Sudanese Egyptian diplomatic relations are as old as the Pharaonic pyramids themselves. In recent weeks, however, a dispute over these ancient landmarks has threatened to severely damage the ancient historical ties between the two countries. However, commentators say the row over pyramids hides several important differences affecting the relationship between the two countries.
The latest row broke out last week when Egyptian social media and TV channels ridiculed, dismissed and derided Sudan's history and heritage, following an official visit by Qatari Princess, Sheikha Moza Bint Nasser Al-Missned to Sudan's ancient Kushite pyramids in Merowe which was followed by a $350 million donation for research into the perservation and restorations of pyramids in Sudan.
The negative Egyptian response prompted Ahmed Bilal Othman, Sudanese minister of information, to publicly declare Sudan to be the earliest "cradle of civilisation". He claimed Sudan's pyramids were built 2,000 years prior to those in Egypt and the Quranic reference to Pharaoh places the ancient ruler in Sudan at the junction of the two rivers, present in Khartoum.
His claims promoted a flurry of claims and counter-claims forcing the foreign ministers of both countries to issue a joint statement attempting to diffuse the situation ahead of a planned bilateral meeting next month. In a joint statement, the Minister of Foreign Affairs of Sudan, Professor Ibrahim Ghandour, and his Egyptian counterpart, Sameh Shukri, stressed the need "to respond with utmost wisdom to the irresponsible handling of relations by some media outlets and social media users who seek to harm these strong relations against the higher interests of the two peoples."
However, there are other fundamental difficulties that commentators say are affecting the relationship between the two countries. Not least, the ongoing civil war against rebel group SPLM/N which security sources in Khartoum believe is being funded by the Egyptian government. Last month pictures emerged of an alleged Egyptian aircraft delivering arms to rebel groups in Southern Kordofan. Egypt has denied any involvement in the conflict, but is known to have voted against an arms embargo in South Sudan to which the SPLM/N group is affiliated.
Political commentator, Yasir Abdullah Ali, told MEMO that Egypt is also unhappy about Sudan's stance in the dispute between Egypt and Ethiopia over the building of a 6,000-megawatt dam 20 kilometres from the Sudanese-Ethiopian border. Some reports say this could reduce the water flow into Egypt by up to 25 per cent.
Egypt is unhappy that the Sudan, after its initial objection, is now backing the Great Ethiopian Renaissance Dam. Egyptian officials have resorted to everything from diplomacy and [good-will] soccer matches to thinly veiled military threats to reverse the construction, but it's almost certain the dam will be opened this September.
Other escalations of tensions between Khartoum and Cairo have been fuelled by Sudan's decision to restrict imports of Egyptian farming products. Egypt reciprocated by raising residency fees for Sudanese living in Egypt. Added to which, the on-going border dispute over the Halayeb triangle also took a dramatic turn when a Sudanese official disclosed that Sudan's foreign ministry was drawing up plans to end the Egyptian presence in the disputed area.
However, it appears underlying ideological differences, as well as Sudan's regional alliances, are causing Cairo to feel uneasy. The Egyptian media – which criticised the Qatari donation – warned Sudan of what it claimed was a Qatari hidden agenda. Egyptian-Qatari relations, at best, have always been lukewarm.
Ali added: "At present, Sudan enjoys strong cordial relations with its regional allies including Saudi Arabia, the Emirates and Qatar. That alliance is important and encourages Sudan to counteract any unfair criticism. In the new political climate and imminent lifting of sanctions, there's a new confidence about Sudan in its relations with Egypt."
The press release issued by the ministers announced that the meeting would be held in Khartoum during the first half of April. However, despite the declared commitment of the political leadership to work to strengthen "the bonds of cooperation, solidarity and joint coordination", few expect the joint statement to lead to a toning down, for the time being, of the debates about Egyptian and Sudanese heritage or to any real relaxation of the tensions between the two nations.
The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.