CAIRO - The Egyptian public is applauding a court ruling against a government agreement last year to hand over the strategic Red Sea islands of Tiran and Sanafir to Saudi Arabia.
The audience in the court room erupted with applause Monday as Egypt’s top administrative court rejected a government decision to hand over the wo long-contested islands to Saudi Arabia.
The ruling had prompted a rash of public demonstrations last spring to oppose what many called a government diktat.
WATCH: Video from the scene
Egypt’s former deputy Supreme Court Justice Tahani Gebali told Egyptian media the government does not have the final word in matters that are contested, since the judiciary and parliament oversee its decisions.
She says the administrative court has canceled decisions by governments in the past, and a government decision is never final, since it needs to be approved by both the judiciary and parliament.
Political tensions between Egypt and Saudi Arabia have been running high since late last year, after an Egyptian vote in the U.N. Security Council opposing Saudi policy in Syria. Riyadh eventually suspended a fuel delivery agreement with Cairo to show its displeasure.
Egyptian editor and publisher Hisham Kassem believes relations between the two countries are likely to worsen.“The situation is definitely going to deteriorate further. For the Saudi regime, there is very little they can present to their people as an achievement," he said. "Regionally, their position is weakening, internally there’s no serious improvement in the economy, so they need little victories which they can magnify and talk about regaining land that was usurped, so they will be furious.”
Saudi King Salman visited Cairo last spring, while relations between the neighboring countries were still cordial, signing several trade agreements, as well as an agreement to build a bridge across the Red Sea.
Most Saudi commentators rejected the Egyptian court decision, with several suggesting the matter be referred to international jurisdiction to be resolved.
A former member of the Saudi ruling council Anwar al Ashaqy told Arab media the decision was mostly for Egyptian internal consumption.
He added Saudi Arabia has several potential options to contest the Egyptian court decision, including putting the case to the U.N. Security Council or to the International Court of Justice in The Hague.
Saudi Arabia insists it transferred the islands temporarily to Egypt in 1950 to ward off a possible Israeli attack. Israel eventually did occupy the islands after the Suez War of 1956. It returned the entire Sinai Peninsula to Egypt in 1982, in accordance with the 1978 Camp David agreements.