Saturday,27 May, 2017
Current issue | Issue 1340, (13 - 19 April 2017)
Saturday,27 May, 2017
Issue 1340, (13 - 19 April 2017)

Ahram Weekly

Egypt-Sudan channels clogged

Although the leaders of Egypt and Sudan have expressed a desire to boost bilateral ties, recent developments on the ground are not helping, reports Doaa El-Bey

Al-Sisi and Al-Bashir
Al-Sisi and Al-Bashir

Relations between Egypt and Sudan are not going according to plan. The thorny issues that strain Egyptian-Sudanese relations are multiple, says Mohamed Hegazi, former assistant to Egypt’s foreign minister. “Some are difficult, chronic and continuous for a period of time,” Hegazi said. “The issue of Halayeb and Shalatin, for instance, and negative statements about them increase tension from time to time.”

Another diplomat who preferred to remain anonymous, agreed with Hegazi that there are several issues that are keeping the relationship shaky. “Perhaps the thorniest is Khartoum’s support for the Muslim Brotherhood although the regime there denies the allegation,” the diplomat said.

During their last meeting on the sidelines of the African Union Summit in Ethiopia in January, President Abdel-Fattah Al-Sisi and his Sudanese counterpart Omar Al-Bashir agreed to work to launch a new phase of brotherly relations in order to “bolster stability and achieve development and prosperity for both countries”, a joint statement said.

However, recent developments indicate that ties are not heading where the two leaders wish.

Early this month, Sudan decided to impose visa requirements for Egyptian men aged 18-49 in order to enter the country.

Khartoum described the move as a technical procedure — organising the entrance of visitors from brotherly countries to Sudan — among those which are regularly revised. Egyptian women, children and men over 49 are allowed to enter Sudan without a visa.

Egypt has been applying similar restrictions to Sudanese men for the last 50 years.

Male Egyptians aged 18-49 already have to take permission from Egyptian security to travel to certain countries in the Middle East and Africa, including Sudan.

The issue, according to Hegazi, is additional proof of an apparent obstruction of channels of communication and dialogue between the two states.

“The Four Freedoms file is now further than ever from being realised,” he added.

In 2004, Egypt and Sudan signed the Four Freedoms Agreement which allows Egyptian and Sudanese citizens to move freely across the border separating the two states, and the right to reside, work and own property in either country without a permit.

However, the agreement has never been implemented.

In another development, in February, Al-Bashir accused the Egyptian government of harbouring Sudanese opposition figures fighting Sudan’s military. However, in an interview broadcast by Al-Arabiya, Al-Bashir reiterated that President Al-Sisi “is a good man and he is my friend” but it is “Egyptian intelligence that I am accusing”.

More importantly, Egypt’s Foreign Minister Sameh Shoukri was supposed to head to Khartoum this past Saturday to meet with Al-Bashir, attend meetings of the Egyptian-Sudanese political consultation committee that was scheduled a day later in addition to holding talks on Egypt-Sudan relations.

Shoukri postponed his flight to Khartoum at the last minute because of weather conditions in Sudan, according to a statement issued by the ministry. A new date has not been fixed.  

However, various commentators cast doubt on the reasons the ministry gave for the postponement.

The foreign minister postponed his visit to Khartoum “for understandable reasons”, according to Hegazi. “Cairo seems to be angry for all the reasons stated,” he said.

The political consultation committee, a sub-committee of the Egyptian-Sudanese high committee, was expected to discuss relations between the two countries as well as regional and international issues, including Syria, Libya, Yemen and South Sudan.

Tensions rose between the two countries earlier this year when Sudan’s media minister said in public statements that his country’s civilisation is older than Egypt’s.

The statements led to exchanges between media figures, bringing to the fore the dispute over the historical claim on Egypt’s southern Halayeb Triangle region.

The area has been a source of tension for decades, with repeated disputes over which country has sovereignty over the region.

After the media battle, Al-Sisi received a letter from Al-Bashir stressing the necessity of preserving cooperation with Egypt on all levels.

The two countries’ foreign ministers also stated that they reject “unacceptable transgressions” that could drive a wedge between the two countries.

The controversial issue of Halayeb is a cause of tension whenever it surfaces.

In February, Al-Bashir stated that Sudan would protest to the United Nations if Egypt did not end its “occupation” of the area claimed by his country.

“The Halayeb triangle is Sudanese and we will not make any concessions,” he said.

The issue made more headlines when Abdallah Sadek, head of Sudan’s Technical Border Demarcation Committee, announced in February that newly-discovered documents show that Halayeb and Shalatin are historically part of Sudan.

Egypt’s National Security and Defence Committee in parliament said in a statement that it was surprised by the recent claim by Sudanese officials that the two cities are part of Sudan and that Egypt should cede them to the Sudanese government.

Egypt insists that the Halayeb triangle has always been part of its political boundaries established by an Anglo-Egyptian Condominium in 1899 that defined Egypt’s northern borders as the 22nd parallel north.

Sudan remained part of the pre-1952 Egyptian kingdom; the king of Egypt was also called the king of Egypt and Sudan. When Sudan became an independent state in 1956, Halayeb and Shalatin remained part of Egypt. At the time, Sudanese officials did not say the two cities belonged to Khartoum.

However, Khartoum claims that Halayeb has been part of its sovereign territory since shortly after independence in 1956.

Another reason for the tension is over Khartoum’s hosting of members of Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood, which Cairo has banned. Al-Bashir has repeatedly denied allegations that Khartoum is hosting several MB members.

“Our policy is not to disturb the peace and security of any country and not to intervene in any internal issues of any country,” Al-Bashir said.

The Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam is also creating friction between the two countries.

Egypt has repeatedly voiced its concern that the dam will affect its badly-needed water quota. It may also impact Sudan.

Nevertheless, Al-Bashir said in a TV interview in December 2015 that the dam has become a reality and that it requires the cooperation of all parties to “ensure its success”.

Perhaps one of the main reasons for the tension, Hegazi said, is the proximity of Khartoum with Addis Ababa and “their deals regarding the Renaissance Dam on the basis of a purely utilitarian approach without taking into account the sensitivity of the subject for Egypt and its legitimate concerns”. Despite the differences, the diplomat explained, there are reasons to cooperate and keep channels of dialogue open, “namely, the historic relations that have always linked the two states as well as sharing more or less the same challenges facing the Middle East at present”.  

Thus, added Hegazi, the solution is “to communicate and discuss the issues and find urgent solutions and accommodate one another in the short term.

“As for a long-term strategy, popular, parliamentary and partisan channels of communication and dialogue between civil society organisations are required.

Understanding the sensitivities of each party, mutual concessions, a rational and calm media and discipline in mutual responses and comments are all prerequisites to contain escalation in the future.

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