A top court in Egypt has upheld a ruling against the government’s decision to hand over two strategic Red Sea islands to the Saudi regime under a controversial deal, which has sparked public outrage.
On Monday, the Supreme Administrative Court ruled against an appeal by President Abdel-Fattah el-Sissi’s government and said the islands of Tiran and Sanafir are Egyptian and should not be transferred to Riyadh’s control.
The judge confirmed Egyptian sovereignty over the two islands, noting that the government had failed to provide evidence that they belonged to Saudi Arabia.
Cheers erupted at the court house when the ruling was announced.
“This verdict is a victory for Egypt,” said Malek Adly, one of the two human rights lawyers who led the legal challenge to the government’s plan.
The ruling is final and could not be appealed again. Authorities in Cairo have not immediately commented on the verdict.
On April 9, 2016, Sisi announced that the two islands fall within the territorial waters of Saudi Arabia as stipulated in a border accord signed between Cairo and Riyadh the previous day.
The deal has, however, triggered unprecedented mass demonstrations, with protesters slamming the arrangement as unconstitutional. A number of lawyers filed a lawsuit in the administrative court to block the deal.
Demonstrators have accused Sisi of surrendering Egyptian territory in return for Saudi money, with reports saying that Cairo is receiving 20 billion dollars in aid from Riyadh in return for agreeing to the handover of sovereignty. Egyptian courts have given jail terms to hundreds of protesters.
Back in June 2016, a lower administrative court rejected the Egyptian-Saudi border re-demarcation agreement, saying Egyptian sovereignty over the two islands could not be given up prompting the country’s State Lawsuits Authority, representing the Sisi government in legal cases, to lodge an appeal.
Late last month, the Cairo government endorsed the contentious maritime border agreement in defiance of the June 2016 ruling and sent it to the parliament for ratification.
Riyadh and Cairo argue that the islands belong to Saudi Arabia and that the Arab kingdom had asked Egypt in 1950 to protect them. However, lawyers and opponents say that Egypt’s sovereignty over the islands dates back to a 1906 treaty, before Saudi Arabia was founded.
The uninhabited islands of Tiran and Sanafir lie about four kilometers apart in the Red Sea. They are situated in the narrow entrance to the Gulf of Aqaba leading to Jordan and the occupied Palestinian territories.