Sunday,19 May, 2019
Current issue | Issue 1393, (10 - 16 May 2018)
Sunday,19 May, 2019
Issue 1393, (10 - 16 May 2018)

Ahram Weekly

Brotherly relations, common ties

Sudanese-Egyptians relations are as old as the Pyramids, and today they are entering an important new phase, writes Nehal Al-Ashkar


Egypt, Sudan

Two nations drinking from one river that passes through them both and linked by one culture and one language, Sudan and Egypt have been linked since time immemorial.

Some Sudanese have settled in Egypt, falling in love with the country and its people and opening their hearts to them. They have been embraced by the streets of Cairo, in the evenings spending time in Egyptian cafés listening to Egyptian songs or playing dominoes and chess.

There are Sudanese supporters of the Al-Ahly and Zamalek football clubs, and some Sudanese occupy the first seats in cafés while watching matches, blending in with Egyptians. The relationship between the Sudanese and the Egyptians goes back millennia, regardless of any occasional disputes.

Shiraz, a Sudanese woman in her 30s, came to Egypt six months ago, after several attempts to convince her husband that she and her five-year-old son would flourish in the country. His rejection was based on the sometimes difficult political relations between the two countries, but Shiraz insisted.

“I feel that I’m living in my country and with my family in Sudan. Now I want to spend my whole life here in Egypt,” she said. “I love Egyptian culture, songs and food. I feel that Egypt is my second homeland, and I’ve never felt that I’m living here as a stranger.”

Yet, on a diplomatic level there have been differences between the two countries. According to Salah Khalil, a researcher at the Al-Ahram Centre for Political and Strategic Studies, “Egyptian-Sudanese relations have been shifting to issues in the political arena, especially the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam and the Halayeb and Shalateen Triangle border area, despite the fact that Egypt and Sudan are linked by political and ideological ties and have a common approach to national security.”

“Egyptian political priorities have led to its opening up to blocs that do not necessarily promote Egyptian interests instead of joint cooperation between Egypt and Sudan. However, the latter is underwritten by the Four Freedoms Agreement signed in 2004 that stipulates freedom of movement, freedom of residence, freedom of action and freedom of ownership between the two states, even if the implementation of some of the agreement’s provisions has been questionable because of residual tensions.”

“Cairo and Khartoum need new frameworks that go beyond past differences and a vision that puts the relationship between them in the framework of international and regional engagement in the region,” he said.

In an article published by the Al-Ahram Centre for Political and Strategic Studies, Imam Sadek Al-Mahdi, the leader of the Sudanese Umma Party and a former Sudanese prime minister, has written that “Egyptian-Sudanese relations are based on five main factors: the geographical factor, the historical factor, the cultural factor, and the economic factor. The two countries should have a common policy towards the Nile Basin. Egyptian-Sudanese relations should not be only about the bilateral context, and they must also have regional and international dimensions.”

However, according to Asmaa Al-Husseini, deputy editor-in-chief of Al-Ahram, “for more than 50 years, the media has sometimes played a negative role in Egyptian-Sudanese relations. This role can be divided into three stages: Sudan until the 1980s; the period from 1995 to the 25 January Revolution; and the post-Revolution period. Besides the traditional media, social media has unfortunately been sometimes marked by a language of jokes and ridicule,” she said.

For Khalil, “Egyptian-Sudanese relations have undergone ups and downs and cooperation and conflict, and the two countries have not always moved at the same pace because of the differences of the political systems and the different views of each of the importance of each country to the other.”

“A wave of irresponsible media campaigns has recently escalated into fueling and widening the gap between the two countries. The media in the two countries has been in constant conflict without taking into account the specificity of the relationship, rather than the mobilisation of the regional challenges that are facing the two countries. Fortunately, the two nations have wisely grasped the way to overcome such conflicts,” Khalil said.

According to Abdel-Moneim Salman, a Sudanese political analyst, “we must first recognise the permanence of the relationship between the two brotherly nations. Moreover, we must affirm that we cannot change geographical reality. We are bounded by geographical facts, as well as by vital and humanitarian interests that have deep roots in history. The Egyptian-Sudanese relationship is currently experiencing a period of tension due to differing political views and ideological differences, and these have led to the divergence of political positions on regional and international issues.”

“However, we must not allow the media to influence differences between Egypt and Sudan, even if it exploits political disputes to strike at the most sensitive parts of the relationship, namely, the popular relationship, the relationship between peoples. This is something that is truly regrettable and an expression of historical, national and moral irresponsibility. The media in the two countries has been shifting differences from the political level to the popular level, which could be harmful for the future of the two countries,” Salman commented.


ECONOMIC COOPERATION: Egypt and Sudan have endeavoured to institute full cooperation and strategic partnerships in industry, agriculture, education, water resources and trade, all of which can contribute to consolidating a stronger relationship, including in the areas of military, political and economic cooperation.

 “As well as the development of economic relations, border trade and joint investment have been tried in order to find a formula for achieving economic integration, a priority for the next stage in relations between the two countries. Egypt and Sudan have decided to double the capital of the Egyptian-Sudanese Company for Agricultural Integration, for example, with the contribution of the private sector,” Khalil said.

According to Yasser Gaber, head of public relations at the Ministry of Trade and Industry in Cairo, “Egypt and Sudan have an economic relationship that extends at the commercial and industrial level throughout history. In the past, relations between the two countries have seen trade barriers, especially from the Sudanese side, but there has always been an understanding of the need to dismantle these, notably at the meetings that take place annually between the two countries.”

“There is also the so-called Great Trade Agreement [JAFTA] between Egypt and Sudan, under which goods can flow between the two countries without restrictions even if they are sometimes blocked on the Sudanese side under the so-called ‘black list’ for reasons of industrial competitiveness. Land crossings have also been opened to facilitate movement between the two countries.”

“The upcoming plan is to further industrial integration between the two countries. There used to be an Egyptian Trade Centre in the Sudanese capital Khartoum, which promoted the exchange of manufactures. This was under the management of the private sector, and we are now working to re-open the centre under public-sector control. There are also discussions on creating an Egyptian industrial zone in Khartoum, the area of which is being determined,” Gaber said.

Al-Sisi and Al-Bashir

“The agreement includes the issue of the Nile’s water, and it seeks to promote the resolution of differences between the Nile Basin countries through dialogue and understanding. Then there is the intention to increase the Egyptian-Sudanese Agricultural Integration Partnership on the Blue Nile to 160,000 acres of agricultural land instead of the present 60,000,” Khalil commented.


THE FOUR FREEDOMS: The Four Freedoms Agreement was signed between the governments of Egypt and Sudan in September 2004. It allows citizens of Egypt and Sudan to move across the border separating the two states freely and the rights to reside, work and own property in either country without a permit.

However, 14 years have passed since the signing of the agreement, and its implementation has been questioned.

For Khalil, “some political tensions between the two countries have been an important factor in the emergence of new conflicts, and as a result the Four Freedoms Agreement has been frozen for many years. There have been problems for Egyptian investors in Sudan, and these have been significant obstacles in the development of the economic and social field.”

Salman said that “responsibility should not be put on the shoulders of this or that party, as no single party is responsible for not implementing the agreement. In fact, many of its articles are only nominally applied. The agreement was signed in 2004, when the regime in Khartoum was under international siege. It was under an economic and political embargo, and Egypt could not break this, as had it done so it would also have been subjected to sanctions.”

“Such problems have clearly affected the agreement, but instead of crying over what has happened in the past we should now find practical formulas that take into account the specificity of popular relationships and ensure the mutual benefit of the two nations. There needs to be a formula that takes into account regional and international relations and detaches them from emotional issues affected by the public mood,” he said.

“We should declare the permanent basis of the exchange of benefits between the two peoples, including economic and cultural benefits, and we should think seriously about a real agreement to ensure equal opportunities and mutual benefits for the two brotherly peoples, fitting the popular relationship between the two countries.”


THE BORDER CRISIS: The conflict around the Halayeb and Shalateen Triangle on the borders of Egypt and Sudan began in the days of British colonialism, when the triangle, previously part of Egypt, was attached to Sudan.

The first disputes over the region between the two countries erupted when former Egyptian president Gamal Abdel-Nasser sent Egyptian military forces to Halayeb and announced that the area was Egyptian. Protests followed in Khartoum, forcing Nasser to withdraw the forces.

Since then, Halayeb has remained an obstacle to the improvement of the relationship between the two countries, even if Egypt gained full control of Halayeb following the attempted assassination of then president Hosni Mubarak in 1995. Cairo then gained sovereignty over the region and extended services to it, such as education and healthcare.

 The triangle is rich in oil and metal ore, most notably gold. It is inhabited by the Beja tribe, the largest in eastern Sudan and the tribe of Sudanese deputy president Moussa Mohamed Ahmed.

According to Khalil, “the relationship between Cairo and Khartoum is in a dire need of a new framework that goes beyond the differences of the past. The rich border region could be transformed into a free zone that would complement Dubai and serve as a gateway for Africa between Alexandria and Cape Town.”

Aswan on the border with Sudan in Upper Egypt links Egypt to Sudan. For many years, travel between Egypt and Sudan was carried out via the Nile by ship, and it was never expected that road travel might be possible even if this would cut journey times. However, after Egyptian President Abdel-Fattah Al-Sisi announced Aswan as the “Capital of the African Culture” three years ago, trade and travel between Egypt and Sudan has increased by road because the new road networks have reduced travel times to seven hours, as opposed to 17 hours by boat on the Nile.


CULTURAL INFLUENCES: The most effective part of Egyptian-Sudanese relations remain people-to-people contacts that form the foundation for mutual interests.

The Egyptians and the Sudanese have much to learn from, and about, each other. The current diplomatic opening, if used wisely, could lead to greater understanding of both countries’ complex histories and cultures and to better relations in the long run.

Many of Egypt’s presidents have had Sudanese roots, including Mohamed Naguib, Gamal Abdel-Nasser, who grew up in Sudan, and Anwar Al-Sadat, who had Sudanese roots. Ibrahim Ghandour, minister of foreign affairs of Sudan, is a graduate of the Faculty of Engineering at the University of Alexandria, and Al-Tijani Al-Mahi, head of the Sudanese Sovereignty Council, used to live in Alexandria.

In order to draw attention to such strong personal bonds, Egypt’s State Information Service (SIS) and Foreign Ministry launched a media campaign in March to shed more light on Egyptian soft power in Sudan and in Africa as a whole entitled “We Are All Ambassadors for Egypt”. The Supreme Council for the Media is also keen to conduct courses for African young people in Egypt and to exchange experiences in the academic and professional fields. The idea is to promote exchanges between African countries in order to yield further cooperation.

According to Ramadan Qorani Mohamed, an African affairs expert at the SIS and editor of the magazine Afaq Afriqya (African Horizons), “the current vision of the media is no longer limited to news. Today, the media has become an important tool of foreign policy. If we have a strong media, we can have a stronger foreign policy. The solution is to stress the importance of the role of the media in supporting Egyptian-African relations. Egypt has been approached by Senegal, which wants to use its satellite TV channels, for example, and such ventures should be activated at the level of Africa in general. Egypt has many tools that can be exploited, but it needs to have a clear strategy first.”

“We need to look at what is preventing African journalists from working in Egypt and what Egypt can do to provide materials for the African media and promote a vision of Egypt in the African media,” Mohamed said.

 “The summit meeting that recently brought together presidents Abdel-Fattah Al-Sisi and Omar Al-Bashir of Sudan represented a new stage in relations between the two countries. The summit was based various initiatives, including greater media cooperation, the strengthening of the political consensus, and the establishment of a new strategic phase in relations between the two countries based on the common political will to resolve problems. Then there were the operational aspects of joint relations related to electricity, land and sea connections, rail links, and the development of cooperation in the fields of agriculture, livestock production, transport and infrastructure.”

“The most important thing is to emphasise the brotherly relations and common ties that unite the peoples of the Nile Valley,” Mohamed concluded.

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