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A meeting of the Sudanese and Egyptian presidents will be perfunctory

Recent events have brought tension back into the relations between Egypt and Sudan, so Khartoum has increased its statements regarding a summit meeting between Presidents Omar Al-Bashir and Abdel Fattah Al-Sisi. The latest announcement came from the Sudanese foreign minister while discussing the preparations being made for the summit. Sudan’s ambassador to Cairo also mentioned a summit meeting in January in Cairo. The Egyptians, meanwhile, leaked a story to the media in which “diplomatic sources” denied the minister’s statement about the summit and claimed that the information was false.

The truth is that it was agreed that a summit will be held during the first quarter of 2016, as part of the Higher Egypt-Sudan Joint Committee’s meetings. Although such meetings would normally be led by the Egyptian prime minister and Sudanese vice president, Egypt responded positively to a proposal made by Al-Bashir during a visit to Cairo to raise the meetings to presidential level in order to demonstrate the commitment of both governments to developing relations.

Egypt’s unofficial denial of this may be an expression of its dissatisfaction and refusal to play ball, or perhaps it is simply sending a message to Khartoum about the issues which have created the tension between Cairo and the Sudanese government. These include the dispute over the border and the so-called Hala’ib Triangle; Sudan’s alleged support for the Ethiopian Renaissance Dam, which Egypt opposes due to its effect on the Nile waters; and the open harassment of Sudanese citizens in Egypt.

At the same time, an Egyptian popular delegation led by former Foreign Minister Mohamed Orabi was invited to visit Khartoum. The Secretary-General of the Council of International People’s Friendship said that the purpose of the visit was to affirm the strength of the bilateral relations between the two nations of the Nile Valley. However, a source within the delegation told an Egyptian newspaper that its members had discussed a number of important issues while in Sudan, starting with the Renaissance Dam and how to reach an agreement with Ethiopia. They also discussed Sudan’s role in overcoming the obstacles blocking the negotiations, as well as other matters.

Egypt was upset by statements made by President Al-Bashir in which he said that the Renaissance Dam has become a reality that does not have a negative impact on his country. Al-Bashir also renewed Sudan’s demands over the Hala’ib Triangle and added that the government has filed a complaint to the UN Security Council for it to be designated as Sudanese territory. In response, a senior Egyptian diplomat described Al-Bashir’s claims as “myths” about which Egypt should not remain silent. It seems that Cairo is responding aggressively, but unofficially for now.

In this regard, the controversial journalist and MP, Tawfik Okasha, said on Al-Faraeen TV that the historical documents and maps proving that Egypt’s borders should stretch all the way to Ethiopia were burned, and that there was no country ever called Sudan, which is “part of the Egyptian state.”

Both Khartoum and Cairo are suffering from serious and similar issues. This makes them obliged to cooperate, despite the differences between them. They have both made mutual concessions, but they are not necessarily equivalent.

After Al-Sisi overthrew the legitimate President Mohamed Morsi in 2013, Egyptian Foreign Minister Nabil Fahmy’s first overseas visit was to Khartoum. He asked Sudan to play an active role in cancelling the African Union’s decision to freeze Egypt’s membership following the coup against Morsi.

The Khartoum government rode Al-Sisi’s wave of hostility towards the Muslim Brotherhood, as Al-Bashir disowned any links to the movement. The arbitrary death sentences issued against Morsi and others were a test and revealed the liquidity of the Sudanese government’s position. However, the foreign ministry in Khartoum later joined in the international condemnation of the mass death sentences — led by the US, Germany and Turkey — and described them as a disgrace to humanity.

A year ago, Egyptian media outlets close to the government launched a campaign against the Sudanese government during President Al-Bashir’s visit to Cairo. It reached a serious level, especially after an Egyptian journalist on television mocked what he described as Al-Bashir’s willingness to give in to Egypt’s presidential protocol regarding the hoisting of national flags. Moreover, Al-Bashir attended a meeting with his Egyptian counterpart Al-Sisi in front of a map of Egypt, which included the disputed Hala’ib territory. Former ministers expressed their anger at the criticism of Al-Bashir by the Egyptian media, claiming that journalists had “gone beyond the bounds of decency” in their treatment of the president of a sovereign nation.

The concessions made by Khartoum were overtaken by popular anger at what was seen as the targeting of Sudanese nationals by the Egyptian authorities. A number of them were taken to police stations in various regions and accused of illegal currency trading. Worse still, 22 Sudanese citizens were shot by Egyptian security forces on the border with Israel in the Sinai Peninsula; 11 others were wounded in the incident.

Although the Sudanese media explained that what happened was part of Egypt’s efforts to control unregulated currency dealing, the Khartoum government’s hesitant response did not match the anger of the people. The foreign ministry’s claim that, “in the event that this information is proven to be true, the government will take the necessary measures” was seen as weak by the Sudanese public, reflecting the government’s shaky position.

As predicted by the people of Sudan, their government dismissed what took place as an “internal Egyptian affair”. Cairo, meanwhile, was content with a phone call from the foreign minister to his Sudanese counterpart in which he expressed his concern regarding “attempts to disturb Egypt-Sudan relations.”

The standard diplomatic-speak by the presidents of Egypt and Sudan regarding the relationship between the two countries and the fact that they are strategically important for each other expresses wishful thinking and hypocrisy unless there is the political will to resolve the pending issues. This, though, is unlikely from two governments which are isolated internationally and do not have popular legitimacy or support domestically.

The Hala’ib Triangle and the Renaissance Dam issues remain paramount. Sudan’s support for the building of the dam mean that it is no longer a simple dispute over the waters of the Nile between Egypt and Ethiopia, especially given that Cairo counts on Khartoum’s support for its own position in opposing the dam; Egypt believes that the dam being built by Ethiopia will have a serious effect on its share of water from the Nile. So far, diplomatic efforts to solve the problem have failed to achieve the desired results.

The government in Cairo accuses Sudan of putting pressure on Egypt regarding the dam, not least because it has postponed meetings between the three interested parties on more than one occasion. Egypt has also accused Sudan of taking advantage of the Hala’ib and Renaissance Dam issues for political purposes and exaggerating the attacks against Sudanese nationals in Cairo.

When the dam project was first announced in 2011, claims Cairo, Sudan was on Egypt’s side. It believes that the coup against President Morsi started a gradual transformation in Sudan’s position, resulting in its complete support for Ethiopia. Sudan, however, insists that it is neither a mediator, biased nor neutral; rather it supports what is just and is acting as a partner working to protect Egyptian and Ethiopian rights. Khartoum has stressed that the Declaration of Principles signed by the leaders of Egypt, Sudan and Ethiopia last March in the Sudanese capital dictated that none of the signatories should be harmed by the building of the dam.

A Sudanese official pointed out that the agreement to form the technical committee for the construction of the dam was made when the Egyptian Minister of Irrigation at the time, Essam Sharaf, visited Addis Ababa. An agreement on the legal framework of this committee was reached without the participation of Sudan. Afterwards, Sharaf visited Khartoum to inform the Sudanese government of the agreement. It appears to be clear, therefore, that the Egyptian argument against Sudan is, in this instance, fairly weak.

With regards to the Hala’ib Triangle, in November Sudan filed an official complaint against Egypt in the Security Council due to Cairo conducting parliamentary elections in the disputed territory. This complaint is actually one which is submitted annually, but this year it coincided with the targeting of the Sudanese nationals in Egypt. These incidents were accompanied by Sudan’s deliberate announcement of the UN complaint, perhaps as a form of psychological compensation or pressure.

The dispute over Hala’ib has been ongoing since 1958; it did not originate during Al-Bashir’s rule. Neither his government nor any of its predecessors have ever adopted a long-term national strategy to manage this border dispute. Instead, it has remained dependent on political variables.

However, it was during Al-Bashir’s rule that Egypt put its hands on the whole territory in 1995 and took steps towards “Egyptianising” it and imposing a status quo. As such, even if Egypt makes small concessions in the future and suggests a referendum among the area’s residents, the result will inevitably be in its favour.

Today, Egypt is establishing police stations, opening civil registers and teaching children in the Hala’ib Triangle using the Egyptian curriculum. It is also establishing various administrative units, holding elections and including the territory on maps of Egypt. All of this affects Sudan’s right to Hala’ib from a legal perspective in the event that Khartoum resorts to international arbitration. Nevertheless, there seems to be no other way to resolve the issue other than resorting to international law.

There have been many meetings between Al-Bashir and Al-Sisi, but none of them have resulted in any real benefit for either of their countries. Instead, the presidents seem to be using each other to legitimise and reinforce their authority.

It is not clear if both governments are up to the challenge of solidifying strategic relations with each other and using their natural and human resources to restore their roles within the Arab and African arenas. While they prevaricate, the pending issues between the two become more complicated by the day.

The results of the meetings of the joint committees have remained ink on paper. Even the “four freedoms agreement” is suspended due to reasons associated with the Egyptians, while the Sudanese adhere to it unilaterally. The Egyptian government has also failed to give attention to the importance of opening border crossings to allow the free movement of people and trade, which would benefit both countries.

The impact of the trade between the two countries remains very modest, as the volume has not increased since 2013, when it was only $839 million. In addition, there were just 229 Egyptian investment projects in Sudan between 2000 and 2013.

The proposed meeting between Al-Bashir and Al-Sisi will probably go ahead, but it will just be held as a matter of course; it is likely to be entirely perfunctory. If past experience is anything to go by — although it would be nice to be surprised — little, if anything, will come of it. Such frustrating stasis in relations between Egypt and Sudan has become par for the course.

Translated from Aljazeera net , 29 December, 2015.

The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.

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