December 29, 2016 / 4:32 PM / 8 months ago

Egypt's government approves deal to hand two Red Sea islands to Saudi Arabia

CAIRO (Reuters) - Egypt's government has approved a deal to hand over two Red Sea islands to Saudi Arabia and sent it to parliament for ratification, despite a legal dispute over the plan, according to state television.

The deal, announced in April, caused public uproar and rare protests by Egyptians who said the uninhabited islands of Tiran and Sanafir belonged to their country.

The controversy has become a source of tension with Saudi Arabia, which has provided billions of dollars of aid to Egypt but recently halted fuel shipments amid deteriorating relations.

In June, the Higher Administrative Court annulled the agreement, saying Egyptian sovereignty over the islands could not be given up. The Egyptian government lodged an appeal.

Earlier this month, an Egyptian state advisory body recommended the court uphold its original decision, in a report seen by Reuters.

The court is due to issue its final verdict on Jan. 16 and is not obliged to follow the advisory body's report.

The government's latest move shows "the collapse of the state of law and the constitution" in Egypt, said Khaled Ali, a lawyer who filed the June lawsuit to annul the deal.

"The decision that parliament is going to issue is void and the people should defend their land with all legitimate means against this tyrant regime that doesn't respect either law or judiciary," Ali said.

However, Nabil al-Gamal, member of the legislative and constitutional committee in parliament, said there was "absolutely no conflict" in sending the agreement to parliament for ratification before the court's final ruling.

"I expect the parliament not to vote ... on the agreement before the judiciary rules, so that there won't be any conflict between them," said al-Gamal.

Tiran and Sanafir are situated in the narrow entrance to the Gulf of Aqaba leading to Jordan and Israel.

Saudi and Egyptian officials say they belong to Saudi Arabia and were only under Egyptian control because Riyadh asked Cairo in 1950 to protect them.

Lawyers who opposed the handover said Cairo's sovereignty over the islands dated to a 1906 treaty, before Saudi Arabia was founded.

Reporting by Ahmed Tolba and Amina Ismail and Mohamed Abdellah; Writing by Amina Ismail; Editing by Giles Elgood and Mark Potter

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