CAIRO (AP) — Egypt's government on Sunday defended its decision to hand over two Red Sea islands to Saudi Arabia at an appeals court hearing after the move was struck down by a lower court last week.
The transfer of the islands, announced during an April visit by King Salman alongside billions of dollars in Saudi aid, set off the biggest street protests since President Abdel-Fattah el-Sissi was elected two years ago.
Critics of the maritime border agreement accuse the government of selling off sovereign territory. The government insists the islands of Tiran and Sanafir always belonged to Saudi Arabia but were placed under Egyptian protection in 1950.
"Successive Egyptian governments have acknowledged Saudi ownership (of the islands) but postponed handing them over until conditions in the region stabilized," said the chief government lawyer, Rafiq Omar. He said the final word on the agreement rests with parliament, a 596-member chamber packed with el-Sissi supporters.
"This case lies outside the jurisdiction of the court, but I still submitted to you secret documents" proving Saudi ownership, he said during the hearing.
His remarks were interrupted at one point by a man who shouted "Is he a Saudi lawyer?" He also drew heckles every time he referred to "Egypt's occupation" of the islands.
Dozens of protesters chanted anti-government slogans in the courthouse before the 35-minute hearing began.
"Whoever is comfortable selling Sanafir and Tiran will sell Shoubra and Helwan," they chanted, referring to two Cairo neighborhoods. There were also shouting matches and brief scuffles between lawyers and policemen inside the packed courtroom.
The court adjourned until July 3, when it will rule on a motion tabled by a lawyer opposed to the agreement for the judges to recuse themselves. The motion claims a conflict of interest because at least one of the seven judges is retained by the Foreign Ministry as a consultant.