Egypt parliament debates islands deal ahead of ratification

2017-06-14 18:12
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Cairo - Egypt's parliament on Wednesday opened a debate on a disputed 2016 agreement to transfer control of two Red Sea islands to Saudi Arabia, just hours after the second of two key committees approved the pact.

The house, packed with supporters of President Abdel-Fattah al-Sisi whose government signed the deal during a visit last year by Saudi King Salman, is almost certain to ratify it.

The debate followed clashes the previous night between police and opponents of the deal in downtown Cairo that saw policemen kick, punch and use sticks to beat several dozen protesters outside the national journalists' union.

An unspecified number of arrests were made and, according to rights lawyers, at least eight protesters remained in police custody on Wednesday.

Earlier in the day, members of the defense and national security committee said they approved the deal with a 35-2 vote in favor of the pact, paving the way for the document to be ratified by the full house.

The ratification is a foregone conclusion, given that the 596-seat chamber is packed with al-Sisi's supporters.

The house's legislative and constitutional committee approved the deal on Tuesday after a three-day, often raucous review during which lawmakers got into heated arguments, pushed and shoved each other and came close to blows.

The government insists the islands of Tiran and Sanafir at the mouth of the Gulf of Aqaba were always Saudi but were placed under Egypt's protection amid Arab-Israeli tensions in the 1950s.

Critics have linked the islands transfer to the billions of dollars in Saudi aid given to al-Sisi's government, saying it amounts to a sell-off of sovereign territory.

After the agreement was announced during the April 2016 visit to Cairo by the Saudi king, the country saw the largest anti-government protests since al-Sisi took office in 2014.

Hundreds of demonstrators and activists were arrested, with most later released. A court ruled against the islands transfer in January, but lawmakers who support the deal say parliament has the right to ratify international agreements.

"There is nothing in the agreement that violates the constitution," Kamal Amer, chairperson of the defense committee, told the house on Wednesday. "It is designed to realize and perpetuate the mutual interests of the two nations and it also came in response to Saudi requests (to take back the islands) made in 1984, 1989 and 1990."

"The demarcation of the border between Saudi Arabia and Egypt confirmed that the islands are on the side of that brotherly nation, but we are confident that they (the islands) will always be used to serve national Egyptian and Arab security," Amer added.

It was not immediately clear when the house planned to vote on the deal, but media reports suggested it would take place this week or the next.

The island of Tiran, a popular destination for Red Sea divers, controls a narrow shipping lane that leads to and from the ports of Eilat and Aqaba, in Israel and Jordan respectively.

Egypt's unilateral closure of that lane was among the main reasons behind the outbreak of the 1967 Arab-Israeli war, in which Egypt lost the entire Sinai Peninsula.

Read more on:    abdel fattah al sisi  |  egypt  |  saudi arabia  |  north africa

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