Egypt’s top court temporarily halts decisions on Red Sea islands

The government says the two islands, Tiran and Sanafir, belong to Saudi Arabia and parliament last week approved their controversial transfer. But two administrative courts have ruled to annul the deal.

File photo from February 2017 showing the Red Sea island of Tiran. The parliament approval of a deal transferring two islands - Tiran and Sanafir - to Saudi Arabia is putting Egypt's government at odds with the judiciary. Nariman El Mofty/AP Photo
Powered by automated translation

CAIRO // Egypt’s top court has temporarily suspended all rullings on a contested deal to transfer two Red Sea islands to Saudi Arabia until it decides who has jurisdiction, a spokesman said on Wednesday.

Egyptian courts have issued contradictory rulings since Cairo signed a controversial deal with Saudi Arabia in April 2016 to transfer the islands to Riyadh.

The government says the two islands, Tiran and Sanafir, belong to Saudi Arabia but had been leased to Egypt in the 1950s. Parliament last week approved their controversial transfer.

But since the agreement was announced 14 months ago, two administrative courts have ruled to annul the deal, arguing the islands belong to Egypt. A third court, however, ruled that it should be implemented and contended the other two tribunals had no jurisdiction over the issue.

The agreement now sees two courts and the parliament in a battle over jurisdiction.

Supreme constitutional court spokesman Ragab Saleem said: “The Constitutional Court, in cases of contradictory judgments, looks at who has jurisdiction.

“It might see one side has jurisdiction, or that neither side has. It might be under the jurisdiction of another entity.”

He said the court was not examining whether the deal was constitutional and did not give a timeframe for a decision.

Wednesday’s decision only applies to the two courts involved, not to parliament, which has approved the deal.

The agreement to transfer the islands to Saudi Arabia caused street protests last year from many Egyptians who say their sovereignty over the islands dates back to a treaty from before Saudi Arabia was founded.

The government has insisted the islands were always Saudi but placed under Egyptian protection in the early 1950s amid Arab-Israeli tension.

The supreme constitutional court is scheduled to open hearings next month on a request filed by the government seeking a ruling on whether the administrative courts that ruled against the agreement had jurisdiction.

In his first public comments on the issue since parliament’s June 14 ratification, President Abdel Fattah El Sisi said on Tuesday the issue has been concluded and his government has nothing to hide – an allusion to charges that Egypt was giving up the islands in return for billions of dollars in Saudi aid.

“The rights of others must be restored,” Mr El Sisi said.

* Reuters, Agence France-Presse and Associated Press