CAIRO – The past week's tempestuous parliament approval of a deal transferring two Red Sea islands to Saudi Arabia is putting Egypt's government at odds with the judiciary and providing the country's battered opposition with a nationalist cause to whip up at a time of growing economic distress.
The surprise 2016 deal to hand over the islands of Tiran and Sanafir aimed to strengthen ties with Saudi Arabia, which has provided distressed Egypt with billions of dollars in grants and soft loans over the past four years. It comes amid fitful efforts to establish an axis of cooperation between two powers vying for leadership of the self-styled moderate Sunni Arab camp — countries which oppose Shiite Iran and are willing to weigh closer ties to Israel.
But the opposition has proven a headache for President Abdel-Fattah el-Sissi, whose popularity seems to be slipping in the wake of economic liberalization reforms that deeply hurt Egyptians' living standards even while winning global praise. El-Sissi's government has been gaining greater acceptance by governments internationally, even while facing criticism over its authoritarian policies — defended on security grounds — that include jailing opponents and crushing rights groups.
With parliament's approval of the handover, the dispute over the islands now pits the legislative and executive branches of government against the judiciary. Courts issued two rulings over the past year that clearly stated the islands belong to Egypt.
In Egypt's sometimes murky power structure, it is not clear where such a battle of wills could go.
The issue takes on added significance and sensitivity because Tiran controls the only shipping lane leading to the ports of Eilat and Aqaba, in Israel and Jordan respectively. The closure of the so called Tiran Strait was a main trigger of the 1967 Middle East war.
Saudi Arabia's request for the islands and the absence of any official explanation from Cairo or Riyadh has prompted widespread speculation. One scenario says the islands afford the Saudis a say of some sort in renewed Israeli-Palestinian negotiations along with formal contacts with Israel. Another line of speculation says these contacts would contribute toward formulating a joint strategy against Shiite Iran, a nemesis to the Saudis and Israelis alike.
Here's a look at some of the issues related to the islands and how they are likely to evolve:
The maritime border demarcation agreement under which Egypt would transfer control of the islands to Saudi Arabia was signed and announced when Saudi King Salman was visiting Egypt in April 2016. The announcement came as the Saudis unveiled a multibillion-dollar package of soft loans and investments to Egypt, prompting charges the government was handing over the islands in return for Saudi money.
A court in June 2016 ruled to annul the transfer of the islands. When the government appealed, a higher court upheld the verdict in January and asserted that the islands were Egyptian. The higher court alluded to official documents, some dating back to Ottoman and British colonial times, showing Cairo's exercise of full sovereignty over the islands over the years and offered a legal opinion that dismissed the agreement as unconstitutional.
The government, meanwhile, filed a case with the Supreme Constitutional Court seeking a ruling on whether the two courts had jurisdiction over the case. That court starts hearings next month, but a panel of constitutional experts already filed a report saying the courts did indeed have jurisdiction. If that's the case, serious doubts would be cast on the legality of parliament's ratification of the deal.
That, in turn, would usher in a potentially damaging battle between the legislature and the judiciary. In any case, el-Sissi has to sign off on parliament's ratification before the agreement can go into effect. He has yet to and there has been no word on whether he will await the Supreme Constitutional Court's ruling. He will have to tread carefully given the court's weight and the erosion of parliament's credibility over its handling of the agreement.
The 596-seat legislature ratified the deal on June 14 after four days of at times vicious arguments. Lawmakers on each side threw around accusations of treason, payments by foreign powers and illegal amassing of wealth.
The disorder reinforced critics' charges that parliament is just a tool for the government to carry out its agenda and that many of its members lack the political skills to effectively carry out their duties. The government denies parliament is a rubber stamp, pointing to the rare cases where it has blocked proposals.
Perhaps most egregiously, Speaker Ali Abdel-Al asserted that judicial rulings on the agreement amounted to nil, a position seen as contemptuous of the judiciary. But only a mass resignation by the around 100 lawmakers who oppose the agreement might embarrass the chamber enough to trigger calls for its dissolution. In the meantime, more than 100 lawmakers have urged el-Sissi not to sign off on parliament's ratification before the Supreme Constitutional Court's verdict, according to local media.
Activists raged over the issue on social media. But online calls for street protests achieved a meager response, likely a sign of how Egyptians have become fatigued by recent years' instability, cowed by security crackdowns and consumed with economic privations.
Police arrested more than 100 activists and demonstrators over the weekend, of whom about half remain in custody, according to rights lawyers. There were a handful of small protests in Cairo Friday, quickly broken up by security forces.
But future street action is possible.
"If the government went ahead and handed over the islands to Saudi Arabia, we will consider them occupied and will work toward liberating them by all means available," said one opposition leader, Farid Zahran.
An opinion poll conducted by an Egypt-based pollster, Baseera, found that 47 percent of those questioned believed the islands were Egyptian, with only 11 percent saying they were Saudi. The poll, conducted June 11-12, asked 1,164 people. The margin of error was below 3 percent.