'Committee found no legal foundation for Egypt's possession of Red Sea islands': Sameh Shoukry tells MPs
Gamal Essam El-Din, , Sunday 11 Jun 2017
A government report also states that no public referendum will be held on the fate of Tiran and Sanafir because they have never been a part of Egypt

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.

"AnEgyptian national committee–including representatives from the ministries of foreign affairs anddefenceand from the intelligence apparatus–wasformed in 2010to takecharge of negotiating this deal," saidShoukry.

"Thenational committee's conclusion was based on the factthat former president Hosni Mubarakhad ratified the dealin January 1990 (decree 27 of 1990), statingthat the two islands of Tiran andSanafirare part of Saudi Arabia," he said.

"The national committee also took note of former Egyptian foreign ministerEssmatAbdel-Meguid'sletter 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 Arabiaafter it goes into effect.

"The Israelis said they would respect this deal and wouldhonourall international commitmentsevenafter the two islands are handed to Saudi Arabia," he said.

Shoukry'sstatement echoed a government report which also concluded thatthe two Red Sea islandsof Tiran andSanafirare part of Saudi Arabia. "They have always beena part of Saudi Arabiaandthatthey have never been under Egyptian ownership," read the report.

The report was submitted to parliament's Legislative and Constitutional Affairs Committee before it began discussingthemaritime border demarcation deal on Sunday.

The report argues that Egypt hadinformed the United Nations several times that it hadno sovereignty overthetwo islands.

"In May 1967, for example, Egypt'senvoy to UNsaid inan official letter that Egypt hadnever tried toimposecontrolonthese two islands or claim sovereignty over them," readthe report, adding that "the letterjust indicatedthat all Egypthadwanted wasto takecharge of defendingthemagainst any Israeli aggression."

According to the report "the Saudis blessed Egypt's occupation of the twoislands because they were aware of their strategicimportance toEgypt'snational security."

The report adds that Article 157 of Egypt's 2014 constitution is clear that a public referendum is necessary only ifan agreement with a foreign country leads to Egypt ceding part of its territory.

"This stipulationdoes not apply here because the two islands of Tiran andSanafirhave never been a part of Egypt," reads the report.

The report, however, indicates that "whilethe deal with Saudi Arabia puts an end to Egypt'scontrol 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 sidesaid it fullyunderstands that Egyptian administrationon the twoislandsshouldremainin 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 ministerSherifIsmail and the crown prince of Saudi Arabia, Prince Mohamed binSalman.

It warns that"Saudi Arabia would resort to international arbitration should parliamentdecided to rejectthe deal. And it is sure that Egypt would lose if Saudi Arabia decidesto resort tothis 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 tookeight months to be submitted to parliament because it facedanumber of legal challenges since it was made public in April 2016.

The report states thatfreedom of expression shouldnot be observed to the extent of allowing street protests against the deal with Saudi Arabia. "There are no absolute freedomsasthese only lead to chaoson the street," reads the report.

The speaker of parliament, Ali Abdel-Aal, who headed the first debate on the deal, told MPs that "we alllove our country and we are all ready to defend our country, but we shouldrefrain fromexchanging accusations of treason."

Abdel-Aalsaid 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 mediaattention," said Abdel-Aal, adding that "we are all here to reach the truth and when we do this we should all accept thefinalresult and so nobody should give himself the right tomonopolisepatriotism."

Abdel-Aaldescribed 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 CommitteeBahaaeddinAbuShoqasaid 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 toall views and I vow that the debate will be openand transparent," said AbuShoqa.

AbuShoqasaid 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 Committeefor discussion."

AbuShoqasaid 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 thatin accordance with Article 162 of parliament's internal bylaws, government representativeswill 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 OmarMarawan,next to the Minister of Foreign AffairsSamehShoukry, and then to the head of the EgyptianNaval Maritime Survey Authority,AshrafEl-Assal."

Marawansaid that "parliament has full rights to discuss the Egyptian-Saudi deal."

"This discussion is part of parliament's supervisory rolein line with Article 151 of the constitution, not to mention that somecourts have ruled that administrative courts have no jurisdiction over border deals," saidMarawan.

For his part,El-Assalsaid the negotiations between Egypt and Saudi Arabia began on January 2010. "Theelevenrounds 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 andSanafirshould remain in Egyptian hands becausethey are close to Egypt." "Let me indicate that the two islands are closer to Saudi Arabia than to Egyptin both geological and geographical terms," he told MPs, adding that "while they are 800metresfrom Saudi Arabia, they are 4,500metresfrom 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.