An Egyptian court declared void on Tuesday a maritime border accord with Saudi Arabia that would have seen Egypt lose control of two Red Sea islands, judicial sources said.
The state has the right to appeal the ruling at a higher court, and the accord must also be approved by parliament.
The ruling is a setback for President Abdel Fattah Al-Sisi, who had asked Egyptians in a speech to end to the controversy over the islands deal, which was announced during a visit to Cairo by the Saudi King in mid-April 2016.
President Abdel Fatah al-Sisi has been criticized at home and abroad for agreeing to transfer the two Red Sea islands to Saudi Arabia that have been controlled directly from Cairo for more than 60 years.
Tiran and Sanafir lie between Saudi Arabia and Egypt’s Sinai Peninsula, at the narrow entrance to the Gulf of Aqaba leading to Jordan and Israel. Saudi and Egyptian officials say they belong to the Kingdom and were only under Egyptian control because Saudi Arabia asked Egypt in 1950 to protect them.
The uninhabited islands, once the border between the Ottoman Empire and British-controlled Egypt, are strategically important because of their location on the sea route to the ports of Aqaba in Jordan and Eilat in Israel. Egypt’s blockade of the Strait of Tiran in 1967 was one of the main triggers for the Arab-Israeli war, also known as the six-day war.
Egypt sent troops to Tiran and Sanafir in the mid-1950s in response to a Saudi request to protect them from Israeli invasion. Israel occupied them in 1967, but evacuated the islands in 1982 in line with the peace treaty with Egypt.
In April, the Saudi King ended his five day visit to Egypt by signing a $1.5bn investment in housing in the Sinai region as well as an agreement to finance five years’ of Egypt’s petroleum needs at an optimal 2% interest rate.
The bridge, to be named after Salman, will facilitate pilgrimages to Mecca and promote local industry, and is likely to pass through the islands. Saudi newspaper Alriyadh described the project as the realization of a great vision that would “join the two continents of Asia and Africa by connecting Saudi Arabia to Egypt over the water”.
Speaking in Parliament, King Salman said the two countries would work together to create a pan-Arab defense force, an Egyptian idea first suggested last year but apparently overtaken by Riyadh’s announcement of an anti-terrorist coalition of Islamic countries.
Adel al-Jubeir, the Saudi Foreign Minister, then said: “Egypt did not occupy the two islands, but entered them on a Saudi request. History and documents of both countries have not shown any disagreement on the Saudi identity of both islands. But some are trying to fish in troubled waters.”