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Egyptian Court Rules Against Government Bid To Give Two Islands To Saudi Arabia

Lawyer and former presidential candidate Khaled Ali (center) celebrates with others after the Supreme Administrative Court said two islands, Sanafir and Tiran, are Egyptian on Monday in Cairo, Egypt.

A top Egyptian court has ruled against the government's bid to hand over two Red Sea islands to Saudi Arabia.

It's an embarrassing ruling for Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sissi, who has argued that the islands of Trian and Sanafir are historically Saudi. The Supreme Administrative Court disagreed, saying that they are Egyptian sovereign territory.

"It's enshrined in the court's conscience that Egypt's sovereignty over Tiran and Sanafir is beyond doubt," presiding judge Ahmed al-Shazli told the court, according to The Associated Press.

This started last April, when Sissi announced that he planned to give the territory to Saudi Arabia during a visit to the kingdom. Saudi Arabia has given Egypt billions of dollars in aid since the 2013 ouster of Islamist President Mohammed Morsi, which Sissi led.

The announcement sparked protests, which are increasingly rare in Egypt because the government has banned all demonstrations that haven't received prior government approval. Courts sentenced dozens of people to prison time for participating in a peaceful demonstration about the islands, as we reported.

The proposed handover was seen by many Egyptians as an incursion on their sovereign territory and their nationalism — led by their own ultra-nationalist government. The government argues they are simply returning territory to its rightful owners.

The court's ruling sparked jubilant celebrations — hundreds rallied outside the court, chanting "Egyptian, Egyptian," and "Bread, Freedom, the islands are Egyptian," according to Reuters.

"So it is not permissible for the president, or prime minister or parliament or cabinet or a referendum to give up this land," lawyer Khaled Ali, one of the human rights lawyers who fought the handover, told Reuters. "It is Egyptian land and cannot be given up according to the Egyptian constitution."

This is the latest in a series of court rulings against the government's attempted handover, as NPR's Jane Arraf explains. Now, she adds, "the government seems to have run out of legal options but they have indicated they could try to find a way around that by asking parliament to approve the transfer." According to the state-run MENA news agency, "sentences by the Supreme Administrative Court are final and cannot be challenged."

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