Sudan’s decision to recall its ambassador to Egypt and renew its complaint to the UN Security Council over the Halayeb Triangle has compounded tensions in the already strained relationship between Khartoum and Cairo.
Khartoum agreed last month to lease the Red Sea island of Suakin to Turkey, bolstering the latter’s influence in the Red Sea. A meeting of the chiefs-of-staff of Turkey and Qatar, two countries which Egypt accuses of supporting the Muslim Brotherhood, and the chief-of-staff of Sudan, was held in Khartoum, bolstering Cairo’s concerns.
The moves, denounced in Egypt’s media as provocative, passed without any official comment in Cairo.
On Monday, during a joint press conference with the Irish Minister for Foreign Affairs and Trade George Noble Plunkett in Cairo, Foreign Minister Sameh Shoukri said Egypt remained keen on maintaining its historic relations with Sudan.
“The direction in which relations are now heading requires avoiding negative impacts on both peoples,” he said.
Shoukri explained that Cairo had been notified that the Sudanese ambassador’s withdrawal had to do with the dispute over sovereignty of the Halayeb Triangle and Egypt is assessing the situation and will take “appropriate action”.
The Halayeb Triangle, on the Egyptian-Sudanese border bordering the Red Sea, has been a point of difference between the two states since the demarcation of borders carried out during the British occupation of Egypt in 1899.
Sudan has renewed a complaint to the UN Security Council demanding Cairo hand over control of the region, according to a statement issued by Sudan’s Foreign Ministry on Monday. Abdel-Mahmoud Abdel-Halim, Sudan’s ambassador to Egypt, left Cairo last Thursday.
In the press conference Shoukri said the Halayeb issue is delicate and needs to be addressed wisely, at the highest levels and outside the framework of cooperation between the two countries.
Following the 2016 agreement delineating the maritime border between Egypt and Saudi Arabia “Sudan is demanding Egypt either engages in direct negotiations over the area or refers the issue to international arbitration,” says Rakha Hassan, a former assistant to the foreign minister.
Recalling its ambassador and the other measures taken are an attempt by the Sudanese regime to distract its citizens from ongoing internal problems, argues Hassan. “There has been a spate of bread riots and Sudan is still suffering economically from the impact of the separation of South Sudan. Sudanese President Omar Al-Bashir is also the subject of media criticism because of his policies.”
The move to lease Suakin to Turkey for 99 years was interpreted by local news anchors and analysts as a sign that Turkey, Sudan and Qatar are conspiring against Egypt.
“Egypt is not concerned with expanding ties as much as it is with Turkey’s aspirations in the region and the impact of the deal on Egyptian interests,” says Rakha.
Suakin was for centuries an important trading port on the Red Sea and a staging post for Muslim pilgrims travelling from Africa to Mecca and Medina. During Ottoman times Turkey constructed a mosque on the island. Ankara has been carrying restoration works on the island since 2011 and has already restored the mosque.
After the leasing decree was signed Turkey said it would start restoring other Ottoman ruins on the island. When the restoration project is complete Turkish pilgrims travelling to Mecca will be able to fly to Sudan to visit historical sites and then go to Jeddah by ship, reviving the old Ottoman pilgrimage route.
Turkey’s growing role in Sudan includes building a new airport in Khartoum, a port, shipyards for military and civilian vessels on the Red Sea, a hospital and power stations.
The meeting held between the Qatari, Sudanese and Turkish chiefs-of-staff concluded with an agreement by the three states to develop military cooperation.
Cairo’s perception that Khartoum remains supportive of the Muslim Brotherhood, something the Sudanese regime denies, has also negatively impacted relations, says Rakha.
Media reports in Sudan which falsely claimed Egypt had asked Ethiopia to exclude Sudan from negotiations on the Ethiopian Renaissance Dam complicated an already febrile situation.
“The allegations do not make sense. The two states share a common history. We share the same language and religion. We not only share the same river but we are both downstream countries,” says Rakha.
Shoukri condemned the false information being purveyed by some Sudanese media, cautioning that this undermines the joint interests of both countries.
It is not the first time the media in both states have contributed to strained relations.
Last year, Sudan’s media minister insisted in public statements that his country’s civilisation is older than that of Egypt, triggering a media led row.
Tense relations between Cairo and Khartoum threaten to further derail the already blocked tripartite negotiations between Egypt and both Ethiopia and Sudan over the Renaissance Dam. Sudan had initially been supportive of Egyptian concerns over the impact of the dam on the flow of the Nile but changed its position in 2015.
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”.
*This article was first published in Al-Ahram Weekly