CAIRO â€” An Egyptian court ruled on Monday against the government’s decision to hand over two Red Sea islands to Saudi Arabia â€” a landmark verdict likely to deepen tensions with the kingdom and embarrass President Abdel-Fattah el-Sissi.
The ruling by the Supreme Administrative Court in Cairo rejected an appeal by el-Sissi’s government against a lower court’s decision in June to annul the islands’ handover agreement. That deal was signed last April during a high-profile visit by the Saudi monarch, King Salman, who during the visit pledged billions of dollars to Egypt in loans and investments.
The agreement was condemned by many Egyptians who perceived it as a land sell-off. Others saw the surrender of Egyptian territory by el-Sissi and his government as a worrying precedent.
The deal also sparked the largest protests against el-Sissi’s two-year rule. Ignoring the legal process, the government late last month sent the deal to parliament â€” a 596-seat chamber packed with el-Sissi supporters â€” for ratification.
Monday’s verdict was met by an eruption of jubilation by activists and lawyers in the Nile-side Cairo courtroom, with some singing the national anthem and chanting patriotic slogans.
Outside the court, a small number of activists chanted: “Saudi Arabia, take your money back, for tomorrow, the Egyptian people will trample on you.” There were minor scuffles between police and several dozen people who attempted to hold a demonstration.
“The verdict is a message to el-Sissi: ‘Shame, shame on you!'” prominent women’s rights campaigner Azza Suliman told The Associated Press outside the courthouse.
The ruling said the two islands, Tiran and Sanafir, are Egyptian â€” contrary to the government’s claim that they were Saudi and only given to Egypt in the 1950s to protect them from a possible attack by Israel.
“It’s enshrined in the court’s conscience that Egypt’s sovereignty over Tiran and Sanafir is beyond doubt,” the court’s presiding judge, Ahmed al-Shazli, said in announcing the unanimous verdict to a packed courtroom.
The judge said government lawyers did not provide the court with documents “or anything else” that could persuade it to believe otherwise.
The government’s only legal recourse now is to appeal to the Supreme constitutional Court and argue that the agreement with the Saudis over the islands was a “sovereign” act that comes under the president’s prerogatives. However, there has been no indication so far on whether the government would do that.
Tiran and Sanafir are located at the mouth of the Gulf of Aqaba, controlling the narrow shipping lanes running to and from the Red Sea port cities of Eilat and Aqaba, in Israel and Jordan respectively, to the north.
The fate of the two islands has been at the heart of friction between Riyadh and Cairo over a string of regional issues, including Syria and Yemen. Last September, Saudi Arabia unilaterally suspended fuel shipments to Egypt that were agreed during Salman’s visit, forcing Cairo to scurry for alternative sellers.
For el-Sissi, Monday’s verdict could be seen as a glaring policy failure at a time when he and the government are closely watching for signs of dissent or discontent over the a package of radical economic reforms recently introduced as part of a deal with the International Monetary Fund under which Cairo would receive a $12 billion loan.
The reforms have led to steep rises in the price of basic food items, fuel and utility bills.
El-Sissi has publicly shown his frustration with the public debate over the fate of the islands, angrily shouting during a televised meeting last year: “I don’t want anyone to talk about it (the issue) anymore!”
Opposition to the islands deal has energized critics of the government, particularly activists who fueled the 2011 uprising that toppled long-time autocrat Hosni Mubarak. It also ushered in a heated war of words between them and powerful pro-government TV presenters who have been adamant that the islands were Saudi.
“I wish we all understand that nations are not built except with justice and rule of law,” Egypt’s top democracy advocate and onetime Vice-President Mohammed ElBaradei posted on Twitter after the verdict. “I hope that today’s verdict is a beginning of an awakening … to change and correct the path. Sovereignty is for the people.”
This story has been corrected to show that the name of the presiding judge is Ahmed al-Shazli, not Yahya al-Dakrouri.
Maggie Michael, The Associated Press