CAIRO – A leading Egyptian rights lawyer widely expected to run in next year's presidential election has called President Abdel-Fattah el-Sissi a "traitor" over his government's decision to hand over two Red Sea islands to Saudi Arabia.
Khaled Ali made his comment during a meeting of opposition parties called Sunday to denounce an ongoing review by lawmakers of the April 2016 agreement that surrendered the islands to the Saudis. A video of his address before the meeting was posted on social media on Monday. He could now face legal consequences for publicly insulting the president.
Egypt's government maintains that the islands of Tiran and Sanafir at the mouth of the Gulf of Aqaba belong to Saudi Arabia but were placed under Egypt's protection in the 1950s in anticipation of Israeli attacks. El-Sissi has repeatedly emphasized that his government would never cede Egyptian territory or keep what belongs to others.
"The president is a traitor and the prime minister is a traitor," said Ali, who unsuccessfully ran in the 2012 presidential elections won by the Islamist Mohammed Morsi. "Whoever will be content to lower the Egyptian flag on Tiran and Sanafir and raise the Saudi flag in its place is a traitor," said Ali.
Already, there is a court case accusing Ali of making an obscene finger gesture on the street outside the courthouse where the transfer of the islands was annulled in January. If convicted in a final ruling, he could face up to six months in prison or a fine.
A conviction would take away Ali's eligibility to run for office, according to his lawyers. He is already seen as a long shot against el-Sissi, who has presided over a widespread crackdown on dissent.
Ali and other critics of the agreement argue that the January court ruling was final and should be respected by the 596-seat chamber, which is packed with el-Sissi supporters. He led a team of lawyers who challenged the agreement in court.
Parliament speaker Ali Abdel-Al, a staunch government supporter, has said the legislature has the constitutional right to ratify international agreements. Court rulings running contrary to this principle, he told lawmakers on Sunday, are only of concern to the judiciary.
Parliament's legislative and constitutional committee on Monday continued to review the agreement. At one point, lawmakers opposed to the pact chanted "Egyptian, Egyptian!," alluding to the islands, and screamed "illegitimate" when one lawmaker suggested that Gamal Abdel-Nasser, Egypt's nationalist leader of the 1950s and 1960s, acknowledged that the islands were Saudi.
The ratification of the agreement by the full house is a virtual foregone conclusion since government supporters enjoy an overwhelming majority, but such a move risks a repeat of the street protests that greeted the agreement last year. The protests, the largest since el-Sissi took office in 2014, were met by the arrest of hundreds of activists and demonstrators, most of them were later released. It could also leave the legislative branch of government in a potentially destabilizing legal battle with the judiciary.