Sudan and Egypt: Islamist partners or reluctant allies?

5th Apr 2013

By May Ali

Khartoum, (Al-Akhbar): After more than a dozen trips to Arab and other countries, Egyptian President Mohamed Mursi will visit Sudan on Thursday. His 24-hour stay will include discussions with Sudanese President Omar al-Bashir, but observers say that this visit comes too late.

With its Islamist character, the Sudanese government should be a natural partner of Mursi’s regime. However, since the arrival of the Freedom and Justice Party (FJP) to power in Egypt, it went against expectations and was satisfied with regular diplomatic relations with Khartoum.

Despite officially aiming to maintain strong ties between the two countries, there are signs of an undeclared diplomatic crisis between Khartoum and Cairo, the main indicator of which is the delayed visit.

Informed sources revealed that the Sudanese leadership had become disgruntled with Mursi’s continuation of the former regime’s exclusionary practices against Sudan. Mubarak had dealt with the Sudanese dossier primarily as a security issue, and viewed Sudan as a strategic asset to Egypt.

Observers do not rule out that the visit came at the behest of Qatar, which has very strong ties with the Khartoum government. It seems Qatar is keen to mediate between the two sides, especially since the Sudanese dossier had been a point of contention in Doha’s relationship with the Mubarak regime.

However, the Sudanese government delayed Mursi’s visit for seven months. Director of the Sudanese Ministry of Foreign Affairs Rahmatullah Othman said, “We understood the situation of the political leadership in Egypt in the past and we welcome the current visit of President Mursi.”

Hani Ruslan, an Egyptian expert in Sudanese affairs, said, “It is clear that Mursi’s visit to Khartoum came at the urging of the Sudanese leadership.” He explained the “philosophy” of the regime in Sudan.

“Bashir’s regime aims to turn a new page with the Brotherhood in Egypt,” he said. “They are both linked by political Islam.” Ruslan maintained that Khartoum’s insistence on keeping strong ties with Mursi’s government “is in the interest of both regimes.”

The two countries share major regional strategic interests, most obviously the Nile. Currently, the Nile’s source countries (Uganda, Ethiopia, DR Congo, Burundi, Tanzania, Rwanda, Kenya, and Eritrea) are aiming to amend a 1959 agreement that sealed Egypt and Sudan’s control over the river.

Despite the high stakes, coordination between the two countries is at its lowest level. On the visit, Mursi will have to negotiate several landmines if relations are to improve. The most serious crisis is the disputed Hala’ib Triangle, a border region that both sides claim as their own.

Since the overthrow of Mubarak two years ago, the Sudanese leadership declined to raise the question of Hala’ib in acknowledgement of Egypt’s rocky internal situation. The Sudanese government reiterated that border disputes should be postponed until the internal situation in Egypt stabilizes.

An additional hurdle, which will raise many question marks, concerns the FJP welcoming leaders of armed Sudanese groups in Egypt and allowing them to open offices. Sudan had expressed displeasure at the issue and sent a formal complaint to the Egyptian authorities.

This article is an edited translation from the Arabic Edition.


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