Egypt's President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi attends a ceremony at the El-Thadiya presidential palace in Cairo, Oct. 5, 2016.
Egypt's President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi attends a ceremony at the El-Thadiya presidential palace in Cairo, Oct. 5, 2016.

CAIRO - Egypt's president on Saturday ratified a disputed 2016 agreement under which his country would transfer control of two strategic Red Sea islands to Saudi Arabia, following through on his assertion earlier this week that the matter was closed.

News of President Abdel-Fattah el-Sissi's ratification of the maritime border demarcation agreement with Saudi Arabia came in a Cabinet statement, which appeared to be carefully timed to head off, or at least delay, any street protests over the surrender of the islands, which the Egyptian government insists have always been Saudi.

It was issued shortly before sunset, when most were at or heading home to eat iftar - the meal with which Muslims break their fasts during their holy month of Ramadan.

A lunar month, Ramadan ends on Saturday and the three-day Muslim Eid al-Fitr holiday begins Sunday, with many Egyptians planning to take the whole week off to recover from grueling days of 16-hour fasts in sweltering summer heat.

“This matter has been closed and I am only bringing it up again because we have nothing to hide,” el-Sissi said in televised comments earlier this week. “You have entrusted me with this nation and for this I will be held accountable not just before you but also before God.”

Parliament approved the agreement on June 14 amid chaotic scenes of shouting matches by lawmakers arguing over the deal, whose announcement during an April 2016 visit by Saudi King Salman sparked the largest street protests since el-Sissi took office in 2014. Parliament's approval of the deal sparked a series of small protests earlier this month, but they were swiftly broken up by security forces.

Authorities have meanwhile arrested at least 120 people who voiced opposition or took to the streets to protest the agreement. Most of them have since been freed.

The government maintains that the Saudis placed the two islands under Egypt's protection in the 1950's amid Arab-Israeli tension. Critics say the islands were transferred in exchange for billions of dollars of Saudi aid. The government denies the claim, insisting it would never cede Egyptian territory to anyone.

Parliament's approval of the agreement was secured in defiance of two court rulings in June 2016 and January this year that reaffirmed Egypt's ownership of the islands.

However, the Supreme Constitutional Court on Wednesday annulled those two rulings as well as another two in support of the agreement. It said its decision was made upon a government request and that former tribunals may have infringed upon the prerogatives of the government's legislative and executive branches.

The islands of Tiran and Sanafir are at the mouth of the Gulf of Aqaba. Significantly, Tiran controls a narrow shipping lane - the so-called Strait of Tiran - that leads north to the ports of Eilat and Aqaba, in Israel and Jordan respectively. Israel occupied the two islands in the 1967 Arab-Israeli war but returned them to Egypt under the two countries' 1979 peace treaty.

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