Egypt Court Backs Move to Hand Red Sea Islands to Saudi Arabia

An aerial view of the coast of the Red Sea and the two islands of Tiran and Sanafir is pictured through the window of an airplane near Sharm el-Sheikh, Egypt November 1. Amr Abdallah Dalsh/Reuters

An Egyptian appeals court on Saturday upheld an agreement to give control of two islands in the Red Sea to Saudi Arabia, providing a boost for the government in a case that has prompted rare street protests.

The territorial deal, announced in April, caused public uproar among many Egyptians who said the uninhabited islands of Tiran and Sanafir belonged to their country. The case has become a source of tension with Saudi Arabia, which has provided billions of dollars of aid to Egypt but recently halted fuel shipments amid deteriorating relations.

Last week, the Egyptian government approved the deal to hand over the islands and sent it to parliament for ratification, despite the legal dispute over the plan.

On Saturday, the appeals court in Cairo upheld a verdict by a lower court that annulled a ruling by the administrative court, which had said the agreement to hand over the islands was void, judicial sources said. The administrative court had said the agreement violated Egypt's constitution, which prohibits giving away any part of Egyptian territory to another country.

A more senior tribunal, the higher administrative court, is due to issue a verdict on Jan. 16.

Tiran and Sanafir are in the narrow entrance to the Gulf of Aqaba leading to Jordan and Israel. Saudi and Egyptian officials say the islands belong to Saudi Arabia and were only under Egyptian control because Riyadh asked Cairo in 1950 to protect them.

Many Egyptians reject the government argument, accusing it of selling part of their homeland.

Lawyers who oppose the handover say Cairo's sovereignty over the islands dates to a 1906 treaty, before Saudi Arabia was founded.