Debate heats up between opposition, pro-government majority in Egypt's parliament over Red Sea island deal

Gamal Essam El-Din , Monday 12 Jun 2017

Parliament speaker Ali Abdel-Aal adjourned Monday morning discussions in committee on the deal to a closed-door meeting to be held Monday evening after heated disputes


Egypt parliament speaker Ali Abdel-Aal adjourned on Monday the second session of the legislative and constitutional affairs committee to discuss a maritime border demarcation deal between Egypt and Saudi Arabia after opposition MPs teamed up against the deal, accusing Abdel-Aal of taking a pro-executive line.

Foreign Minister Sameh Shoukry had told committee members during the first session 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.

The deal, which places the two Red Sea islands of Tiran and Sanafir in Saudi maritime waters, had faced a number of protests then legal challenges after it was signed in April 2016.

On Monday, the opposition 25-30 parliamentary bloc, which opposes the deal, insisted that parliament may open discussion on this matter only after the Supreme Constitutional Court rules on jurisdiction over the matter.

The group said in a statement that "the whole matter should first be referred to the Supreme Constitutional Court (SCC) so that it can decide whether administrative courts – which ruled last January that the deal was null and void – have jurisdiction over these kind of border deals."

When Abdel-Aal rejected the group's request, the bloc shouted in one voice "this is an invalid meeting and Tiran and Sanafir will remain one hundred percent Egyptian."

MPs affiliated with the pro-government majority "Support Egypt" bloc tried to stop the oppostion group, asking the speaker to intervene and impose discipline. 

Badawi Abdel-Latif, a Support Egypt MP, said "I wonder while late president Gamal Abdel-Nasser said the two islands are Saudi, we see that these Nasserist and leftist MPs insist that they are Egyptian."

The opposition MPs reacted by shouting again in one voice "the islands are Egyptian."

As a result, Abdel-Aal said he would adjourn the meeting to prevent it from descending into chaos. Abdel-Aal indicated that a closed-door evening meeting, including members of the legislative and constitutional affairs committee only, will be held at 9pm on Monday.

Abdel-Aal launched a scathing attack against the 25-30 group, accusing them of doing their best to disrupt parliament's meetings on the fate of the islands.

"I knew beforehand that you came here not to raise an objective discussion, but rather to disrupt the debate," said Abdel-Aal, adding "and this is the reason why I decided to head the debate myself."

Abdel-Aal insisted that parliament will not implement any court ruling on the islands. 

"As the constitution gives parliament full and exclusive authority to discuss foreign agreements, we will never honour any court rulings because they would be considered null and void to us," said Abdel-Aal.

Abdel-Aal said courts should uphold the principle of separation of powers, meaning that no authority should interfere in the affairs of another authority. 

"I insist that courts have no jurisdiction on these kinds of foreign deals and it is parliament which has the exclusive prerogative to give a final say on these deals," said the speaker.

Abdel-Aal, however, erupted in anger when opposition MPs accused him of taking a government line on the deal. 

"You act like a Saudi rather than an Egyptian," said opposition MPs in one voice. Haitham El-Hariri, a member of the group, told reporters "not only does speaker Abdel-Aal act like a Saudi, but he also gave himself the right to accuse leftist MPs of treason."

"Speaker Abdel-Aal should be neutral and know that all MPs have the right to take the floor to speak their mind on the deal," said El-Hariri.

The opposition MPs also wondered why most of the experts who were invited by the legislative and constitutional affairs committee took a "pro-government line." Ahmed Tantawi, a member of the group, said "most of the experts are more like Saudis and more of their information on the deal is inaccurate."

"We ask that independent experts and high-profile constitutional law professors such as Nour Farahat, Mahmoud Kibiesh, Sabry El-Adl and Haidi Farouk also be invited to give their say on the deal," Tantawi said.

The 25-30 group demanded that the national committee – which negotiated the deal with Saudi Arabia – should hand all the records of its meetings with the Saudis over to parliament. 

"We want these records and all other papers and documents related to the deal to be scrutinised by MPs," opposition MPs said during the meeting on Monday.

In response, Minister of Parliamentary Affairs Omar Marawan indicated that the government had already submitted "all the written records of the eleven rounds of meetings between Egyptian and Saudi officials on the deal to the legislative and constitutional affairs committee."

"I want to stress that the government was very keen that all the written records and documents on the deal be submitted to parliament and become available to all MPs," said Marawan, adding that "they were also made available to judges when the deal was being challenged in courts."

Meanwhile, MP Kamal Amer, head of parliament's national security and defence committee, said the deal would be referred to the committee for further discussion of its technical and historical aspects.

"Once the legislative and constitutional affairs committee finishes the debate on the deal, it will be referred to the national security committee to be reviewed in technical, historical and geographical terms," said Amer, adding that "in particular, the committee will review all the historical documents and letters which Saudi and Egyptian officials exchanged on the two islands over a long period of time."

Amer, however, told reporters that "an initial review of documents shows that the two Red Sea islands of Tiran and Sanafir are Saudi."

"The Saudis left them as a trust in Egyptian hands and now it is time to return them to the Saudis," said Amer.

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