Middle East

Egypt court voids ruling halting transfer of islands to Saudi Arabia

File photo taken on 14 January through the window of an airplane shows the islands of Tiran (foreground) and Sanafir (background) in the Red Sea Image copyright AFP
Image caption Tiran (foreground) and Sanafir (background) are uninhabited save for peacekeepers and troops

An Egyptian court has annulled an earlier ruling that blocked the transfer of sovereignty of two islands to Saudi Arabia, judicial sources say.

The Court of Urgent Matters struck down the January ruling of the High Administrative Court.

The transfer of the uninhabited Red Sea islands of Tiran and Sanafir to the Saudis has led to protests in Egypt.

The urgent matters court has issued a similar ruling before and the latest is also subject to appeal.

Any transfer must be also approved by parliament.

Tiran and Sanafir, located at the mouth of the Gulf of Aqaba, were transferred to Saudi Arabia in a deal signed last April.

Egyptian President Abdul Fattah al-Sisi said the islands had always belonged to Saudi Arabia and that the Saudis had asked Egypt to station troops there in 1950 to protect them.

But Mr Sisi was accused of violating the constitution and "selling" the islands in return for a multi-billion dollar aid package announced during a visit to Cairo by King Salman.

Saudi Arabia has backed Mr Sisi financially since he led the military's overthrow of his Islamist predecessor, Mohammed Morsi, in 2013.

'Usurping authority'

The High Administrative Court ruled in January that the government had failed to provide evidence that the islands were originally Saudi.

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Media captionJanuary's ruling blocking the transfer was greeted by cheers and singing

However, the Court of Urgent Matters has now accepted a lawsuit filed by a lawyer, Ashraf Farahat, and threw out that ruling, the private Al-Yawm al-Sabi website reported.

The Court of Urgent Matters is given jurisdiction when it is feared a case will get bogged down in the system.

Since the 2011 Arab Spring, it has been used more prominently, including ruling on cases that involve bans on political parties.

After a similar Court of Urgent Matters ruling in September that backed the transfer of the islands, lawyer and former presidential candidate Khaled Ali accused it of usurping the authority of the State Council.

The High Administrative Court is part of the State Council, a judicial body that gives legal advice to the government, drafts legislation, and exercises jurisdiction over administrative cases.

Uproar at Mr Sisi's maritime border demarcation accord prompted protests across Egypt at which hundreds people were detained, according to human rights activists.

Why the Red Sea islands matter

  • Sanafir and Tiran are islands that lie about 4km (2 nautical miles) apart in the Red Sea. Tiran sits at the mouth of the Gulf of Aqaba, on a strategically important stretch of water called the Strait of Tiran, used by Israel to access the Red Sea
  • The islands are uninhabited, apart from Egyptian military personnel and multi-national peacekeepers, since 1982
  • Egyptian troops have been stationed on the islands since 1950 at the request of Saudi Arabia
  • Israel captured the islands in 1956 and 1967, subsequently returning them to Egypt both times
  • Egyptian President Abdul Fattah al-Sisi was criticised for "selling" Egyptian territory after deciding in April 2016 to hand the islands to Saudi Arabia

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