Morsi's visit to Sudan prompts speculation over historical dispute

Ahmed Eleiba , Friday 12 Apr 2013

The longstanding dispute between Egypt and its southern neighbour over the Halayeb Triangle – raised in the wake of President Morsi's recent Khartoum visit – is far from over

This image released by the Egyptian Presidency shows Mohammed Morsi walking with Sudan's President Omar al-Bashir, left, upon his arrival at the airport in Khartoum, Sudan, Thursday, April 4, 2013 (Photo: AP)

The Muslim Brotherhood dream of reviving the Islamic Caliphate has led many to question the group's attitudes toward the concept of the Egyptian nation state and its commitment to its territorial boundaries and national sovereignty.

Under the Ottomans, territorial boundaries were little more than administrative divisions between provinces that were directly subordinate to Istanbul, the last seat of the Caliphate. Some Brotherhood and other Islamist ideologues may hark further back than that, to the time when the most meaningful boundary was that separating the Islamic state – the 'house of peace' – from the rest of the word that was open to conquest – the 'house of war.'

Suspicions regarding the Muslim Brotherhood's dedication to Egyptian territorial sovereignty have fed accusations against the current Brotherhood-led government: that it planned to sell the Suez Canal to Qatar, was conspiring with Hamas to turn Egypt's Sinai Peninsula into an alternative homeland for the Palestinians, and intended to satisfy Libyan claims to Saloum on the grounds that the area formed the natural northern extension of Libya's eastern border.

Sometimes the Brotherhood's political adversaries have cited what they regard as evidence of these accusations. Moreover, when Defence Minister Abdel-Fattah El-Sisi issued a decree prohibiting the sale of Sinai land to foreigners, the action seemed to substantiate concerns over the fate of Egypt's eastern gateway.

Most recently, the Halayeb Triangle, long disputed between Egypt and Sudan, surfaced again in this context, against the backdrop of President Morsi's recent visit to Khartoum. Although there had been an agreement in advance that this controversial issue would not be raised during the president's visit (an agreement confirmed to Ahram Online by both an informed Egyptian source and Walid Al-Sayyid, director of the Cairo bureau of the Sudanese ruling National Congress Party), Moussa Ahmed, assistant to Sudanese President Omar Al-Bashir, brought it up immediately after the visit.

The Egyptian presidency immediately issued a statement denying any intention of the government to hand over Halayeb to Khartoum. However, by this time, a video clip in which former Muslim Brotherhood supreme guide Mahdi Akef stated that "Halayeb would not be a crisis if the area remained Sudanese" had gone locally viral on the Internet. It made little difference that this video recording dated from 1992, which was even before Akef became supreme guide.

Al-Sayyid stressed that Moussa Ahmed had merely been voicing goodwill. He explained that Bashir's assistant had urged Morsi to resume good relations with Sudan and hoped that the two countries would become closer than they had been before 1995.

It was the mention of that date that triggered the current problem for Morsi and the Brotherhood. In 1995, Egypt rejected a Sudanese request to discuss the Halayeb dispute at the OAU Foreign Minister's Council in Addis Ababa. Later that year, there was an assassination attempt against Hosni Mubarak in the Ethiopian capital.

Egypt accused Khartoum of complicity and responded by strengthening its hold on Halayeb and expelling all Sudanese police and other officials from that area. Al-Sayyid added that Moussa had been speaking in an unofficial capacity.

Hani Raslan, Sudanese affairs expert at the Al-Ahram Centre for Political and Strategic Studies, has a different take. In an interview with Ahram Weekly, he pointed out that Moussa Ahmed, himself, was the key.

Ahmed obtained his current position as assistant to the president as part of the political settlement between Khartoum and Eastern Sudan, where Ahmed hails from. Eastern Sudan borders on the Halayeb Triangle. Therefore, Bashir's assistant had found in the Egyptian president's visit an opportunity to flex his political muscle, which he did by bringing up the thorny issue of Halayeb in this manner.

Images circulating in the Egyptian media of Presidents Morsi and Bashir reciting the Al-Naba' ('The News') verse from the Quran together before Friday prayers and of the lengthy sermon that Morsi delivered to a large gathering of Sudanese Islamist leaders present at the mosque in Khartoum that day highlighted the ideological bonds between the two sides.

In fact, some commentators took these images and the Morsi sermon as indication that the purpose of the visit was to profile the ideological bond between the two governments rather than the common political or strategic interests between the two countries.

Raslan held that official coverage of the visit "sold an illusion to the Egyptian people." Most reports and commentaries coming out of Sudan portrayed the visit as a new leaf in the relations between Cairo and Khartoum, he said.

In fact, however, relations between the two had begun to revive in 2001 and had been improving since then until the end of the Mubarak era. Secondly, the agreement on the four freedoms had been reached before the revolution, which is to say well before the Muslim Brotherhood came to power in Egypt.

In like manner, plans for the trans-national highway had already been completed, apart from some outstanding details concerning the locations of border controls and the distribution of routine duties regarding the management of customs and immigrations matters.

In Raslan's opinion, the visit was all about marketing. "For Bashir it was an investment in strengthening his position with respect to the International Criminal Court, and for Morsi it was an investment in the promotion of his foreign policy."

Al-Sayyid told Ahram Online that the images of Morsi praying and reciting Quranic verses in a mosque in Khartoum had been built up into a "fabricated crisis." "We have to move beyond the exploitation of such images in this manner," he said, adding, "When Bashir came to Egypt, he visited the Sayyid Al-Badawi Mosque in Tanta, the Morsi Abul-Abbas Mosque in Alexandria, and the Hussein Mosque in Cairo. Is there a problem with that? I don't think so."

The director of the National Congress Party's Cairo bureau went on to criticise commentators who held that the visit was not successful, in spite of the many agreements the two sides had reached on food security and on other political and economic issues. "We have grown used to [those critics'] fabricating crises when Egypt and Sudan move apart. But this time, they are doing this when Egypt and Sudan are drawing closer."

It is interesting that the Muslim Brotherhood has chosen to sideline the Halayeb issue in spite of documents, studies and maps – some dating to the colonial period – confirming that it belongs to Egypt. A military source told Ahram Online that no political regime in Cairo could sacrifice a square inch of this border region, since it falls under the control of the Egyptian military, which regulates activities and prohibits private ownership of any land in the area.

On the other hand, Ahmed Sobie, a Muslim Brotherhood official who has visited Sudan several times including the Halayeb Triangle, told Ahram Online that this area leaned, demographically and culturally, toward Sudan. In addition, he said, "neither Egypt nor Sudan show an interest in it. It is not represented in elections or on any other political occasion. The people there are outside the realm of time. They do not operate in accordance with this policy that. In fact, some there prefer self-determination."

When questioned about a map of the area that had appeared on the Muslim Brotherhood's Freedom and Justice Party website depicting Halayeb as being located inside Sudan rather than Egypt, Sabie responded, "There was no ulterior motive. [The map] was posted by mistake."

While many are well-informed on Egyptian-Sudanese relations, few are aware of the history of the Muslim Brotherhood in Sudan. In the mid-1960s, that chapter set into motion a unique anomaly in the Brotherhood's history when Hassan Al-Turabi broke away from the organisation to form the Islamic Movement which, in turn, he hoped to turn into the umbrella organisation that would bring the Muslim Brotherhood under its wing.

According to a Brotherhood leader connected with the group's Guidance Bureau, Al-Turabi had refused to declare his allegiance to Supreme Guide Mohammed Hamed Abu El-Nasr during a convention of the International Muslim Brotherhood organisation in Jordan in 1986. Not only did Al-Turabi's plans to create a new umbrella organisation fail, but he bowed to the pressures of many members of the Sudanese Islamic Movement to offer an apology to the Guidance Bureau.

Meanwhile, his colleagues Omar Al-Bashir, Nafie Ali Nafie, and Ali Othman Taha, and other officials of the National Congress government in Khartoum, remained true to their original Muslim Brotherhood calling. Therefore, when the Muslim Brotherhood came to power in Egypt, they sent a message declaring a form of moral allegiance.

The source stressed that while these National Congress members were no longer members of the International Muslim Brotherhood and had no organisational relationship with the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood, they nevertheless branched from the same ideological font. He added that there still existed, outside of the Sudanese Islamic Movement, a Muslim Brotherhood chapter in the strict organisational sense. The official responsible for this chapter was Ali Jawish.

He also pointed out that there was an entity created by a number of Muslim Brotherhood leaders who had fled Egypt during the Mubarak era and established what they termed the Muslim Brotherhood Bureau of Central and North Africa. Its founder, Mohammed El-Buheiri, was an Egyptian who founded the Libyan chapter of the Brotherhood and then fled to Sudan

"There is no problem with political relations and ideological affiliations between political groups," added the military source. "But when these relations turn into courtesies at the expense of national sovereignty, this is where we draw the line."

However, it is not yet clear whether the new administration in Egypt will look at the Halayeb Triangle from a new perspective in light of the historical ties with the rulers next door. A high-ranking government source who attended Morsi's official visit to Sudan said that the Sudanese president actually did ask Morsi during his visit to Egypt in September 2012 to put the long frozen file up for debate. "It is not true that both sides agreed not to tackle the issue," the government source who preferred anonymity told Ahram Online.

"The government was not informed about the visit to Sudan in advance to make proper preparations. In fact, we were asked to prepare for a visit to Libya," added the government source, who also explained that Mostafa Othman Ismail, a Sudanese presidential aide, had suggested to him the idea of joint authority over the disputed territory. "Ismail's suggestion came on the margins of an official meeting, and my answer was: 'This will never be accepted by the Egyptian side.'"

Short link: