Egypt cabinet responds to queries, criticism of Saudi Red Sea islands deal

Ahram Online , Wednesday 13 Apr 2016

A picture taken on January 14, 2014 through the window of an airplane shows the Red Sea's Tiran (foreground) and the Sanafir (background) islands in the Straits of Tiran between Egypt's Sinai Peninsula and Saudi Arabia (AFP)

The Egyptian cabinet responded on Tuesday evening to questions and heated debate on social media regarding the state's recognition of Saudi sovereignty over the Red Sea islands of Tiran and Sanafir.

The cabinet's official thinktank, the Information and Decision Support Centre, said the maritime border demarcation decision will be presented to the Egyptian parliament for revision and discussion.

"The parliament has the full freedom to vote for or against the agreement, as the president won't ratify it except after the parliament approves it, and it is not applicable except after ratification," a statement released by the centre read.

The centre had on Monday released a statement collating a variety of historical documents supporting the government's stance that the two strategically valuable islands are Saudi. On Tuesday, the official body released a second statement addressing specific queries and comments from Egyptians about the deal.

The ISDC responded to accusations of lack of transparency and an apparent failure to conduct a public dialogue prior to announcing the demarcation agreement, saying that the Egyptian government signed the agreement following opinions and studies made by the National Committee for Egyptian Maritime Border Demarcation which had been working on the issue for six years.

Regarding claims that there was an agreement between Egypt and the Ottoman Empire in 1906 that is relevant to the issue, the governmental body said that the demarcation was related to drawing up land borders between the two states, and never discussed the drawing up of maritime borders.

The ISDC said that the two islands stance were never mentioned in the demarcation.

The ISDC also said that there are official documents that prove the islands are under Saudi sovereignty, including a presidential decree in 1990 that mentions the maritime borders of the country, which cites the two islands as being outside Egypt's borders, letters between the Egyptian foreign ministry and a Saudi counterpart in 1988 and 1989, and a UN map from November 1973.

The cabinet body referred to a letter sent by the American ambassador to Egypt to the American secretary of state in 1950 that says that Tiran and Sanafir are Saudi.

They also quoted the late veteran journalist Mohamed Hassanein Heikal's book Autumn of Fury, where they said Heikal affirmed that the two islands were Saudi and put under Egyptian control following a special arrangement between Cairo and Riyadh.

The body rejected claims that the two islands' situation was similar to that of the border region of Halayeb and Shalateen, over which a dispute with neighbouring Sudan has lingered for decades.

"The truth here proves that Halayeb and Shalateen's situation is totally different than those of the islands as the islands were of Saudi ownership under Egyptian control, while Halayeb and Shalateen are of Egyptian ownership under Sudanese administration…If Egypt doesn't acknowledge Saudi's rights regarding the two islands, Sudan would use the situation to hold on to Halayeb and Shalateen," the ISDC said.

The ISDC's statement comes following widespread public debate in Egypt after it was announced last week that the two islands fall within Saudi maritime borders. The announcement left Egyptian politicians and public figures divided, with some publicly opposing the deal and calling on parliament not to ratify it. Saudi Arabia insists that the two islands have "always been Saudi."

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