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Egypt's Sisi ratifies handover of islands to Saudi Arabia

Protesters accuse Sisi of trading islands of Tiran and Sanafir for billions in Saudi aid
Saudi Arabia's King Salman bin Abdulaziz al-Saud, left, greets Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi upon his arrival in Riyadh earlier this year (AFP/file photo)

Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi ratified a treaty that hands over two Red Sea islands to Saudi Arabia in a deal that had sparked protests and a police crackdown, the cabinet said on Saturday.

Sisi's government last year announced the maritime agreement with Saudi Arabia, an ally that has given billions of dollars of aid to Egypt. The Egyptian and Saudi governments say the islands are Saudi but have been subject to Egyptian protection.

Sisi ratified the maritime border treaty days after parliament approved the deal, which has been the subject of a confusing legal battle with one court annulling the treaty and another upholding it.

The treaty, announced in April 2016, fuelled rare protests and police have arrested dozens of activists over the past week after calls for more demonstrations.

It had also been challenged in courts, but the country's highest tribunal suspended the contradictory rulings this week until a final decision determined which court has jurisdiction.

Parliament's vote on 14 June came after days of heated debate, with opponents even interrupting one committee session with chanting.

Protesters accused Sisi of  trading the islands of Tiran and Sanafir for Saudi largesse. Saudi Arabia has helped Sisi with aid since he toppled President Mohamed Morsi of the Muslim Brotherhood in 2013.

But Egyptians are increasingly critical over the state of the country's economic revival after years of political upheaval and a devaluation of the Egyptian pound, tax increases and subsidy cuts introduced by Sisi's government.

Sisi on Tuesday again insisted on the need to return the islands to their "owners".

"Nations are governed by constitutions and laws and legitimate rights, not whims or emotions," the presidency had quoted him as saying.

Lying at the mouth of the Gulf of Aqaba, the islands can be used to control access to the Israeli port of Eilat.

They were captured by Israel in the 1967 Middle East war before being returned to Egypt under the 1979 Camp David Accords.

Generations of Egyptians had grown up learning in school that the two islands belonged to their country and that soldiers had died defending them during wars with Israel.

Sisi went ahead with the deal even though it threatens to dent his popularity at a time when the government, grappling with the austerity reforms that have fuelled inflation, is wary of protests.

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