Saudi monarch addresses Egyptian parliament

AP News
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Posted: Apr 10, 2016 2:31 PM
Saudi monarch addresses Egyptian parliament

CAIRO (AP) — Saudi Arabia's king addressed the Egyptian parliament on Sunday, the fourth day of a visit that saw the oil-rich kingdom pledge billions of dollars in investment and aid to Egypt but sparked an outcry over Cairo's intention to surrender sovereignty over two Red Sea islands to the Saudis.

In a six-minute address, King Salman said Egypt and Saudi Arabia have agreed to build a bridge linking the two nations across the Red Sea and to work together to create a pan-Arab defense force, an Egyptian idea first floated last year that was later thought to have been overtaken by Riyadh's creation of a pan-Islamic coalition.

"There is a need to unify visions and actions to counter terrorism and find a comprehensive method to deal with it," Salman said in a speech repeatedly interrupted by applause.

Some lawmakers waved the kingdom's green flag, while others chanted "all of Egypt greets you" or "welcome!" After the speech, two lawmakers recited poems in praise of the monarch. The king waved to the lawmakers before he left the chamber, holding hands with the speaker, Ali Abdel-Al.

That a Saudi king was invited to address the Egyptian parliament is evidence of how close relations are between the two nations, despite differences over policies on Syria and relations with Turkey and Qatar, two Saudi allies accused by Cairo of supporting militant Islamic groups.

Parts of Cairo were locked down during the monarch's visit, with thousands of security forces deployed as Salman and his host, President Abdel-Fattah el-Sissi, travelled across the city of some 18 million people.

Saudi Arabia has been a traditional source of economic and political support to Egypt, but the kingdom significantly stepped up its backing after the military's 2013 ouster of Islamist President Mohammed Morsi.

However, relations shifted when Salman ascended the throne in January 2015 and realigned the kingdom's foreign policy, thawing tense ties with Qatar and Turkey and lobbying the Egyptians to reconcile with them. Riyadh also wants Egypt on its side as it seeks to counter Iran in Iraq, Syria, Lebanon and Yemen.

Cairo and Riyadh remain divided over Syria, where Saudi Arabia is one of the leading backers of insurgents fighting to overthrow President Bashar Assad. Egypt fears Assad's removal could leave a vacuum that would be filled by Islamists. Egypt has not sent ground troops to Yemen, where Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates are spearheading a military campaign in support of the internationally recognized government and against Iranian-backed Shiite rebels.

The two countries signed 16 agreements and memoranda during Salman's visit, including one that paves the way for the transfer of sovereignty over two islands from Egypt to Saudi Arabia. The Egyptian government says the two uninhabited islands — Tiran and Sanafir at the mouth of the Gulf of Aqaba — are Saudi but have been in Egypt's custody for protection since 1950.

Any agreement on the two islands must be ratified by the Egyptian parliament, a 596-seat chamber packed with el-Sissi supporters. However, news of the agreement generated a storm on social media, with activists arguing that handing over the two islands was tantamount to a sell-off to the kingdom.

Government spokesman Hossam al-Queish said the conclusion that the two islands were Saudi followed 11 rounds of negotiations by experts from the two countries over more than six years.

"There is no doubt that the Egyptian side is concerned about every square inch of border, whether on land or sea," he told the private ONTV network in a telephone interview.

Critics said a referendum should be held on the agreement. Others used social media networks to start a petition to rescind the deal. Haidy Farouq, a borders expert, said on ONTV that there is evidence of Egyptian ownership of the islands dating back to the 2nd century, and that she has maps and documents backing Egypt's ownership. "The two islands are Egyptian 100 percent," she said.

Police broke up a small demonstration over the islands in downtown Cairo, arresting five people, according to security officials. In the Nile Delta city of Damanhur, two university students were arrested when police broke up a small protest, according to rights lawyer Mohammed Abdelaziz, a native of the city, and security officials. The officials spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to brief reporters.

The two islands control entry to the Gulf of Aqaba and the ports of Eilat and Aqaba in Israel and Jordan, respectively. Tiran is about six kilometers (four miles) from the Egyptian Red Sea resort of Sharm el-Sheikh. Israel captured the island in the 1967 Arab-Israeli war but returned it to Egypt after the two nations signed a peace treaty in 1979. It is a natural protectorate and a popular diving destination.

Former presidential candidate Hamdeen Sabahy urged el-Sissi and Salman to jointly rescind the accord on the islands, contending that it violated Egypt's constitution and could cause tension between the two nations.

"Neither parliament nor a referendum could put right an unconstitutional measure," he warned on his Facebook page. Alluding to Egypt's need for Saudi aid, he said it was "unbecoming" for Saudi Arabia to be seen as taking advantage of the country's ailing economy.