CAIRO — The past week’s tempestuous parliament approval of a deal transferring two Red Sea islands to Saudi Arabia is putting Egypt’s government at odds with the judiciary and providing the country’s battered opposition with a nationalist cause to whip up at a time of growing economic distress.
The surprise 2016 deal to hand over the islands of Tiran and Sanafir aimed to strengthen ties with Saudi Arabia, which has provided distressed Egypt with billions of dollars in grants and soft loans over the past four years. It comes amid fitful efforts to establish an axis of cooperation between two powers vying for leadership of the self-styled moderate Sunni Arab camp — countries which oppose Shiite Iran and are willing to weigh closer ties to Israel.
But the opposition has proven a headache for President Abdel-Fattah el-Sissi, whose popularity seems to be slipping in the wake of economic liberalization reforms that deeply hurt Egyptians’ living standards even while winning global praise. El-Sissi’s government has been gaining greater acceptance by governments internationally, even while facing criticism over its authoritarian policies — defended on security grounds — that include jailing opponents and crushing rights groups.
With parliament’s approval of the handover, the dispute over the islands now pits the legislative and executive branches of government against the judiciary. Courts issued two rulings over the past year that clearly stated the islands belong to Egypt.
In Egypt’s sometimes murky power structure, it is not clear where such a battle of wills could go.
The issue takes on added significance and sensitivity because Tiran controls the only shipping lane leading to the ports of Eilat and Aqaba, in Israel and Jordan respectively. The closure of the so called Tiran Strait was a main trigger of the 1967 Middle East…