An Egyptian court on Tuesday quashed a government decision to hand over two Red Sea islands to Saudi Arabia, judicial sources said, overruling a deal that had sparked public outrage.
President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi announced the controversial accord in April during a visit to Cairo by Saudi King Salman.
A judge told AFP that the decision by the State Council — Egypt’s highest administrative court — “cancels the signing” of the deal, which put two islands in the Straits of Tiran under Riyadh’s control.
The verdict stressed that the Tiran and Sanafir islands remain “Egyptian”, said the judge who could not be named due to the sensitivity of the issue.
Lawyer Khaled Ali, a leftist opposition figure who brought the case, told AFP the court’s decision “shows that the two territories are Egyptian… and cannot be given away”.
The government will appeal the ruling, said the minister of legal and parliamentarian affairs, Magdy al-Agaty.
The handover prompted an outcry from many Egyptians, and sparked protests against Sisi.
More than 100 people were jailed for up to five years for taking part in demonstrations that police quickly dispersed, but they were later freed on appeal.
Police had also made scores of arrests in the lead-up to the protests to discourage a repeat of a large rally on April 15 at which demonstrators chanted for the “fall of the regime”.
Saudi Arabia is one of the main regional backers of the government of Sisi, who has overseen a crackdown on all forms of opposition since ousting his Islamist predecessor Mohamed Morsi in 2013.
The oil-rich kingdom has provided Cairo with billions of dollars in aid and investment to help Egypt’s battered economy since Sisi, a former army chief, took power.
– Angry backlash –
Critics of the government accused Sisi of “selling” the islands in return for securing multi-billion-dollar investment deals from Saudi Arabia during Salman’s visit.
When the disputed deal was struck in April, social media was flooded with angry reaction from Egyptians who also mocked the government.
“Come, come my pasha, the island is for one billion, pyramids for two with two statues free,” wrote popular Egyptian satirist Bassem Youssef in a tweet at the time, summing up the mood online.
Generations of Egyptians have grown up believing that the Tiran and Sanafir islands belonged to Egypt.
But Cairo insists they have always been Saudi territory — which was leased to it in 1950 following a request by Riyadh — and said the deal to transfer them was based on a decree by since-ousted president Hosni Mubarak.
Cairo says Mubarak had even informed the United Nations about the matter in 1990.
Tiran and Sanafir lie at the mouth of the Gulf of Aqaba and many Egyptians view them both with patriotic fondness and as a strategic asset.
The islands — captured by Israel in the 1967 Six-Day War and returned to Egypt under the 1979 Camp David Accords — can be used to control access to the Israeli port of Eilat.