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Egypt: Repeal of Maritime Demarcation Agreement with Saudi Arabia

(June 23, 2016) On June 21, 2016, the Egyptian Administrative Court rendered a decision nullifying the recent maritime agreement reached between Saudi Arabia and Egypt.  The agreement, which was drawn up in April 2016, allowed the ceding of the Red Sea islands of Tiran and Sanafir to Saudi Arabia.  The Saudi Shura Council and the Egyptian Cabinet approved the agreement on May 2 and April 25, respectively.  The two islands are located between Saudi Arabia and Egypt’s Sinai Peninsula, at the narrow entrance to the Gulf of Aqaba that leads to Jordan and Israel.  (Nadine Awadalla, Court Cancels Egyptian-Saudi Islands Deal, Rules Red Sea Islands Irreversibly Egyptian Territory, DAILY NEWS (June 21, 2016); see also Pierre Emmanuel-Dupont & Brian McGarry, The Egypt-Saudi Arabia Agreement on Tiran and Sanafir: Law of the Sea and Security Issues, CILMB BRIEF (Apr. 2016).)

The Court argued in its decision that the Egyptian state continues to exercise all acts of sovereignty over the islands, even after signing the agreement. The Court also argued that according to a 1906 maritime treaty between Egypt and the Ottoman Empire, the islands are Egyptian.  That treaty precedes the founding of Saudi Arabia in 1932.  Accordingly, the islands belong to the Egyptian territory.  (Egypt Court ‘Voids’ Red Sea Islands’ Transfer to Saudi, AL JAZEERA (June 21, 2016) (a map of the area in question is included.)

Government Filing of Appeal

The Egyptian government has filed an appeal before the Supreme Administrative Court (a higher court) to repeal this decision of the Administrative Court, a court of first instance.  The Cabinet argues that the demarcation agreement has not yet been discussed and approved by the Parliament.  It is due to be debated by members of Parliament in the coming weeks.  Therefore, the Administrative Court did not have jurisdiction in the matter.  (Id.)

One of the lawyers who co-filed the lawsuit in the Administrative Court, Khaled Ali, has criticized the government’s attempt to appeal the decision.  During a press conference held after the decision was issued, Ali displayed several documents tracing the historical development of the ownership of the two islands, showing that they were Egyptian and that the Egyptian government protected them during Egypt’s military conflicts with Israel in 1948, 1956, 1967, and 1973. (Amira El-Fekki, After Judicial Victory, Lawyer Presents Historical and Legal Documents Proving Red Sea Islands Egyptian, DAILY NEWS (June 21, 2016).)

Since late April 2016, Ali’s colleague, Malek Adly, has been detained by the regime for filing the lawsuit before the Administrative Court. Adly has been charged with spreading false rumors and inciting protests against the agreement. If he is found guilty of those crimes, he could be sentenced to life imprisonment. (Id.)

Parliamentary Reaction to the Decision

The Chairperson of the Foreign Affairs Committee of the Egyptian Parliament, Mohamed Orabi, stated that the members of Parliament respect the recent court decision. Orabi, who was once the Foreign Minister of Egypt, asserted that the treaty has not yet become law and that it must be discussed by members of Parliament in order to become law.  He also agrees with the argument of the Executive branch that the treaty has to become a law first and can then be challenged before a court, either an administrative or a constitutional court.  (Adham Youssef, Confusion, Caution Marks Official Reaction to Court’s Quashing of Demarcation Deal, DAILY NEWS (June 21, 2016).)