CAIRO – In a raucous and tense meeting, Egyptian lawmakers on Sunday began reviewing a disputed 2016 agreement to hand control over two Red Sea islands to Saudi Arabia, a move critics say ignores a final ruling by a high court to annul the pact.
The ratification of the pact — an almost foregone conclusion if put to a vote by the 596-seat chamber packed with supporters of President Abdel-Fattah el-Sissi — could spark a repeat of the street protests that greeted the agreement when it was first announced in April 2016. It would likely also set the state's legislative branch on a collision course with the judiciary. Last year's protests, the biggest since el-Sissi took office in 2014, were foiled with the arrest of hundreds of protesters and activists, most of whom were later released.
Sunday's meeting by the house's powerful legislative and constitutional committee follows a January ruling by the Supreme Administrative Court that upheld a lower court verdict, declaring the agreement unconstitutional and void. Another senior tribunal, the Supreme Constitutional Court, is looking into a separate case to decide whether it is within the jurisdiction of the courts to decide the fate of the agreement.
Speaker Ali Abdel-Al, a staunch el-Sissi supporter who runs the house with an iron fist, struggled to keep order in the meeting, with committee members arguing over whether reviewing the agreement was appropriate given the January court ruling. There were also disputes over whether media should be permitted access to the chamber while the discussions were ongoing.
When some committee members insisted a procedural vote first be taken on whether the committee should review the pact, Abdel-Al declared a "yes" majority barely seconds after he had asked members to vote by a show of hands. When his tactic was loudly decried by some members, he threatened to expel anyone who spoke out of turn.
Media representatives were eventually allowed to stay but the four-hour meeting was not broadcast live on television as earlier promised by powerful lawmakers. It took nearly an hour of arguments and chaos before the meeting got under way. However, protests and shouting matches among lawmakers continued amid chaotic scenes.
Abdel-Al told lawmakers he believed the legislature alone has the right to rule on the agreement, a prerogative he said he would not allow anyone to take away from the chamber.
"I have nothing to do with the ruling of any court of law," he said. "These rulings are the concern of the judiciary and they amount to nil."
Egypt's government contends that the islands of Tiran and Sanafir at the mouth of the Gulf of Aqaba belonged to Saudi Arabia, which placed them in Cairo's custody in the 1950s for protection against possible Israeli attacks. Critics say surrendering them amounts to treason and claim it was linked to financial Saudi aid, a charge denied by authorities.
The agreement was announced during a high-profile visit to Cairo in April 2016 by Saudi King Salman during which the monarch announced a multibillion dollar package of investments and soft loans to Egypt, prompting some critics to suspect a shady tradeoff.
The government's decision to take the pact to parliament came at a time when relations between Cairo and Riyadh had just emerged from months of tension over differences in approach to regional flashpoints like Syria and Yemen, and other issues. El-Sissi has visited Saudi Arabia twice since relations thawed. Last week, Egypt and Saudi Arabia joined allies the United Arab Emirates and Bahrain in a coalition against Qatar, the tiny but energy-rich nation they accuse of supporting militant Islamic groups and being too close to non-Arab, Shiite Iran.
The authorities' intention to have parliament swiftly ratify the agreement became evident when state and private media loyal to the government launched a campaign this weekend to promote the official line on the islands. The official MENA news agency, for example, posted on its website a video of "historical" maps purporting to show the islands to be Saudi, along with quotations from el-Sissi and experts in support of handing them over to the Saudis.
"We don't sell our land to anyone, and also we don't seize the land of others," el-Sissi said in the video. A state-owned daily, meanwhile, quoted a prominent geologist as saying the islands' rock formation matched that of the Saudi coast opposite them, suggesting they belonged to Saudi Arabia.
On the opposite side, activists opposed to the surrender of the islands took to social media to criticize it, with many saying they found the government's defense of the Saudi claim vexing and tantamount to treason. Many invoked what they said was the martyrdom and suffering in Tiran of Egyptian soldiers killed or taken prisoner by Israel in past wars.
"We have martyrs who gave their lives in defense of that territory. If the Saudis think they (the islands) are theirs, then why now? And what's the price?" prominent novelist and lawmaker Youssef al-Qaeed said in comments published Sunday. "This is truly a calamity because no one, absolutely no one, has the right to surrender a grain of sand from Egypt's barren desert, no matter what the justifications are."