CAIRO (AP) — An Egyptian parliamentary committee voted Tuesday to approve a disputed 2016 agreement to transfer two Red Sea islands to Saudi Arabia.
The planned transfer of the islands sparked the biggest protests of President Abdel-Fattah el-Sissi’s presidency, and critics say parliament, which is packed with his supporters, is defying a court ruling that struck down the transfer in January.
Parliamentary approval is nevertheless expected as the chamber is packed with el-Sissi’s supporters. They say parliament has the right to ratify any international agreement.
The vote in the legislative and constitutional committee — 35 for, 8 against — approved both the content of the agreement and the legality of its referral to parliament for ratification.
The vote, by show of hands, came on the third day of an often raucous debate by committee members, with rival lawmakers accusing each other of treason and working for foreign governments. At times the shouting gave way to pushing and shoving.
No date has yet been set for discussing the agreement in a plenary session.
The government says the islands of Tiran and Sanafir were always Saudi but were placed under Egypt’s protection amid Arab-Israeli tensions in the 1950s. Critics have linked the transfer to the billions of dollars in Saudi aid given to el-Sissi’s government, saying it amounts to a sell-off of sovereign territory.
The announcement of the agreement, during a visit to Cairo by the Saudi king in April 2016, was followed by the largest anti-government protests since el-Sissi took office in 2014. Hundreds of demonstrators and activists were arrested, with most later released.
Shortly before Tuesday’s vote, a small group of lawyers opposed to the agreement protested amid tight security outside the downtown Cairo offices of the lawyers’ union. Some chanted slogans against the surrender of the islands, while others held placards saying “bread, freedom, these islands are Egyptian” __ a play on a popular slogan used during the 2011 uprising that toppled longtime autocrat Hosni Mubarak.
“We are prepared to die or be arrested for our land,” said one lawyer, Amr Khashab. On Twitter, the hashtag “Tiran and Sanafir are Egyptian” topped the trending list in Egypt.