The Egyptian-Sudanese border derives its uniqueness from the strong and ancient bonds between these Nilotic neighbours. Throughout most of their history, the border never posed an obstacle to close and continuous interactions between the two peoples. However, colonialist divide-and-rule policies fuelled political discord between Cairo and Khartoum and precipitated a number of border crises.
The 1,128 kilometre long border between Egypt and Sudan is Egypt’s longest territorial border. The 1899 Anglo-Egyptian Condominium agreement designates all territories below the 22nd parallel north as belonging to Sudan, which places the area known as the Halayeb Triangle within Egypt’s southern border.
The agreement affected two other areas. The first was the Nubian villages of Adnadan and Faras in the vicinity of the Nile. The former was incorporated into Egypt, the latter into Sudan.
Following the construction of the Aswan High Dam, some of the inhabitants moved to “New Adnadan” near Kom Ombo and others migrated southward to Khashm Al-Qurba region in Sudan. The second area affected is home to the Ababda and Bashariya, pastoral tribes which span Egypt’s south-eastern and Sudan’s northeast border.
The Halayeb Question
The Halayeb Triangle, which covers an area of more than 20,000 kilometre square, is inhabited by around 27,000 people belonging to several tribes, the largest of which are the Bashariya and Ababda. Haleyeb city, Egypt’s southern gateway on the Red Sea coast, is strategically important to both Egypt and Sudan.
To Cairo, the city is of strategic importance to national security. To Khartoum, it is significant in terms of the preservation of national unity and stability. It is also economically and commercially important to both. The Halayeb region contains large quantities of high-quality manganese. This plus the discovery of oil and other valuable metals in the area has driven periodic escalations in the Egyptian-Sudanese dispute over Halayeb.
As the abovementioned border demarcation at the 22nd parallel north divided peoples of the Bashariya and Ababda tribes, soon after the 1899 Anglo-Egyptian Condominium treaty was signed, the Egyptian interior minister approved a series of measures intended to reunify the tribes.
Effectively, they rendered Egypt’s Halayeb-Shalatin territories administratively subordinate to Sudan. Since then the triangle became a touchstone of Egyptian-Sudanese relations. When relations were smooth, the problem would subside and the two sides would work to promote spheres of cross-border cooperation. When tensions flared between the two, Halayeb would resurface as flashpoint.
The border controversy over Halayeb first emerged when, in early 1958, Egypt submitted a memorandum to the Sudanese government objecting to a recently passed Sudanese election law. This was soon after Sudan acquired independence and Egypt sought to parry Sudanese ploys to use Halayeb as a pressure card without attempting to escalate.
In December 1992, Khartoum accused Cairo of attempting to alter the identity of Halayeb to which then foreign minister Amr Moussa responded that the area fell under Egyptian sovereignty in accordance with the 1899 agreement. Moussa’s memorandum to this effect is an important document expressing Egypt’s official opinion on Halayeb.
In July 1994, Sudan sent memos to the UN Security Council, the Organisation of African Unity (OAU) and the Arab League alleging that Egypt had conducted 39 military incursions into Sudanese territory during the previous year. In 1995, Egypt refused to take part in an OAU foreign ministers’ council meeting, called for by Sudan, to resolve the border dispute.
The crisis escalated following the failed assassination attempt against former Egyptian president Hosni Mubarak in Addis Ababa in 1995. Mubarak accused the Sudanese government of masterminding the plot and ordered Egyptian forces to expel Sudanese forces from Halayeb and to strengthen Egyptian control over the area.
In December 1999, after a four-year freeze, the two sides agreed to resolve the dispute in a “brotherly” way and to take all necessary measures to transform Halayeb into a zone for “integration” between the two countries. Sudan withdrew its forces from Halayeb in January 2000, since which time Egyptian forces have controlled and administered the area.
Although relations between the two countries have improved, the crisis would resurface from time to time, triggered by Omar Al-Bashir’s remarks claiming that Halayeb belonged to Sudan and that Sudan would “never relinquish” demands for its return. During the post-revolutionary period in Egypt, former president Mohamed Morsi triggered the crisis again during a visit to Sudan during which he pledged to return Halayeb to its pre-1995 status. Sudanese authorities immediately launched a propaganda campaign reasserting Sudanese claims over Halayeb and threatening to resort to international arbitration if the claim could not be settled bilaterally.
Developing The Southern Border Region
The Egyptian government pursued a number of measures to develop the southern border areas. Some were naturally connected with the assertion of Egyptian sovereignty over Halayeb. For example, in 1992, Cairo issued national identity cards for the people there and, in February 2014, the government officially declared the town of Halayeb a city, entitling its people, for the first time, to a seat in parliament. In February 2018, the Egyptian government built 100 houses, a dam to control flood waters and create a reservoir, and a fishing port at Shalatin.
Other policies focused on stimulating Egyptian-Sudanese cooperation. In 2015, Cairo inaugurated the Qastal-Ashkit border crossing. During the past three years, it has achieved positive results in the realisation of its declared aims to “increase trade and facilitate the flow of goods, products and individuals across the borders, and to achieve a more open African market”.
In September 2016, Egypt and Sudan launched the Arqin border crossing as a “regional and international gateway” that would promote cross-border trade and movement. With regard to the envisioned Red Sea coastal road, Sudan insists that its inauguration is contingent on resolution to the Halayeb dispute.
Organised crime tops the border challenges facing Egypt and Sudan. In its 2017 report on trafficking in persons, the US State Department ranked Egypt as a “Tier 2” country that is “making significant efforts” to eliminate trafficking. Sudan was ranked “Tier 3”: a country that “does not fully meet the minimum standards for the elimination of trafficking and is not making significant efforts to do so”.
Much of the cross-border human trafficking has been linked to smugglers from the Rashaida tribe. A major smuggling route leads through Sinai to Israel or Europe.
Among the actions the Egyptian government took in this regard was to intensify information gathering, create a national hotline to fight human trafficking and cooperate more closely with NGOs and international organisations dedicated to identifying cases of human trafficking and referring victims to appropriate care services.
The decline in the number of victims attest to progress in this drive. The military campaign in Sinai has also caused a marked reduction in the flow of illegal migrants to that area, although this means that human traffickers tried to shift their activities elsewhere, such as to Egypt’s western border with Libya.
In spite of progress on several fronts, Egypt’s policies and strategies towards its southern border need to be reviewed with an eye towards the realisation of several objectives:
- Develop a comprehensive development strategy for the southern border region in a manner that optimises benefits and reduces risks.
- Promote policies to further assimilate the peoples of border areas.
- Stimulate economic cooperation with countries of East Africa, which would impact positively on economic relations between Egypt and Sudan.
*A version of this article appears in print in the 28 June 2018 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly under the headline: Policies to develop the southern zone