Al-Ahram Weekly Online   30 March - 5 April 2006
Issue No. 788
Region
 
Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875

Where are you?

The Sudanese claim that Egyptians have lost interest in their relationship

The main hall of Dar Al-Kutob Al-Sudaniya (Sudanese Book Establishment) is a good reflection of the state of Egyptian-Sudanese relations. At this major bookstore at the heart of the Sudanese capital, a visitor can peruse endless Egyptian titles. They are all there side by side with Sudanese works and almost exclusively of any other publications.

Egyptian novels, poetry, theology and even cookbooks are prominently displayed and reasonably priced. They are also popular among the customers of this key store.

Purchasing over 10 pocketbooks for his children, Sediq, in his early 30s, chose exclusively Egyptian publications. "They are very good, these pocketbooks for children. My children really like them. And I like my children to know about Egypt. Egypt and Sudan have a shared destiny."

Next to the huge piles of the Qur'an and the many volumes of Islamic studies and theology titles -- which prominently include traditional Egyptian writings -- Dar Al-Kutob Al-Sudaniya prominently displays books by Naguib Mahfouz, Ihssan Abdel-Quddous (a bit of a surprise in a bookstore in an Islamist country) and Abbas El-Aqqad.

Most of these books were written in the 1950s and 1960s, the heydays of pan-Arabism that at the time proved solid in the face of rivalry on the River Nile.

"We do not have that many new titles. I look for them but they do not come," Mustafa, in his early 60s, said. "I do not think there is an interest on the part of Egyptian [publishers] to address Sudanese readers despite the fact that the Sudanese are among the best readers in the Arab world."

Mustafa is absolutely right. Books of modern Egyptian writers are scarce in this bookstore that has otherwise a very generous presence of Egyptian works. And despite the fact that the books printed by top Egyptian publishing houses are to be found, for an inquisitive visitor, the productions of Dar Al-Maaraf and Maktabit Misr have an overwhelming majority.

But as Mustafa rightly noted, at the end the Sudanese are much more familiar with the Egyptian literary and intellectual production than Egyptians are of Sudanese literature. "This does not apply to Egyptians who are not familiar with even the best selling Sudanese novelists and poets."

"You Egyptians forgot about us Sudanese. Do you still like us? We still like you but we are not sure about you," said Shamseddin, a Sudanese media coordinator at the press centre set out for journalists, mostly Egyptians, who arrived in Khartoum to cover the Arab summit.

"Had it not been for the summit you would not have come. You Egyptians do not like to come to Sudan. You say it is too hot for you but in fact it is hot in Upper Egypt, too," said Mubarak, another media coordinator.

The Sudanese sense of disappointment at the attitude of Egyptians towards their southern neighbour might have been carefully concealed by hosts who did not wish to upset their guests. But no matter how sugar-coated the complaints are, they still reflect a profound sense of hurt over what one Sudanese journalist qualified as "decades of chauvinism followed by decades of neglect".

It has been 50 years since the separation of Egypt and Sudan during the early years of the Egyptian revolution after long decades of a complicated state of unity that remains complex. And it has been around five years since Egypt returned its ambassador to Sudan after close to a decade of diplomatic indifference following the alleged involvement of senior Sudanese figures in an attempt on the life of President Hosni Mubarak in the Ethiopian capital in 1995.

Egyptian and Sudanese diplomats admit that the relationship on the Nile Valley is not at all up to standard. Each side has its own account for the reasons of the failure to reach more than a lip service relationship. Both the Egyptian ambassador in Khartoum, Mohamed El-Shazli, and the official spokesman of the Sudanese Foreign Ministry Gamal Ibrahim admit that there is room for improvement and insist that the way forward is to build solid economic relations. "We need to have railways, exchange investments and embark on joint developmental projects," El-Shazli said. "We have the legal frameworks but we need to show true will to implement the texts of cooperation that we agreed on," Ibrahim said.

Both officials like to deny any profound political disagreements or security concerns.

However, on both the Egyptian and Sudanese sides, sources speaking on condition of anonymity acknowledged serious problems on the political and security fronts. The problems, they said, include Cairo's concern over the continuous involvement of some elements of the Islamist Sudanese government to provide support for the Islamist militant groups in Egypt and equally disturbing concerns that some areas of Sudan are still being used as training camps for Islamist militants including those associated to Al-Qaeda. Egyptian sources also make little effort to conceal their concern over the wish of some quarters within the Sudanese authority to antagonise the current ruling regime in Egypt in favour of establishing an Islamist regime.

For their part, Sudanese officials express concern over the level of support Cairo accords to Khartoum on the political and economic fronts. Khartoum officials are willing to credit Cairo for helping the Sudanese government in reaching a face-saving settlement in the dispute over the chairmanship of the African summit that convened in January and declined to be chaired by Sudanese President Omar Al-Bashir. Khartoum is also grateful for Egyptian efforts -- which it described as limited -- to help the Sudanese government settle its disputes with internal opposition and African neighbours.

In a brief interview with Sudanese television during his short visit to Khartoum on Tuesday to head the Egyptian delegation to the Arab summit, Prime Minister Ahmed Nazif tried to highlight the efforts of his government to strengthen and even widen cooperation with Sudan.

However, the Sudanese government, to judge by off the record remarks by its senior officials, is not impressed with the level of political commitment that Egypt is willing to accord Khartoum on the international scene. Most certainly, it is not impressed with the reluctance of Egyptian officials to visit Khartoum. And while the absence of President Hosni Mubarak from the Arab summit was not well-taken in Sudan, even for understandable security concerns, the Khartoum regime is disappointed by the failure of lesser ranking Egyptian officials to visit. "Your president does not come to Sudan. Your ministers do not come to Sudan. And even your entertainers do not come to Sudan," commented a Sudanese official. He added that with such an attitude, it becomes almost absurd to talk about the unity of the Nile Valley, the joint destiny of Egypt and Sudan and the ambitious water resources projects that both countries are supposed to jointly pursue.

Some Egyptian officials have the courage to acknowledge that Egypt has much homework to do to improve its relationship with Sudan, otherwise it stands to lose the little credit it still has.

"My name is Gamal. I was named after the legendary Arab leader Gamal Abdel-Nasser. This is all I owe to Egypt. This all I want to have from Egypt," commented one Sudanese in his early 40s.

If this is the level of bitterness in the north of Sudan, argued one Egyptian official who asked that his name be withheld, it is much worse in the south of Sudan.

Not long after an operation to promote Egyptian interests and provide Egyptian cultural and economic services, the Egyptian consulate in Juba, the capital of the south, was abruptly closed following an Egyptian security operation against south Sudanese refugees in the Egyptian capital. It is not clear when the mission will re-start. However, to judge by diplomats and the analysis of experts, one thing is clear: Egypt does not have a say or stance in the south of Sudan that is crucial to Egyptian water interests and that will vote on the separation from the north of Sudan in four years.

This comes at a time when Cairo is well aware of the increasing Western and Israeli influence in this crucial part of Egyptian national interests.

Advisors to the Egyptian government on Sudan argue the need for a more daring policy towards Khartoum. Egypt, they say, needs to establish its presence across Sudan without having to wait for the encouragement of the central government in Khartoum. Egypt, they add, needs to promote cultural exchange and a people-to-people dialogue.

In the absence of such moves and other measures to bridge the gap with the Sudanese people, critics warn, it will not be long before Egyptians lose the little affection left among the Sudanese people.

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