Cairo wants Khartoum's support, but without giving up territory: Official

Dina Ezzat, Monday 22 Apr 2013

While two new roads will soon open between Egypt and Sudan, lowering transportation costs and suggesting agricultural cooperation between the neighbouring states, sticking points remain on territorial questions

Sudanese honor guards stand beneath a billboard depicting President Omar al-Bashir embracing Egyptian President Mohammed Morsi an arrival ceremony at the airport in Khartoum, Sudan, Thursday, April 4, 2013 (Photo: AP)

Preparations are underway for the upcoming inauguration of a land road connecting two Nile countries whose fates have been long connected, not only in history but in everyday life: Egypt and Sudan.

According to a government official, the inauguration of the land road on the eastern side of Egypt to its southern neighbour Sudan should be in a few weeks. “We are targeting the end of this month,” he said.

“By the end of July, hopefully,” according to the same source, Egypt and Sudan should open yet another land road, this time on the western side of the two Nile Basin countries. Once one country administered from Egypt, then a British protectorate, Sudan gained independence in 1956 and split into two countries, Sudan and South Sudan, in 2011.

Egyptian government officials say that the two land roads will help Egypt to bring “less expensive” key agricultural products from Sudan, and maybe eventually from South Sudan, once relations between Khartoum and Juba improve.

In the assessment of one government official, the expected drop in the cost of imports of red meat from Sudan — a prime objective eyed by Egypt — is assessed at around 90 percent. “We could go down from $2000 to $200 per ton shipment,” the official said.

According to the same officials, committing to the prompt inauguration of both roads — whose construction was initiated under the rule of ousted president Hosni Mubarak and Sudanese President Omar Bashir some 10 years ago — was underlined as a priority during a recent visit of President Mohamed Morsi to Sudan.

The same visit addressed a package of possible Egyptian-Sudanese cooperation, especially in relation to joint agricultural projects and improvement of water resources usage.

Sudanese and government officials spoke of a “promise” by Sudanese President Bashir to “allocate over one million feddans in Sudan” for Egyptian agricultural purposes.

Egyptian officials insist that this would be a key move in expanding the volume of Egypt’s insufficient foods. “We import about 40 per cent of the food we eat and we need to cut down on imports and be more self-sufficient. Resorting to mega agricultural projects in Sudan is certainly one option, but it is a matter that requires careful feasibility studies with regards to cost and regulations,” said one official at the Egyptian Ministry of Agriculture.

According to the same official, this path was first proposed in the 1980s and was tried out but did not prove successful due to operational matters. “Today, we need to make sure that whatever we embark on will be successful, and of course beneficial to both countries,” he added.

Nile pipe dreams

Not all are convinced. Hanei Rasslan, a senior expert on Egyptian-Sudanese relations at Al-Ahram Centre for Political and Strategic Studies, opines that it is “very hard to see a way by which this matter could be started, let alone be successful.”

“The irrigation of 1.5 million feddans would require an average of six billion cubic meters of water. This goes way beyond Sudan and Egypt's water budgets, which are already exhausted,” Raslan said.

According to Raslan, unlike countries like China that are planning to rent vast agricultural zones in Sudan, Egypt is not privy to sophisticated irrigation methods that could help reduce the volume of water required. “We are still in the learning process of irrigation management techniques,” he said.

Moreover, Raslan reminded that Juba is still noncommittal about joining projects to reduce the losses of Nile River waters. The aim is to save every year some 50 billion cubic metres, close to the annual Egyptian share of 55 billion cubic meters — a share currently disputed by upstream Nile Basin countries.

“This is not to mention that executing the projects necessary for the reduction of water loss would require billions of dollars that are unavailable in the coffers of either Egypt or Sudan and have not been earmarked by donor states or organisaitons,” he added.

Raslan is also worried that the potential lease of vast Sudanese territories to Egypt could ignite hard to dispel, almost phobic Sudanese fears of attempted Egyptian hegemony.

“I don’t think that Bashir would do this, simply because it would subject him to accusations of summoning 'Egyptian neo-colonialism,'” he argued. “Let's face it; the Sudanese people would be sensitive about Egypt renting Sudanese territories in a way that they would not be if it were far away China renting the land."

Indeed, Raslan underlines, territorial disputes between Egypt and Sudan are still unresolved, at least from the Sudanese point of view.

Disputes re-opened

During the Morsi visit to Khartoum, a new episode of the supposedly resolved conflict over control of the border villages of Halayeb and Shalatine opened.

Egypt had traditionally granted Sudan the right of administrative regulation of the two villages south to Aswan, but acted firmly to take full control of the villages in the wake of a fall out between Cairo and Sudan in the mid-1990s following an attempt on the life of ousted president Mubarak in which Sudan was indirectly involved.

Moussa Mohamed Ahmed, assistant to Sudanese President Bashir, said that following the Morsi visit the Egyptian president “agreed to return Halayab and Shalatine to Sudan.”

The statement was categorically and immediately denied by Egyptian presidential spokesman Ihab Fahmi who asserted in no uncertain terms that Egypt “is not letting go of its territories.”

Informed Egyptian officials asserted in independent accounts to Ahram Online that the matter of Halayab and Shalatine was not even brought up during Morsi's talks in Sudan with Bashir.

“There was one mention of it by one of the Sudanese officials who spoke with Morsi, but the president did not even reply beyond a courteous smile and a few words on the need for close cooperation between Egypt and Sudan,” said one of the officials who escorted Morsi to Khartoum.

According to Raslan, the statement of the Sudanese official “talks volumes” about the sensitivity of the Sudanese to matters related to territorial control when it comes to Egypt.

“Moussa Mohamed Ahmed subscribes to the tribes of east of Sudan who still have hopes to retain Halayeb and Shalatine and he was speaking to his own constitutency,” Raslan said. He added that this goes to show that what Egypt needs to invest in is imports of food and meat from Sudan at good prices, especially with the operation of the eastern and western land roads.

According to Saadedine Amin, secretary general of the Red Sea governorate, a meeting of key ministries is due in the coming few days to draft a plan for the development of Halayeb and Shalatine.

Given its current sensitivities with almost all Nile Basin countries, Raslan reminds, Egypt needs to keep ties with Sudan as stable as possible.

The Blue Nile that provides Egypt with about two thirds of its Nile water share passes through Sudan after Ethiopia.

Meanwhile, Minister of Water Resources Mohamed Bahaeddine said that Cairo is committed to cooperation with Juba — something that Egyptian diplomats say will be carefully weighed in balance with relations to Khartoum.

On Saturday, Cairo and Juba signed an agreement to execute three projects in South Sudan worth $7.2 million.

The signing of the three projects comes ahead of the anticipated signing by Juba of an agreement with upstream Nile River countries that is bound to eat into Egypt’s already insufficient quantites of Nile River waters.

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