In April of last year, I wrote about Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi’s transfer of sovereignty over two small islands in the Red Sea, Tiran and Sanafir, to Saudi Arabia. The announcement was made following Saudi King Salman’s visit to the country – a trip that roughly coincided with my own.
I still remember the sudden proliferation of Saudi flags on the streets of Cairo, an electronic billboard of the king, and the inconvenience of blocked off roads, signaling the presence of someone who was more important than the rest of us. Recounting the experience, I wrote about a conversation I had with an Uber driver, about this deference to “kings” in Egypt:
On Monday, we were stopped in traffic as his [King Salman’s] motorcade drove past, taking him to the airport. The next day, traffic was at a standstill once again. When I asked the Uber driver what was going on, he speculated that someone important must be passing by.
“But the King left yesterday,” I said.
“Masr kollaha mulook,” he retorted, with a sardonic half-laugh. “Egypt is full of kings.”
The statement struck me, and continued to reverberate as we rode in silence the rest of the way.
Egypt is full of kings – and not just of the ancient, mummified variety. Our kings are incredibly modern – they are political elites and wealthy businessmen, military and religious authority figures. Our kings give land to other kings as thank-you gifts, without consulting parliament or the population. As only kings can do.
At the time, the island transfer, which took place with the approval of the United States and Israel, but not the Egyptian people or parliament, sparked widespread outrage on social media and a massive protest movement.
Having changed hands multiple times over the years – the islands were captured by Israel in 1956 and, then, again in 1967, before eventually being returned to Egypt in 1982 as part of the Camp David Peace Treaty – rightful ownership over the uninhabited territories was hotly disputed. President Sisi tried to make the case that the islands had always been Saudi territory, and were merely leased to Egypt in the 1950s for temporary safekeeping. But Egyptians did not buy the argument, accusing the president of violating the constitution and “selling” the islands in exchange for a multi-billion dollar aid package from Saudi Arabia.
In June 2016, the Court of Administrative Justice (CAJ) ruled that the transfer agreement, which was signed by Egyptian Prime Minister Sherif Ismail, was unconstitutional and should be nullified. The government challenged the CAJ ruling, filing an appeal with Egypt’s Supreme Administrative Court (SAC). This week, SAC ruled that the two Red Sea islands fall under Egyptian sovereignty, thereby blocking the controversial transfer.
The court maintained that the Egyptian government had not provided enough evidence to back Saudi’s claim to the land, and did not otherwise have authority to cede Egyptian territory. As Mada Masr described the decision:
Judge Ahmed al-Shazly, the vice president of the State Council, announced in court that “the Egyptian military was not an occupying force and the sovereignty of Egypt over Tiran and Sanafir is irrevocable,” in response to the Egyptian government’s claims that the uninhabited islands are Saudi Arabian territory but have been administered by Egypt since the 1950s upon the request of the Gulf monarchy.
In a press conference following the ruling, prominent human rights lawyer, Khaled Ali, a member of the legal team that filed the lawsuit against the government, read the ruling aloud to raucous applause and cheering, calling it a “decisive” ruling. Activists and lawyers waved flags and chanted, “these islands are Egyptian.”
“So it is not permissible for the president, or prime minister or parliament or cabinet or a referendum to give up this land,” Ali said in a statement to Reuters. “It is Egyptian land and cannot be given up according to the Egyptian constitution.”
The decision highlights growing discontent with Egyptian president Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, as even staunchly pro-government media personalities expressed criticism of the president’s actions. Trending Twitter hashtags included “One million signatures to prosecute Sisi” and “Sisi is a traitor by verdict of the court.”
But while the SAC decision may seem definitive, the island saga might not be over yet. As Mada Masr observed:
While Monday’s ruling was the final verdict in the appellate process within the State Council regarding the agreement, the state filed a separate appeal in August before the Supreme Constitutional Court (SCC) claiming the State Council has no jurisdiction over international agreements. This appeal remains pending, having been adjourned to February 12.