An Egyptian court on Tuesday nullified a government decision to transfer sovereignty of two strategic Red Sea islands to Saudi Arabia, in a surprising setback for President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi. However, the verdict by Egypt's State Council an administrative court in Cairo that hears lawsuits against the government is not final and can be overturned by a higher court if the state appeals against the ruling.
The two islands Tiran and Sanafir lie between the Sinai Peninsula and Saudi Arabia, near the entrance to the Gulf of Aqaba. Although the islands are uninhabited, they are strategically important as they lie on the sea routes to the ports of Aqaba in Jordan and Eilat in Israel. In April, during a visit to Cairo by King Salman of Saudi Arabia, Egyptian President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi announced that his government would return the islands, which have been under Egyptian control since 1950, to Saudi Arabia as part of a maritime borders deal.
While the government argued that the islands were only under Egyptian control because Saudi Arabia had asked Egypt to protect them from Israel, the deal triggered anti-government protests across the country. Opponents of the deal argued that the islands were “sold” to Saudi Arabia in exchange for a multibillion-dollar aid package King Salman announced during his visit an allegation that Sisi denied. “Roll up, roll up, the island is for a billion, the pyramid for two and a couple of statues thrown in for free,” Egyptian satirist Bassem Youssef tweeted in April.
Tuesday’s verdict stated that the two islands would “remain under Egyptian sovereignty.” “The islands should remain part of Egyptian territory and within Egyptian borders. Egyptian sovereignty over the islands holds, and it forbidden to change their status in any form or through any procedure for the benefit of any other state,” Yehia El-Dakroury, the judge who delivered the verdict, reportedly said.