Thursday,21 February, 2019
Current issue | Issue 1337, (23 - 29 March 2017)
Thursday,21 February, 2019
Issue 1337, (23 - 29 March 2017)

Ahram Weekly

Last stand on the islands

Attempts to overturn a final court ruling proving Egypt’s ownership of Tiran and Sanafir go to the wire

Tiran and Sanafir
Tiran and Sanafir

On 2 April Cairo Court for Urgent Matters is scheduled to issue a verdict on a lawsuit which calls for dropping all reasons and effects of a final Administrative Court ruling issued on 16 January annulling the Egyptian-Saudi maritime borders demarcation agreement.

The lawsuit filed by lawyer Ashraf Farahat — who was reportedly backed by the state to make the move — seeks the implementation of a previous ruling passed by Cairo Appeals Court for Urgent Matters backing the agreement.

Signed in April 2016, the agreement obliges Egypt to cede the two strategic Red Sea islands of Tiran and Sanafir to Saudi Arabia. Since its signing, the agreement has led to widespread public anger. Protests were staged, accusing the regime of selling Egypt’s land in return for financial Saudi aid.

Legal experts argue the lawsuits filed in urgent matters courts do not affect the Higher Administrative Court ruling which stressed Egypt’s sovereignty over the islands. “Such lawsuits are nothing but judicial and legal nonsense,” said Ali Ayoub, a lawyer opposing the agreement.

By appealing to civil judiciary, the government hopes to win a ruling that would overrule the verdict passed by the administrative judiciary. The next step would be presenting the two conflicting verdicts to the Supreme Constitutional Court (SCC).

The SCC has already filed two appeals by the State Litigation Authority, the body representing the executive authority in judicial conflicts, seeking to overturn a first-degree ruling passed in June 2016 by the Administrative Court backing Egypt’s right to ownership of the islands. In the first appeal, the government said the Administrative Court ruling violates previous rulings passed by the SCC which consider international agreements as acts of sovereignty, not subject to judiciary control. The second appeal relies on a final ruling issued by Cairo Appeals Court for Urgent Matters ordering a halt to the implementation of the Administrative Court verdict, insisting that the judiciary does not have jurisdiction to rule on international agreements. 

Lawyer Tarek Negeida, a member of the legal team defending the two islands, told the SCC that the administrative judiciary was the sole body assigned with determining whether the agreement is classified as an act of sovereignty. According to Negeida, Article 190 of the 2014 constitution lent the administrative judiciary the sole right to hear appeals contesting the implementation of its rulings.

On his Facebook account, lawyer Malek Adli noted that “previous SCC rulings which classified international agreements as acts of sovereignty over which the judiciary has no control were passed under the annulled 1971 constitution. Hence such rulings have lost their validity.”

On 12 March, the SCC Commissioners Authority sought a legal report over the two government appeals within one month, after which the SCC would settle the issue. Constitutional expert Nour Farahat expects the SCC to quash the government’s appeals. “In a final ruling passed by the Higher Administrative Court, no judicial body, not even the SCC itself, has the right to review it,” Farahat said.

On why the agreement was referred to the SCC, Ayoub said it was an attempt to give parliament a chance to discuss the accord, then endorse it.

Parliament Speaker Ali Abdel-Aal took all by surprise when he stated on 14 March during a general parliamentary session that parliament would discuss the deal in accordance with its constitutional powers. “Once certain procedures and documents are completed, the agreement will be referred to the concerned committee for study,” said Abdel-Aal.

Following Abdel-Aal’s announcement, MPs were divided. A majority insisted that parliament has the constitutional authority to decide on international agreements while others said they would refuse to discuss the agreement out of respect for the judiciary. “After the Higher Administrative Court ruling annulled the agreement, nothing is left for parliament to discuss,” said MP Haitham Al-Hariri from the 25/30 opposition bloc.

Talking to the media, Bahaaeddin Abu Shoka, head of the parliament’s Committee for Legislative and Constitutional Affairs, said the committee’s stance regarding the agreement will be determined after receiving a full report on the accord and after listening to experts who will be asked to appear during the debate.

Recently the Ministry of Petroleum announced that the Saudi Arabian oil company Aramco would resume shipments of fuel to Egypt after a five-month halt. The delay in the transfer of the two islands to Riyadh and the difference in views between the two countries regarding several regional issues, including Syria, were reportedly behind the sudden halt.

A statement issued by the Egyptian Petroleum Ministry said the postponement of shipments was due to “commercial conditions related to changes in global oil market prices and the Saudi reduction of its oil production as well as routine maintenance of refineries”.

On 17 and 18 March, Egypt received two fuel cargos.

Abdel-Aal’s statement opened a heated legal debate over the parliament’s right to discuss an agreement already annulled by a final court ruling.

Rights lawyer Tarek Al-Awadi said parliament should not go near the agreement. “Any discussion of the agreement would be viewed as parliament violating the constitution by challenging judicial rulings,” Al-Awadi said.

Negeida agrees. “Discussing the agreement in parliament puts MPs in danger of losing their legitimacy.” According to Negeida, cabinet legitimacy drops the moment it approves the agreement and sends it to parliament to be pushed through.

On 29 December 2016, and while the agreement was still being heard by the administrative judiciary, the government suddenly decided to refer the controversial agreement to parliament for its say. Several lawsuits were filed contesting the governmental procedure.

Following the passing of the final Administrative Court ruling, debate over the agreement subsided until the government brought the issue back to the political scene.

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