Sunday,23 July, 2017
Current issue | Issue 1349, (15 - 21 June 2017)
Sunday,23 July, 2017
Issue 1349, (15 - 21 June 2017)

Ahram Weekly

Parliament debates status of islands

Spirited exchanges accompany MPs’ discussion of the Egyptian-Saudi maritime demarcation agreement, reports Gamal Essam El-Din

Parliament debates status of islands
Parliament debates status of islands

Parliament’s Legislative and Constitutional Affairs Committee began discussing the maritime border demarcation deal between Egypt and Saudi Arabia on Sunday. The deal, which places the two Red Sea islands of Tiran and Sanafir in Saudi maritime waters, was signed during Saudi King Salman bin Abdel-Aziz’s visit to Cairo in April 2016.

The agreement has faced a number of legal challenges since it was made public. In January the High Administrative Court ruled it null and void only for the Cairo Court for Urgent Matters to rule three months later that administrative courts have no jurisdiction over border deals.

On Sunday — the first day of the debate — government officials and law professors testified in support of the deal, insisting the islands fell under Saudi Arabia’s sovereignty and had been placed under Egyptian control when Riyadh asked Cairo to protect them ahead of the six-day war in 1967.

Foreign Minister Sameh Shoukri told MPs the government signed the maritime border demarcation deal with Saudi Arabia in 2016 after a national committee investigating the issue concluded there was no legal basis for Egypt’s possession of the islands. In an official statement to MPs Shoukri said the maritime border deal was concluded after 11 rounds of negotiations spanning many years. “An Egyptian national committee, including representatives from the ministries of foreign affairs and defence and from the intelligence apparatus was formed to negotiate the deal,” said Shoukri. “The national committee’s conclusion took into account the fact that Hosni Mubarak first ratified such a deal in January 1990 [Decree 27/1990), stating that the islands of Tiran and Sanafir were part of Saudi Arabia.”

“The committee also took note of former Egyptian foreign minister Esmat Abdel-Meguid’s letter to his Saudi counterpart in March 1990 informing him that Cairo acknowledged the islands were part of Saudi territory.”

Shoukri went on to say Egypt assumed control of the islands in 1967 “in order to safeguard them against Israeli aggression”, adding that Cairo, bearing in mind its international commitments, the peace treaty with Israel foremost amongst them, had asked Israel to respect the maritime demarcation agreement between Egypt and Saudi Arabia once it came into effect. “The Israelis said they will honour all international commitments after the two islands are handed to Saudi Arabia,” he said. Shoukri’s statement echoed an earlier government report on the status of the islands which concluded “they have always been a part of Saudi Arabia.” The report, which says Egypt informed the United Nations on several occasions it had no sovereign claims over the islands, was submitted to the Legislative and Constitutional Affairs Committee before it began discussing the maritime border demarcation. “In an official letter sent in May 1967 Egypt’s envoy to the UN wrote that Egypt has no sovereign claim but was taking charge of the islands to defend them against any Israeli aggression”. According to the report, “the Saudis agreed to Egypt’s occupation of the two islands because they were aware of their strategic importance to Egypt’s national security.” It added that, “while the deal with Saudi Arabia ends Egypt’s control of the two islands, because of their importance to Egyptian national security it does not terminate Egypt’s interest in them.” “Saudi Arabia agrees Egyptian administration of the two islands should remain in place in order to safeguard navigation in the Gulf of Aqaba.” The report warns that “Saudi Arabia will resort to international arbitration should parliament reject the deal” and adds that “Egypt will lose the case.” According to the government report, the deal took eight months to be submitted to parliament because of legal challenges after it was made public in April 2016. It notes, in passing, that street protests against the deal, “which only lead to chaos”, will not be allowed. Parliament Speaker Ali Abdel-Aal opened the debate on the deal by telling MPs that “we all love our country and we are all ready to defend it but we should refrain from exchanging accusations of treason.” “Just like you I came here to listen to the debate and to what experts will say about this deal which has received a lot of media attention. We are here to determine the truth and when we do everyone must accept the result. No one has a monopoly on patriotism.” Abdel-Aal described the first hearing session on the deal as “historic”. “I know Egyptians at home and abroad are keen to follow the debate. I hope it will be conducted in a civilised manner, in accordance with the constitution and parliamentary bylaws. “We all seek the truth, and nothing but the truth. Experts and MPs who want to give their opinions will be allowed to take the floor,” said head of the Legislative and Constitutional Affairs Committee Bahaaeddin Abu Shokka. “We will reach a decision on this deal only after listening to all views. The debate will be open and transparent.” Abu Shokka told MPs Abdel-Aal had referred the deal to the Legislative and Constitutional Affairs Committeeon on 10 April and in accordance with the speaker’s instructions — Article 162 of parliament’s internal bylaws also gives government representatives precedence in answering questions — members of the national committee which negotiated the agreement would be the first to be invited to respond to questions. “As a consequence we will hear Minister of Parliamentary Affairs Omar Marawan first, followed by Foreign Minister Sameh Shoukri and the head of the Egyptian Naval Maritime Survey Authority Ashraf Al-Assal.” Marawan insisted it was parliament’s prerogative to discuss the Egyptian-Saudi deal. “This discussion is part of parliament’s supervisory role, in line with Article 151 of the constitution,” said Marawan. Al-Assal told committee members that the most recent round of Egyptian-Saudi negotiations over the islands began in January 2010.

“The 11 rounds continued for six years. The last was in March 2016, a month before the agreement was signed.” According to Al-Assal, “some people believe the two islands of Tiran and Sanafir should remain in Egyptian hands simply because they are close to Egypt.”

“But the two islands are closer to Saudi Arabia than Egypt in both geological and geographical terms,” he told MPs. “They are 800 metres from Saudi Arabia but 4,500 metres from Egypt.”

During the hearing session MP Khaled Youssef, a leading member of the opposition 25-30 parliamentary bloc, requested a copy of all the records of the national committee. “It is my understanding that in 2010 Egypt objected to the methodology used by Saudi Arabia in measuring these distances,” he said. Verbal altercations between Abdel-Aal and members of the 25-30 parliamentary group followed Youssef’s demand, with Abdel-Aal accusing the opposition MPs of “insisting on sabotaging the session”.  Members of the 25-30 bloc had earlier signed a petition declaring their complete rejection of parliamentary discussions of the bilateral agreement.

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