In this file picture taken Friday, April 8, 2016, provided by the office of the Egyptian Presidency, Egyptian President Abdel-Fattah el-Sissi, right, stands with Saudi Arabia's King Salman in Cairo.AP
CAIRO, June 22: An Egyptian court on Tuesday struck down an agreement to transfer two Red Sea islands to Saudi Arabia, delivering a rare rebuke to President Abdel-Fattah el-Sissi's government over a decision that sparked the biggest street protests of his two-year rule.
The government, which is appealing the ruling, insists the islands always belonged to Saudi Arabia, which has provided billions of dollars in aid to Egypt since el-Sissi led the military's 2013 ouster of the Islamist Mohammed Morsi, Egypt's first freely elected president.
El-Sissi's government, together with loyal media, has zealously defended the April agreement, arguing that it would bring economic benefits to Egypt. It says the islands were only placed under Egyptian control in 1950 for protection from Israel, which briefly occupied them six years later during the Suez crisis.
Critics of the border agreement, which was announced during a high-profile visit by King Salman alongside billions of dollars in new Saudi aid, view it as a sell-off of sovereign territory. Thousands of protesters took to the streets in April in the largest demonstrations since el-Sissi was elected president in 2014.
Authorities responded by arresting hundreds of protesters and activists, but most were later acquitted, released on bail or fined after brief trials.
The uninhabited islands of Tiran and Sanafir lie along narrow shipping lanes leading north to port cities in Israel and Jordan. The closure of the strait by Egyptian President Gamal Abdel Nasser in 1967 was one of the main causes of that year's Arab-Israeli war, in which Egypt lost the Sinai Peninsula.
The Sinai was returned to Egypt, together with the two islands, under its landmark 1979 peace treaty with Israel. Under the treaty's provisions, Egypt is not allowed to station troops on either island.
Judge Yahya Dakroury of the Administrative Court, which rules on cases challenging the government, ruled that the two islands must remain under Egyptian sovereignty and banned "any changes on the two islands for the benefit of any foreign country."
In a 21-page citation, the court said the reality on the ground shows that Egypt has long exercised full and uncontested sovereignty over the two islands. "To the extent that Egypt sacrificed the blood of its sons in defense of the two islands, that speaks loudly of them being Egyptian territory," it said.
Surrendering the islands to the Saudis was a "gross violation" of the country's constitution, it said, citing a clause in the 2014 charter requiring a nationwide referendum on agreements "related to making peace and alliance, and those related to the rights of sovereignty."
There was no immediate comment on the court ruling from the Saudi government, which has remained silent on the issue since the pact was signed.
The ruling is likely to "complicate" Cairo's relations with Riyadh, said Eric Trager, a senior fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy.
"The Saudis needed el-Sissi to give them something in exchange for more aid. That something became the islands, which were the subject of on-and-off negotiations since 2010," he said.
The court ruling marked a rare victory for Egypt's activists, who have labored under a wide-ranging crackdown on dissent since Morsi's overthrow.
"Street and online activism today gained huge ground and confidence, as well as respect, even from the el-Sissi supporters," said Sherif Azer, a human rights advocate and a veteran of the 2011 uprising that toppled Hosni Mubarak. "This will help to move forward for the other issues like the political prisoners."
"As an army man, el-Sissi is very stubborn, but today is a big lesson that if he ignores it and continues with his policies, he will be the one paying the price," Azer added.
Around two dozen people who had gathered outside the courthouse welcomed the ruling with cheers. "Bread, freedom, those islands are Egyptian," they chanted, a play on the most popular slogan of the 2011 uprising — "bread, freedom and social justice."
"This is a very important step," Khalid Ali, a rights lawyer and former presidential candidate who jointly brought the case against the government with another lawyer.
"I appeal to the Egyptian government ... to implement the court's ruling. This is the land of our ancestors; you must protect it, and those islands are Egyptian and will remain Egyptian forever."
Others wondered why the government was so determined to proceed with the agreement.
"The government's feverish endeavor to surrender a piece of Egyptian territory poses a big question mark," prominent rights lawyer Negad Borai wrote on Facebook. "Egyptians are accustomed to holding onto their land, so what happened to their government?"
El-Sissi has acknowledged that the demarcation talks were held over several months in secrecy to avoid unwanted media attention and opposition to the deal, but he has defended the agreement.
"We did not surrender our rights, but we restored the rights of others," he said in April. "Please let us not talk about this subject again."