Last week Cairo saw the launch of the Civil Committee for the Support of Relations of Nile Basin Countries. Its 40 members include academics, researchers, former diplomats and media experts, and the committee is expected to cooperate with a Khartoum-based counterpart to give a new momentum to Egyptian-Sudanese relations.
“There are endless avenues for joint cooperation between Egypt and Sudan and we believe for cooperation to happen we need to consolidate relations between the peoples of the two countries,” says Amany Al-Tawil, an expert on African affairs and the coordinator of the new committee.
The 23 January launch of the committee in Cairo came three months after its Sudanese counterpart was formed. According to Ali Youssef, a former Sudanese diplomat and coordinator of the Sudanese committee, the initiative was promoted by a group of Sudanese intellectuals and diplomats “who have family relations or other forms of association with Egypt and who know that there is a need for candid dialogue to help make Egyptian-Sudanese relations really strong.”
Both Al-Tawil and Youssef took part in the launch of the Egyptian committee last week in Cairo. Speaking to Al-Ahram Weekly, they said that they are particularly mindful of the confused images adopted in each of the two countries about the other.
“During the 30-year rule of the Salvation Front in Sudan a lot of harm was done to the image of Egypt in the minds of the Sudanese people. Today, we need to work together, hand in hand, to clarify the position of Egypt vis-à-vis Sudan,” Al-Tawil said.
According to Youssef, explaining Sudan to the Egyptians and Egypt to the Sudanese via media and academic channels is a top priority for the two committees.
“I think that to be effective we need to keep an eye on the simple fact that there are issues on which the two countries agree and issues on which they disagree. We don’t need to deny our differences, what we need to do is to discuss them at the level of civil society,” said Youssef.
“Candid debate is always a healthy exercise, even when it comes to issues like the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam [GERD] on which Sudan, unlike Egypt, favours a more active role for the African Union.”
During the past five years of on-off talks on GERD, Egypt and Sudan have seldom seen eye-to-eye on how to manage the talks, and much less on what to get out of them.
Youssef thinks it is wrong to overlook areas of disagreement between the two countries, even when they include thorny issues, such as border disputes and water management.
“Our role is to help the two countries reach answers. If we look the other way the problems don’t just resolve themselves. We have to have the will to work out differences,” he argued.
According to Al-Tawil, the meetings the two committees are planning to hold will allow “all issues of agreement and disagreement” to be addressed, with an eye on creating room for cooperation “to serve the best interest of the peoples of both the Nile Basin countries”.
“Egypt and Sudan have ample room for economic, cultural and political cooperation and the role of the two committees is to assert and expand such opportunities,” Al-Tawil said.
Mohamed Badreddin, a former Egyptian diplomat and a member of the committee, said that at a time when Cairo and Khartoum seem to be looking to reset their relationship, “a coordinated civil society initiative could help push” the official agenda.
According to Badreddin, public diplomacy is particularly useful when it operates on a parallel track to the one pursued by governments. “So while we are not working on behalf of the government, we have an eye on the positions of our governments,” he said.
Mohamed Ilyass, Sudan’s ambassador to Egypt, says that while the Egyptian and Sudanese governments will continue to work together within the framework of official relations the initiative could be “very helpful in providing momentum to upgrade these relations and the ample opportunities they offer”.
Egyptian-Sudanese relations have gone through ups and downs during the past three decades. One of the lowest points was in 1995 when Egypt accused Sudan of involvement in an attempt to assassinate then president Hosni Mubarak during a visit to Addis Ababa to head the Egyptian delegation to the African Union summit. In 2019, Sudanese political forces that led the revolution to remove Oamr Al-Bashir accused Cairo of siding with Sudan’s reviled dictator.
The dispute over the methodology of GERD negotiations is not the only point of contention between Cairo and Khartoum. Among the host of other issues dividing the two capitals is the future of Halayeb and Shalatin, a disputed territory between the two countries. Nor has Egypt made a secret of its concerns over fast-tracked Sudanese-Israeli normalisation at a time when Israel is shrugging off basic Palestinian rights.
Badreddin agrees that there are no easy answers to any of these questions. “Our mission is not an easy one, that much we know,” he says.
Hussein Bahgat, the director of the Centre for Development and Media Support and a member of the Egyptian committee, believes a crucial part of the committees’ work is to create solid and sustainable channels of communication between media outlets and research centres in the two countries.
According to Al-Tawil and Youssef, the committees are currently compiling a joint list of objectives on which they will work in parallel.
“We are going to cover all fronts, but our first step is to remove any misunderstandings about Sudan’s position towards Egypt and Egypt’s position on Sudan,” said Youssef.
*A version of this article appears in print in the 4 February , 2021 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly