Foreign Minister Sameh Shoukry told Egypt MPs on Sunday that the government approved signing a maritime border demarcation deal with Saudi Arabia in 2016 only after a national committee working on the issue reached the conclusion that there was no legal foundation for Egypt's possession of the islands of Tiran and Sanafir.
Shoukri was addressing Egypt's Legislative and Constitutional Affairs Committee, which began discussing the deal on Sunday. The agreement places the Red Sea islands of Tiran and Sanafir in Saudi maritime waters, and was signed during the Saudi King Salman bin Abdel-Aziz's visit to Cairo in April 2016, prompting protests by some Egyptians.
The government has insisted that the islands have always belonged to Saudi Arabia, and were only placed under Egypt's control because Riyadh asked Cairo to protect them in the 1950s.
The deal has faced a number of legal challenges since it was announced in April 2016.
In January, the High Administrative Court ruled that the deal was null and void. In April, however, the Cairo Court for Urgent Matters ruled that administrative courts had no jurisdiction over border deals.
In an official statement to the MPs, Shoukry said the maritime border deal between Egypt and Saudi Arabia was signed by the two governments only after they had held eleven rounds of negotiations.
"An Egyptian national committee–including representatives from the ministries of foreign affairs and defence and from the intelligence apparatus–was formed in 2010 to take charge of negotiating this deal," said Shoukry.
"The national committee's conclusion was based on the fact that former president Hosni Mubarak had ratified the deal in January 1990 (decree 27 of 1990), stating that the two islands of Tiran and Sanafir are part of Saudi Arabia," he said.
"The national committee also took note of former Egyptian foreign minister Essmat Abdel-Meguid's letter to his Saudi counterpart in March 1990, informing him of the Egyptian cabinet's approval of this deal," Shoukry.
According to the minister, Egypt occupied these two Saudi islands in 1967 "in order to safeguard them against Israeli aggression."
Shoukry indicated that due to its international commitments, above all the peace treaty with Israel, Egypt asked the Israelis to respect the deal between Egypt and Saudi Arabia after it goes into effect.
"The Israelis said they would respect this deal and would honour all international commitments even after the two islands are handed to Saudi Arabia," he said.
Shoukry's statement echoed a government report which also concluded that the two Red Sea islands of Tiran and Sanafir are part of Saudi Arabia. "They have always been a part of Saudi Arabia and that they have never been under Egyptian ownership," read the report.
The report was submitted to parliament's Legislative and Constitutional Affairs Committee before it began discussing the maritime border demarcation deal on Sunday.
The report argues that Egypt had informed the United Nations several times that it had no sovereignty over the two islands.
"In May 1967, for example, Egypt's envoy to UN said in an official letter that Egypt had never tried to impose control on these two islands or claim sovereignty over them," readthe report, adding that "the letter just indicated that all Egypt had wanted was to take charge of defending them against any Israeli aggression."
According to the report "the Saudis blessed Egypt's occupation of the two islands because they were aware of their strategic importance to Egypt's national security."
The report adds that Article 157 of Egypt's 2014 constitution is clear that a public referendum is necessary only if an agreement with a foreign country leads to Egypt ceding part of its territory.
"This stipulation does not apply here because the two islands of Tiran and Sanafir have never been a part of Egypt," reads the report.
The report, however, indicates that "while the deal with Saudi Arabia puts an end to Egypt's control of these two islands, it does not put an end to Egypt's interest in them because of their importance to Egyptian national security."
"As a result, the Saudi side said it fully understands that Egyptian administration on the two islands should remain in place in order to protect the islands and the Gulf of Aqaba," reads the report, adding that "the deal states that the Saudis agree that Egyptian existence on the two islands should remain in place because of Egypt's vital role in safeguarding navigation in the Gulf of Aqaba."
The report records that the deal was signed by prime minister Sherif Ismail and the crown prince of Saudi Arabia, Prince Mohamed bin Salman.
It warns that "Saudi Arabia would resort to international arbitration should parliament decided to reject the deal. And it is sure that Egypt would lose if Saudi Arabia decides to resort to this measure."
The report also says that the constitution does not stipulate that agreements with foreign countries should be referred to parliament within a certain period of time.
According to the government report, the deal took eight months to be submitted to parliament because it faced a number of legal challenges since it was made public in April 2016.
The report states that freedom of expression should not be observed to the extent of allowing street protests against the deal with Saudi Arabia. "There are no absolute freedoms as these only lead to chaos on the street," reads the report.
The speaker of parliament, Ali Abdel-Aal, who headed the first debate on the deal, told MPs that "we all love our country and we are all ready to defend our country, but we should refrain from exchanging accusations of treason."
Abdel-Aal said he was very happy that all MPs were keen to attend the first hearing session on the Egyptian-Saudi deal. "I, just like you, came here to listen to the debate and to what experts will say about this deal which has received a lot of media attention," said Abdel-Aal, adding that "we are all here to reach the truth and when we do this we should all accept the final result and so nobody should give himself the right to monopolise patriotism."
Abdel-Aal described parliament's first hearing session on the Egyptian-Saudi deal as "historic."
"I know that all Egyptians either at home or abroad will be keen to follow parliament's debate on the deal and so I hope that this debate will be held in a civilised way and in accordance with the constitution and parliament's internal bylaws," said Abdel-Aal.
Joining forces, the head of the Legislative and Constitutional Affairs Committee Bahaaeddin Abu Shoqa said that "we all seek the truth and nothing but the truth and so all experts and MPs who would like to give their opinion on the deal will be allowed to take the floor."
"I also vow that we will reach a decision on this deal only after we listen to all views and I vow that the debate will be open and transparent," said Abu Shoqa.
Abu Shoqa said that the Egyptian-Saudi maritime border demarcation deal was signed on 8 April 2016. "It was referred to parliament on 1 January 2017–or eight months later– and on 10 April 2017 the speaker of parliament decided to refer it to the Legislative and Constitutional Affairs Committee for discussion."
Abu Shoqa said in accordance with the speaker's instructions, all members of the national committee who negotiated the deal with Saudi Arabia will be invited to respond to questions.
He added that in accordance with Article 162 of parliament's internal bylaws, government representatives will be given the priority in taking the floor.
"As a result and in this initial session, we will listen first to the Minister of Parliamentary Affairs Omar Marawan, next to the Minister of Foreign Affairs Sameh Shoukry, and then to the head of the Egyptian Naval Maritime Survey Authority, Ashraf El-Assal."
Marawan said that "parliament has full rights to discuss the Egyptian-Saudi deal."
"This discussion is part of parliament's supervisory role in line with Article 151 of the constitution, not to mention that some courts have ruled that administrative courts have no jurisdiction over border deals," said Marawan.
For his part, El-Assal said the negotiations between Egypt and Saudi Arabia began on January 2010. "The eleven rounds of negotiations continued for six years, the last one of which was on March 2016--or one month before it was signed by the governments of the two countries," he said.
According to El-Assal, "some believe that the two islands of Tiran and Sanafir should remain in Egyptian hands because they are close to Egypt." "Let me indicate that the two islands are closer to Saudi Arabia than to Egypt in both geological and geographical terms," he told MPs, adding that "while they are 800 metres from Saudi Arabia, they are 4,500 metres from Egypt."
During the session, MP Khaled Youssef demanded a copy of all of the records of the national committee.
“According to my knowledge during the talks, Egypt objected in 2010 to the methods to measure distances proposed by Saudi Arabia before things changed in 2015, therefore we must read those records as if they are official documents,” said the leading member in the left-leaning 25-30 parliamentary bloc during a heated session.
There were several verbal altercations between Abdel-Aal and the members of the 25-30 parliamentary grouping following Youssef's demand.
“The 25-30 group is insisting on sabotaging the session,” said Abdel-Aal. Several MPs responded angrily.
“We won’t leave the session even if you bring in security,” said Youssef in an animated exchange with the speaker.
Earlier the 25-30 bloc signed a petition declaring their complete rejection of any discussion of the bilateral agreement in parliament.