour Farahat stressed that the ruling has pulled the carpet from beneath claims that parliament has the ultimate say on the agreement.

A copy of the deal is already with parliament’s Legislative and Constitutional Affairs Committee awaiting discussion. 

On 29 December, eight months after the agreement signing, the government suddenly decided to refer the controversial agreement to the House of Representatives. The move was widely seen as an attempt to push the agreement through in order to placate Riyadh after months of strained bilateral relations. The delay in the transfer of the two islands and differences between Cairo and Riyadh on a number of regional issues had fuelled tensions which reached a climax when Saudi Arabia halted fuel shipments to Egypt in October. 

The Higher Administrative Court has left parliament in a legal labyrinth. MPs are divided over whether or not they have the right to discuss the agreement. Though a majority of MPs insist parliament has sole constitutional authority to decide on international agreements, other MPs says the court ruling has rendered that insistence obsolete.

A statement issued by the pro-government Support Egypt bloc said the ruling does not change the fact that parliament has a sovereign right to decide the fate of the agreement. Bloc members argue the ruling has no relevance on whether or not MPs should discuss the deal. “MPs, who represent the people, will have the final say on the agreement,” said the statement.

Bahaaeddin Abu Shoka, head of the Legislative and Constitutional Affairs Committee, declined to comment on the ruling, saying only that parliament will deal with the agreement in accordance with the constitution which gives MPs the final say on the agreement.

No official statements have been issued by Saudi Arabia.

Fears that the court ruling will deepen tensions between Cairo and Riyadh were dismissed by Mohamed Al-Zulfa, a former member of the Saudi Shura Council.

“It is illogical to think the two islands will strain relations between two brotherly countries,” Al-Zulfa told CBC satellite channel. Al-Zulfa expressed his hope that the issue would be settled in a rational way, noting that “we are still waiting for Egypt’s government and parliament to give a final say.”

Retired Saudi General Anwar Maged Eshki told the BBC that Riyadh may ask the United Nations to arbitrate the case. He said Saudi Arabia had provided the Egyptian government with documents that clearly show the islands are part of Saudi Arabia’s sovereign territory.

Legal experts warn that international arbitration requires a number of conditions to be in place, which are absent in the case of the two islands. It requires the joint consent of the two sides and the attendance of a representative from each country presenting opposing documents.

“This does not apply when it comes to Tiran and Sanafir since the Egyptian government already says they are rightfully Saudi Arabian. In other words, the regime is not in a dispute with Saudi Arabia,” says Ali.

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