An Egyptian court has reversed a decision to hand over two Red Sea islands to Saudi Arabia.
Tuesday’s verdict by the highest administrative court in Cairo declared void a maritime border accord with Saudi Arabia, which would have seen Egypt surrender control of the Tiran and Sanafir islands at the mouth of the Gulf of Aqaba.
While the verdict is not final, it could deal a blow to Egyptian President Abdel-Fattah el-Sisi’s government, which has eagerly argued that the agreement would bring economic benefits for Egypt.
The initial deal was made public in April during a high-profile visit to Cairo by the Saudi monarch, King Salman, during which he announced a mutli-billion dollar aid package to Egypt. Critics argue the islands will be given to Saudi Arabia as a payoff, something the government has denied.
The government said it would appeal the court’s verdict on Tuesday.
“The government is studying the reasons for the ruling and will … challenge it at the higher administrative court of the State Council and request that … it be cancelled,” Magdy al-Agaty, minister of legal and parliamentary affairs, said.
Judge Yehia al-Dakroury ruled that Egyptian sovereignty over the islands holds and could not be amended in favour of another state.
Tiran and Sanafir lie between Saudi Arabia and Egypt’s Sinai Peninsula at the narrow entrance to the Gulf of Aqaba leading to Jordan and Israel.
Saudi and Egyptian officials say they belong to the kingdom and were only under Egyptian control because Saudi Arabia asked Egypt in 1950 to protect them.
Ali argued that according to a 1906 maritime treaty between Egypt and the Ottoman Empire, the islands are Egyptian. The treaty precedes the founding of Saudi Arabia in 1932.
The demarcation agreement was also due to be discussed by parliament in the coming weeks. Two parliamentarians said the debate would go ahead and take into account the verdict.
A group of Egyptian rights lawyers filed the lawsuit with Egypt’s Administrative Court at the State Council arguing that President Sisi, Prime Minister Sherif Ismail and Parliament Speaker Ali Abdel Al had wrongfully relinquished Egypt’s rights over the two islands.
Led by Khaled Ali, a lawyer and former presidential hopeful, they argued the border demarcation agreement was illegal, citing article 151 of the Egyptian constitution, which states that all matters regarding the drawing of Egypt’s borders must be reviewed by the parliament.
The Egyptian constitution also states that a national referendum is required before any changes to the state’s borders can be finalised.
One of the lawyers who co-filed the lawsuit, Malek Adly, has been detained since late April over under of “spreading false rumors and inciting protests against the agreement,” AhramOnline reported.
The agreement in April sparked protests across Egypt. More than 150 people were jailed in connection to riots at the time, although many were later released or had their sentences reduced.
Egyptian troops have been stationed on the two islands since the 1950s at the request of Saudi Arabia.