Red Sea islands deal with Saudis needs only review by parliament, not referendum: Egypt MPs

Gamal Essam El-Din , Wednesday 13 Apr 2016

MPs said that Egypt's handing over of two Red Sea islands to Saudi Arabia does not need to be put to a public referendum, only parliamentary review

A general view shows members of the Egyptian parliament attending the opening session at the main headquarters of Parliament in Cairo, Egypt, January 10, 2016

After a meeting with President Abdel-Fattah El-Sisi on Wednesday, a large number of Egypt's MPs said a new technical deal aimed at redrawing the maritime borders between Egypt and Saudi Arabia does not need to be voted on in a public referendum.

"According to the constitution (Article 151), this kind of deal will have to be reviewed and voted on by parliament only," said Hatem Patshat, a leading deputy affiliated with the Free Egyptians Party.

Egypt's Friday announcement that it was handing Saudi Arabia two Red Sea islands under Egyptian control caused widespread controversy in Egypt.

Article 151 of the Egyptian constitution, which critics say was violated by the deal, stipulates that agreements related to issues of sovereignty, alliance, or reconciliation must be put to a public referendum, as well as a parliament vote and presidential ratification.

According to Patshat, Article 151's conditions for a referendum "do not apply to the new technical deal with Saudi Arabia because it just aims at redrawing the borders in a correct way."

"The deal does not state that Saudi Arabia will strip Egypt of part of its land or regional waters, but only corrects a wrong by handing over the two islands," he said.

Patshat, a former intelligence officer and an MP representing Cairo's eastern district of Zeitoun and Ameriya, said the deal was a necessary step towards building a suspension bridge between the two countries across the Red Sea.

Alaa Abed, parliamentary spokesman of the liberal Free Egyptians party, praised a speech El-Sisi delivered at a meeting with leading political figures on Wednesday.

"The meeting was necessary in order to clarify all the facts about several controversial issues, particularly the new maritime border deal with Saudi Arabia," said Abed.

Abed and Patshat also launched a scathing attack against local media, accusing outlets of distorting facts about the new deal.

"I think that all of these poisonous media outlets should stay silent until all the documents related to this deal come to parliament for discussion," said Abed.

"The media should not impose its say on the nation or spread unverified information that might harm relations between Egypt and Saudi Arabia."

Patshat said that "the most important question that should be asked about this deal is whether it helps safeguard Arab national security against the influence of Iran and Israel, and the answer should be 'yes'."

Abed said that El-Sisi was very candid and honest in clarifying the facts about the two islands.

"The two islands were not given to Saudi Arabia in return for money or economic assistance," said Abed.

"The islands were merely left under the control, rather than the sovereignty, of Egypt for security reasons, and now the time has come to put them in the hands of Saudi Arabia, as documents say they are part of its regional waters."

"This does not need a referendum, because this is not a sovereignty issue, it only requires the review of parliament," he said.

Abed and Patshat stressed that "Egypt's parliament will not give a final vote on the deal until it reviews all the documents related to it."

"If these two islands are really part of Saudi Arabia, we will say yes, and if not, we will say no."

MP Margaret Azer said that "the presidential decree issued in 1990 on the two Red Sea islands of Tiran and Sanafir is clear that they are part of Saudi Arabia's territory."

"The deal… will be an implementation of this decree, and this does not require a national referendum," she argued.

Mohamed El-Ghoul, a leading MP affiliated with the Support Egypt parliamentary bloc, told reporters that "our role as MPs is to thoroughly review this deal, and this comes through entrusting a number of technical and legal experts [with studying the matter] in a scientific way."

"The decision of these experts will help parliament take its final vote in an objective manner," he added.

Hesham El-Hossary, an independent MP from the Nile Delta governorate of Daqahliya, said that "President El-Sisi's review of the deal with Saudi Arabia was marked with transparency and respect for the constitution and state authorities."

According to El-Hossary, Article 151 of the constitution gives parliament the final say on "border demarcation agreements as long as they are not related to sovereignty issues."

El-Hossary added that "all should wait until parliament discuss this deal."

Ahmed Khalifa, the parliamentary spokesman for the Salafist Nour Party, also told reporters that "the final say on the deal, according to Article 151, should be left to parliament."

He also urged the local media not to use the issue to drive a wedge between Egypt and Saudi Arabia.

Mohamed Anwar El-Sadat, chairman of the Reform and Development Party, said he agrees that "nobody can give a final say until all the related documents about the deal are presented."

According to Sadat, parliament must form a committee including professors of international law and history to verify the documents and give all the facts.

Mohamed Hani El-Hennawy, an independent MP from the Nile-Delta Beheira governorate, said that "the media tackled the issue in a very bad way."

"They discussed it without having the necessary documents and information," said El-Hennawy, adding that "they chose to spread lies that could negatively affect the national security of Egypt."

El-Hennawy joined the chorus of MPs who accused the media and social networks of "distorting the facts and spreading lies."

"I think the time has come to pass a new legislation that should impose some kind of control on these outlets if we to safeguard the national security of Egypt," said El-Hennawy.

Few MPs, including independent deputy and political researcher Samir Ghattas, argued that the agreement must be voted on in a plebiscite.

"As I understand, Article 151 of the constitution states that agreements related to sovereignty issues must be put to a public referendum," said Ghattas.

However, Mostafa El-Guindi, an independent Nasserist MP, differed with this assessment, saying that "the agreement deals only with demarcation rather than sovereignty issues between two Arab countries."

"It is similar to other agreements Egypt made with other neighbouring countries that were ratified by parliament."

Mostafa Bakri, an independent MP and a high-profile journalist, said the agreement "should not be viewed in sovereignty terms."

"It is just a technical agreement that aims at redrawing the borders in a correct way, not to mention that a bridge will be built to connect Egypt and Saudi Arabia via the two islands and Sinai," he said.

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