Trapped in scorching limbo: Egyptian truck congestion at Sudan borders sparks silent crisis

Zeinab El-Gundy , Friday 25 Aug 2023

Late in July, an elderly and fatigued Egyptian truck driver went live on his social media account to urge Egyptian officials to make an unanticipated visit to the land border crossings connecting Egypt and Sudan.

Volunteers from the Egyptian Red Crescent
Volunteers from the Egyptian Red Crescent distributing aid and supplies to the truck drivers currently waiting to pass the Arqeen border crossing to Sudan earlier this week. Photo : Egyptian Cabinet


The driver's plea attracted attention after his tragic death, shedding light on a silent crisis.  

Ghanem Abou Karim sought to share the plight of Egyptian trucks caught in limbo as they endeavoured to cross to the other side. On 25 July, he posted a short three-minute video on his Facebook page that clearly showed he was suffering from extreme fatigue.

In the video, a distraught Abou Karim implored the officials to “come and see the wheels [trucks] that line the highway for nearly 20 kilometres, extending to the mountains in Qustul."

He urgently requested Egyptian officials to alleviate the situation at Egypt's southern border crossings to end the crisis.

"We have been stranded here for weeks, grappling with depleting supplies of food, water, and medicine," he added, his gaze fixed on his mobile phone's camera.

Regrettably, the three-minute plea video failed to attain viral status promptly due to Abou Karim's limited social circle and follower count.

Nonetheless, the video gained widespread traction in the subsequent days following the death of the seasoned truck driver due to heat exhaustion.

Abou Karim, who died in his mid-60s, thus joined the ranks of other drivers who have succumbed to heat exhaustion while awaiting clearance at the Egyptian-Sudanese land border crossings.

On Sunday, the Egyptian Ministry of Transportation issued its first official statement acknowledging the crisis, pledging its resolution, and committing to extending aid to the waiting truck drivers.

The ministry said the Sudanese authorities' slow customs clearance procedures are the reason behind the congestion at Egypt-Sudan border crossings, stressing that it would provide medical services, water supplies, and meals to truck drivers at the crossing.

Tracing the crisis


"The congestion crisis began at least 35 days ago at the Qustul and Arqeen border crossings between Egypt and Sudan," said veteran truck driver Khaled Qenawy to Ahram Online.

Qenawy is a co-founder of "One Hundred in Goodness for Egypt's Truck Drivers," a charitable institution dedicated to supporting truck drivers in Egypt.

He stated that several factors have caused the crisis, beginning with customs clearance personnel on both sides, but especially in Sudan.

Furthermore, Qenawy highlighted that allowing smaller vehicles, including half-trucks and private cars, to transport goods to Sudan has significantly aggravated the situation, pointing out that business owners and merchants in Aswan consider it more economical and efficient to employ these vehicles in transportation and loading instead of trucks.

He also suggested that the ongoing civil war between the Sudanese Armed Forces and the Sudanese Rapid Support Forces (RSF) has not sparked this crisis, noting that Egyptian trucks never went deep into Sudan even before the war.

"Egyptian trucks used to offload in Wadi Halfa city in Sudan, approximately 700 km away from Khartoum, and then return. The journey would normally take no more than ten days, if not less," Qenawy said.

For his part, veteran truck driver Nasser Abdel-Wahed contended that the root cause for the crisis lies in Sudan rather than Egypt.  

"The primary cause of congestion lies in the actions of Sudanese customs employees. I hold them responsible since they operate for only two hours after they arrive late at 11 AM," Abdel-Wahed told Ahram Online.

According to the veteran driver, the situation at the Arqeen border crossing was worse than at the Qustul border crossing because the Qustul crossing is located near the village of Abu Simbel, whereas that of Arqeen lies in the middle of nowhere in the desert. 

Nevertheless, both Abdel-Wahed and Qenawy agree that the officials at the border crossings on Egypt's side had failed to effectively communicate the gravity of the situation to Cairo, stressing that such communication could have prevented the situation from deteriorating.  

Although both drivers affirmed that the Sudanese civil war was not the reason behind the congestion crisis, online driver complaints suggest a different narrative, implying the war's impact.

According to these complaints, the civil war had adversely impacted businesses and markets in Khartoum and Omdurman, where warehouses had been destroyed.

Furthermore, several Sudanese trucks that were used for storing and transporting goods brought by the Egyptians had been either destroyed or stolen.

According to CAPMAS, trade between Egypt and Sudan increased by 18.2 percent in 2022, reaching $1.434 billion, up from $1.212 billion in 2021. This increase in trade between the two countries is mainly due to the rising value of Egypt’s exports to Sudan ($929.2 million) as opposed to its imports ($504.4 million).

According to the Egyptian Ministry of Industry's official statistics, Sudan ranked as the second-largest market for Egyptian exports, following Libya, in the first quarter of 2023, with exports valued at $226 million.

Notable Egyptian exports to Sudan include construction materials (cement, iron, ceramics), electrical appliances, chemicals, paints, and manufactured foods.

Satellite imagery reveals the congestion


Estimates place the number of Egyptian trucks trapped in limbo at the Arqeen and Qustul border crossings at around 3,500, according to Qenawy.

Qustul land port is considered the first land port between Egypt and Sudan. It was inaugurated in April 2014 after a decades-long delay. On the Egyptian side, the land port initially had a capacity for passing 80 trucks daily and a parking area for 40 trucks.

Arqeen land port was inaugurated in September 2017 with a capacity that allowed the passing of 300 trucks and buses on a daily basis. It is already positioned to be part of Egypt’s highway networks to Africa.

"The trucks are parked along a road stretching 40 km from the Arqeen crossing and 20 km from the Qustul crossing," Qenawy told Ahram Online.

Utilizing satellite imagery from Airbus, Ahram Online was able to observe and substantiate the truck congestion, particularly on the Egyptian side.

At Qustul land port, a long queue of trucks was visible, stretching back tens of kilometres.

Things were not dissimilar at Arqeen. 

Surprisingly, satellite imagery from Google Earth Pro showed that the crisis did not originate in July but in late June. The dates of the satellite images revealed a substantial queue of truck vehicles at the Qustul border crossing.

Videos uploaded this week or a month earlier to TikTok by various truck drivers corroborated these findings.

The ever-extending queue was exacerbated by the scorching heat that reached 45 degrees in late July and 38 degrees in August.

These conditions, accompanied by the lack of water and proper storage for medicines, posed significant challenges for drivers contending with chronic ailments like diabetes.

"We have lost at least 15 drivers thus far," Qenawy said, recounting how some drivers had perished in Sudan and how other drivers collaborated by pooling funds to repatriate the deceased to Egypt and even arranging for hearse vehicles to transport them back to their hometowns nationwide.

"This crisis will not be resolved overnight," Qenawy affirmed.

On Sunday, Egypt's Ministry of Transportation announced it tasked the General Authority for Roads and Bridges to begin expanding and developing the existing logistical areas in both Aswan (Wadi Karkar) and Abu Simbel to mitigate the congestion of trucks and ensure providing essential services to drivers.

Nasser Abdel Wahed, who is no longer stuck at the border crossing, told Ahram Online that the drivers currently stuck at Arqeen had witnessed some change in their situation in the past few days as volunteers from the Egyptian Red Crescent began to provide medical services to them.

They also said that new parking lots were being built to help them. 

Nevertheless, the drivers are still waiting.

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