Egypt parliament begins debate over Red Sea islands

In raucous meeting, MPs discuss controversial government plan to hand over two strategic islands to Saudi Arabia.

    Saudi Arabia placed the two Red Sea islands under Egyptian custody in the 1950s [Reuters]
    Saudi Arabia placed the two Red Sea islands under Egyptian custody in the 1950s [Reuters]

    An Egyptian parliamentary committee on Sunday began reviewing a disputed 2016 agreement to hand control over two Red Sea islands to Saudi Arabia, a move critics say ignores a final ruling by a high court to annul the pact.

    The raucous meeting of the legislative and constitutional committee follows a January ruling by the High Administrative Court that upheld a lower court verdict, declaring the agreement unconstitutional and void.

    Speaker Ali Abdel Aal, a staunch government supporter, struggled to keep order, with committee members arguing among themselves about whether reviewing the agreement was appropriate given the January court ruling.

    There were also arguments on whether media representatives should be allowed to stay in the chamber while the discussions were ongoing.

    READ MORE: Egypt court voids block on islands transfer to Saudis

    Media representatives stayed but there was no live television broadcast from the meeting as earlier promised by MPs and it took nearly an hour before the meeting got under way. However, arguments and shouting matches among legislators continued amid chaotic scenes.

    The Supreme Constitutional Court, Egypt's highest tribunal, also has yet to rule on whether courts of law had jurisdiction to rule on the agreement.

    Abdel Aal believes the legislature alone, which is packed with supporters of President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi, has the right to rule on the agreement, a prerogative he said he would not let anyone take away.

    "I have nothing to do with the ruling of any court of law," he said.

    "These rulings are the concern of the judiciary and they amount to nil," said the speaker who, in his struggle to keep order in the meeting, threatened to throw out committee members opposed to the review claiming they were trying to derail the process.

    Egypt's government contends that the islands of Tiran and Sanafir at the mouth of the Gulf of Aqaba belonged to Saudi Arabia, which placed them in Cairo's custody in the 1950s for protection against possible Israeli attacks.

    Critics say surrendering them amounts to treason and claim it was linked to Saudi financial aid, a charge denied by authorities.

    The agreement was announced during a high-profile visit to Cairo in April 2016 by Saudi King Salman, during which the monarch announced a multibillion-dollar package of investments and soft loans to Egypt.

    The government's decision to take the April 2016 agreement to parliament came at a time when relations between Cairo and Riyadh had just emerged from months of tension over differences in approach to regional flashpoints like Syria and Yemen.

    Over the past two months, Sisi visited Saudi Arabia twice. Last week, the two regional heavyweights joined allies the United Arab Emirates and Bahrain in a coalition against Qatar, the tiny but energy-rich nation they accuse of supporting "extremist" groups and being too close to Iran.

    The government's intention to have parliament ratify the agreement became apparent when state media embraced the official line on the islands.

    READ MORE - Qatar-Gulf crisis: All the latest updates

    The official MENA news agency, for example, has posted on its website a video of "historical" maps purporting to show the islands to be Saudi, along with quotes from Sisi and experts in support of handing them over to the Saudis.

    "We don't sell our land to anyone and also we don't seize the land of others," Sisi said in the video.

    The decision to cede control of the islands to the Saudis sparked street protests in April last year, the largest since Sisi took office via military coup in June 2014, and a parliamentary vote to ratify the deal is likely to lead to a fresh round of unrest and could set the legislative and judiciary on a collision course.

    Critics of the agreement also contend that it violates the constitution, which bars the surrender of any territory.

    "We have martyrs who gave their lives in defence of that territory. If the Saudis think they are theirs, then why now? And what's the price?" prominent novelist and lawmaker Youssef al-Qaeed said in comments published Sunday.

    "This is truly a calamity because no one, absolutely no one, has the right to surrender a grain of sand from Egypt's barren desert, no matter what the justifications are."

    SOURCE: News agencies


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