Egyptian court cancels isle transfer to Riyadh

CAIRO • An Egyptian court yesterday quashed a government decision to hand over two Red Sea islands to Saudi Arabia, judicial sources said, overruling a deal that had sparked public outrage.

President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi announced the controversial accord in April during a visit to Cairo by Saudi King Salman.

A judge told AFP that the decision by the State Council - Egypt's highest administrative court - "cancels the signing" of the deal, which put two islands in the Strait of Tiran under Riyadh's control.

The verdict stressed that the Tiran and Sanafir islands remain "Egyptian", said the judge who could not be named due to the sensitivity of the issue.

Lawyer Khaled Ali, a leftist opposition figure who brought the case, told AFP that the court's decision "shows the two territories are Egyptian... and cannot be given away".

The government will appeal against the ruling, said Minister of Legal and Parliamentarian Affairs Magdy al-Agaty.

The handover prompted an outcry from many Egyptians, and sparked protests against Mr Sisi.

More than 100 people were earlier jailed for up to five years for taking part in demonstrations that police quickly dispersed, but they were later freed on appeal.

Police had also made scores of arrests in the lead-up to the protests to discourage a repeat of a large rally on April 15 at which demonstrators chanted for the "fall of the regime".

Saudi Arabia is one of the main regional backers of the government of Mr Sisi, who has overseen a crackdown on opposition since ousting his Islamist predecessor Mohamed Morsi in 2013.

The oil-rich kingdom has provided Cairo with billions of dollars in aid and investment to help Egypt's battered economy since Mr Sisi, a former army chief, took power.

Critics of the government have accused Mr Sisi of "selling" the islands in return for securing multibillion-dollar investment deals from Saudi Arabia during King Salman's visit.

Generations of Egyptians have grown up believing that the Tiran and Sanafir islands belonged to Egypt. But Cairo insists they have always been Saudi territory - which was leased to it in 1950 following a request by Riyadh - and said the deal to transfer them was based on a decree by since-ousted president Hosni Mubarak.

Tiran and Sanafir lie at the mouth of the Gulf of Aqaba and both islands - captured by Israel in the 1967 Six-Day War and returned to Egypt under the 1979 Camp David Accords - can be used to control access to the Israeli port of Eilat.

AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on June 22, 2016, with the headline 'Egyptian court cancels isle transfer to Riyadh'. Print Edition | Subscribe