Monday,11 December, 2017
Current issue | Issue 1349, (15 - 21 June 2017)
Monday,11 December, 2017
Issue 1349, (15 - 21 June 2017)

Ahram Weekly

Tiran and Sanafir centre stage

Verbal clashes and acrimony dominate MPs’ discussion of the Egyptian-Saudi maritime demarcation agreement, writes Gamal Essam El-Din

Following a series of parliamentary hearings MPs are close to a final vote on the maritime border demarcation deal which places the Red Sea islands of Tiran and Sanafir, currently administered by Egypt, in Saudi Arabian territorial waters.

The parliament’s Legislative and Constitutional Affairs Committee voted on Tuesday in favour of Egypt’s Red Sea islands deal with Saudi Arabia and decided that the deal should not be put to a public referendum. Until Al-Ahram Weekly went to print on Tuesday, the deal was to be further discussed by parliament’s Defence and National Security Committee on Wednesday, which should prepare a report on the deal before it is put up for a vote in a plenary session this week or the next.

Members of the majority pro-Sisi Support Egypt parliamentary bloc say they have requested Speaker Ali Abdel-Aal to postpone the vote to next week. It is not yet clear whether Abdel-Aal will agree.

On Monday night Abdel-Aal told MPs the Legislative and Constitutional Affairs Committee had heard “the whole range of views regarding the deal”.

“We listened to experts, government officials and professors of constitutional law on Sunday and to opposition MPs on Monday. The only thing that remains is to listen to the majority view of MPs on Tuesday,” said Abdel-Aal.

The debates this week threw divisions among MPs on the deal into sharp relief. Speaker Abdel-Aal had to twice adjourn Monday’s and Tuesday’s sessions after leftist opposition MPs slammed the deal and accused Abdel-Aal of only allowing pro-government experts to testify. In response the Support Egypt bloc asked Abdel-Aal to refer opposition MPs to the Ethics Committee.

Differences exploded on Tuesday morning when leftist MP Ahmed Tantawi interrupted Sayed Al-Husseini, head of the Egyptian Geographical Society, as he was addressing the Legislative and Constitutional Affairs Committee. Tantawi threw the microphone to the floor before hurling insults at Al-Husseini.

Abdel-Aal immediately referred Tantawi to the Ethics Committee. “What Tantawi did was unacceptable. He should be stripped of his parliamentary membership,” said Abdel-Aal.

Independent MP Kamal Ahmed requested the Legislative and Constitutional Affairs Committee halt the debate and complete its report — to be discussed in a plenary session — on the deal. The committee agreed. By Tuesday afternoon 35 committee members had voted in favour of the deal and eight against.

The deal is also expected to be approved by the Defence and National Security Committee. On Tuesday Yehia Kedwani, deputy head of the committee, told the Weekly the agreement would be referred to committee members who would review its technical and historical aspects.

“The committee will pay particular attention to historical documents and letters exchanged by Saudi and Egyptian officials on the status of the islands,” said Kedwani.

Parliamentary discussions of the deal began on Sunday when Foreign Minister Sameh Shoukri told MPs the government had signed the maritime border demarcation agreement in 2016 only after a national committee working on the status of the two islands concluded there was no legal basis for Egyptian sovereignty over Tiran and Sanafir. Shoukri’s testimony was followed by a host of government officials all of whom argued the islands had never been part of Egypt.

On Monday morning the opposition 25-30 parliamentary bloc began insisting any parliamentary debate of the deal should be delayed until the Supreme Constitutional Court (SCC) had ruled on whether or not the discussions were constitutional. The group issued a statement saying “the whole matter should first be referred to the SCC to decide whether administrative courts have jurisdiction over these kinds of border deals.”

In January the Higher Adminstrative Court ruled the deal unconstitutional. When Abdel-Aal rejected the request the bloc’s members shouted in unison: “This meeting is invalid, Tiran and Sanafir will remain 100 per cent Egyptian.”

“It is odd to find Nasserist and leftist MPs insisting the islands are Egyptian when late president Gamal Abdel-Nasser stated clearly that Tiran and Sanafir are Saudi, “ commented Support Egypt MP Badawi Abdel-Latif. As opposition MPs continued to chant Abdel-Aal adjourned the meeting.

Later on Monday a third meeting was convened at which international borders expert Heidi Farouk told MPs “the two islands are 100 per cent Egyptian.”

“I have 75 American documents which prove Tiran and Sanafir are Egyptian,” said Farouk, who added she had been commissioned by former intelligence chief Omar Suleiman and former defence minister Hussein Tantawi to compile a report on the legal status of the islands.

Abdel-Aal responded by saying he did not trust foreign documents, citing the case of Taba which Israel claimed following the Camp David agreement, only to have its claims dismissed during international arbitration. Abdel-Aal then launched a scathing attack on the 25-30 group, accusing them of doing their best to disrupt parliament’s deliberations on the fate of the islands. “I knew beforehand that you came here not to engage in objective discussion but to disrupt the debate,” said Abdel-Aal. Parliament will not implement any court rulings on the islands, he continued, because “the constitution gives parliament the sole authority to discuss foreign agreements.” He demanded the courts uphold the principle of separation of powers and refrain from interfering in the affairs of another authority. “The courts have no jurisdiction on these kinds of foreign deals. It is the prerogative of parliament to have the final say,” insisted the speaker. Abdel-Aal was visibly angry when opposition MPs began to chant “You act like a Saudi rather than an Egyptian.”

Haitham Al-Hariri, a member of the 25-20 group, told reporters “not only does Speaker Abdel-Aal act like a Saudi he has given himself the right to accuse opposition MPs of treason”. “He appears to have forgotten that his job is to be neutral and ensure all MPs can take the floor and speak their minds.” MPs opposed to the deal questioned why only experts who toed the government line had been invited to testify by the Legislative and Constitutional Affairs Committee.

Ahmed Tantawi, a member of the 25-30 group, said “most of the information these experts have presented is inaccurate”. “Where are the independent experts and high-profile constitutional law professors, people like Nour Farahat, Mahmoud Kebeish and Sabri Al-Adl? Why have they not been solicited for their opinions?” asked Tantawi. The 25-30 group demanded the national committee which negotiated the deal with Saudi Arabia hand all minutes of its meetings to parliament. “We want these records and all other papers and documents relating to the deal to be available for scrutiny by all MPs.” In response Minister of Parliamentary Affairs Omar Marawan said the government had already submitted “all the written records of the 11 rounds of meetings between Egyptian and Saudi officials to the Legislative and Constitutional Affairs Committee”. “The government has always been keen that all relevant written records and documents be submitted to parliament and made available to MPs,” said Marawan, “they were also made available to judges when the deal was being challenged in courts.”

Many commentators say it is no coincidence that discussion of the deal has followed the marked improvement in relations between Egypt and Saudi Arabia in recent weeks. MP Mustafa Bakri told the Weekly “it is high time to discuss the deal before it becomes too late.”

“This deal was signed one and a half years ago and it is implausible to further delay discussions.”

Bakri added that he did not expect any negative public reactions to the deal, arguing that “the majority of Egyptians view Saudi Arabia as a brotherly nation.”

Dozens of journalists and party leaders took part in a sit-in at the Press Syndicate on Tuesday night in protest at the demarcation deal. The sit-in will continue until parliament gives its final word. If parliament approves the deal, the protesters vow that further escalation measures, such as street protests, will be taken.

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