Lawyer and former presidential candidate Khalid Ali (centre) celebrates after the Supreme Administrative Court ruled that the islands of Sanafir and Tiran are part of Egyptian territory. Image Credit: AP

Cairo, Manama: A court ruling rejecting the Egyptian government’s decision to transfer two Red Sea islands to Saudi Arabia leaves the government of President Abdul Fattah Al Sissi with limited choices, analysts have said. The ruling however does not mark an end to the dispute.

“The verdict that the islands of Tiran and Sanafir are Egyptian territory considers the [transfer] agreement with Saudi Arabia null and void,” Emad Jad, an expert at the state-run Centre for Strategic Studies, said.

“Now the government should stop making any further effort to transfer the islands to Saudi Arabia,” he told Gulf News.

Anwar Majid Eshki, the Saudi Chairman of Middle East Centre for Strategic and Legal Studies, told the BBC that Riyadh had submitted ample evidence that proved the islands belonged to Saudi Arabia.

“Saudi Arabia could take the issue to the United Nations and to international arbitration,” he said.

The tension in the relations between the two countries was due to divergent approaches to regional issues, and are not related to the sovereignty over the two islands, he added.

There has been no official reaction in Cairo to Monday’s ruling by the Supreme Administration Court that turned down a government appeal against an earlier decision nullifying the islands agreement announced by both countries in April last year.

“There is talk that the government will resort to the Supreme Constitutional Court and the parliament to prove its view that the two islands belong to Saudi Arabia. This would pit state institutions against each other,” Jad, who is also a lawmaker, said.

The Egyptian constitution, approved in 2014, gives the head of the state the right to conclude treaties with other countries and send them to the parliament to debate and approve them before they become effective.

In Jad’s opinion, this process was not complied with in the case of the two islands.

“The government sent the agreement to parliament only last month, i.e. eight months after having signed it with Saudi Arabia and after it had become a dispute in law courts,” he said.

“But after [Monday’s] ruling, the parliament no longer has the right to discuss the issue,” Jad argued.

Saudis are unlikely to seek international arbitration of the row without Egypt’s consent, according to Jad.

Jad believes that the best way out of the crisis is for both countries to turn the disputed islands into a joint cooperation area.

Saudi Arabia has been a major diplomatic and financial backer of Egypt since 2013 when the army led at the time by Al Sissi toppled Islamist president Mohammad Mursi following mass protests against his rule.

The pact on Tiran and Sanafir was signed in April 2016 during a visit by Saudi King Salman Bin Abdul Aziz to Egypt, triggering rare street protests since Al Sissi took office two years earlier. Hundreds of protesters were detained.

Critics have accused the Egyptian government of “selling” both strategic islands in return for an aid package from Riyadh.

Denying the accusation, the government has said that the two islands have been under Egypt’s administration since 1950 in response to a request from the then Saudi king Abdul Aziz. The request was reportedly aimed at distancing Tiran and Sanafir from the Arab-Israeli conflict of the time.

Some analysts see another option for the Egyptian government and parliament.

“They may decide to call for a public referendum on the issue in order to avoid public embarrassment, especially as the latest court ruling has split up the parliament,” Salah Al Hadi, a political analyst, said.

“Although most members of the parliament are known for their backing of President Al Sissi, they are not ready to appear in front of the people as have ceded Egyptian land,” Al Hadi told Gulf News.

“Article No 151 of the Egyptian constitution stipulates that voters should be invited for a referendum on treaties of reconciliation and alliance as well as other issues related to sovereignty rights,” he noted. “This may be the best and final exit from the current predicament.

The Island of Tiran is particularly strategic because it is located at the entrance of the Tiran Straits that separates the Red Sea from the Gulf of Aqaba.

A pro-government bloc in the Egyptian parliament has reiterated the assembly’s right to debate the islands deal despite Monday’s ruling.

“The constitution establishes the principle of separation among authorities,” the Egypt Support Alliance, the legislature’s biggest bloc, said. “The parliament is keen to play its constitutional role in handling international agreements and will not relinquish this role,” the grouping added in a statement.

“The final say on this issue [islands dispute] will be made by members of parliament, who are the representatives of the people.”

The State Council, a judicial body offering legal advice to the government, has already gone to the Supreme Constitutional Court challenging a June ruling issued by a lower court invalidating the islands agreement.

The top court is expected to hear the case in February.

Several Saudis took to social media platforms to express their viewpoints on the issue.

Hassan Al Hussaini said that the Egyptian government should move the case to the International Court of Justice (ICJ) in The Hague, Netherlands.

“The best option for the Egyptian government is to take the case to the international court and argue that the islands were part of Saudi Arabia,” he said. “This will put an end to an issue that is not one in fact.”

Another user, Al Qahtani, said that he did not favour moving the case to the ICJ.

“The option of taking the matter to the International Court of Justice should not be considered because, based on their past rulings, they will decide that one island goes to Saudi Arabia and the other to Egypt,” Al Qahtani said.

Majid said that the location and geography of the islands clearly indicated that they belonged to Saudi Arabia.

Mohammad, another user, said that he appreciated the reaction of Egyptians that handing back the islands to Saudi Arabia was a surrender of sovereign territory.

“However, they should understand that it is not the case since all the facts clearly show that the two uninhabited islands are part of Saudi Arabia and that Egypt was allowed to use them for some time, and that it is time now for them to come under Saudi control,” he said.