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Egypt hands over disputed Red Sea islands to Saudi Arabia

Legal experts and opposition figures in Egypt question legitimacy of deal, with Sisi accused of selling Tiran and Sanafir for a 'fistful of dollars'
An Israeli ship passing through the Strait of Tiran on 13 June, 1967 (AFP)

Egypt and Saudi Arabia agreed to maritime borders that handed ownership of disputed Red Sea islands Tiran and Sanafir over to Riyadh, an Egyptian cabinet statement said on Saturday.

"This enables both countries to benefit from the exclusive economic zone for each, with whatever resources and treasures they contain," the statement said.

The agreement will be presented to parliament for ratification, said Egyptian Prime Minister Sherif Ismail, after meeting with Saudi King Salman Bin Abdel Aziz, who is on a five-day state visit to Cairo.

However, legal experts in Egypt questioned the legitimacy of the agreement, saying that giving away authority over Egyptian territory is unconstitutional.

The move was also condemned by the country's largest - but banned - opposition movement, the Muslim Brotherhood.

"The Muslim Brotherhood hereby declares unequivocally that no one has the right to abandon the property and resources of the Egyptian people in exchange for a fistful of dollars, or in exchange for support for government policies sanctioning murder, detentions, violations, forced disappearances and extrajudicial killings," the movement said in a statement.

The agreement was also rejected by exiled opposition politician Ayman Nour, along with nine other dissidents, who warned that "once the peoples become free, they will not approve agreements that were signed during the reign of governments that are used to giving away the rights of their citizens".

In an interview with Middle East Eye, Nour said that Sisi had lost international credibility and even King Salman's visit did not mean he had the full backing of Saudi Arabia.

“Even the Saudis no longer support Sisi directly. Any support is for the Egyptian nation. If Turkey and Qatar are not so vociferous in their opposition to Sisi any more, it is not because they have given up, but because they know the international tide against him is turning,” he said.

Ownership of the uninhabited islands, which sit in the entrance to the Gulf of Aqaba, has long been disputed, with both Cairo and Riyadh claiming them, although they were under Egyptian control.

The islands, which once-formed the border between the Ottoman Empire and British-controlled Egypt, are considered strategically important because they lie on the important sea route to the Jordanian port of Aqaba and the Israeli port of Eilat.

The islands were occupied by Israel in 1967 during the Six Day War, before being handed back to Egyptian control in 1982 when the two sides signed the Camp David peace accords.

In 2010, Egypt and Saudi Arabia began formally discussing the drawing of their maritime borders, including the ownership of the two islands.

The islands deal is the latest in a series of choreographed announcements during King Salman's visit.

Earlier on Saturday, Egyptian state television said the two nations had agreed to set up a $16bn investment fund, while on Friday the leaders unveiled plans for a Red Sea bridge. Previous plans for a Red Sea causeway from Saudi Arabia to Egypt passed through the larger island of Tiran.

More than a dozen other accords, including a memorandum of understanding to set up an industrial zone in Egypt, were also announced.

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