Land for ideology swap

Geopolitics, a mineral-rich disputed territory, Egypt-Sudan ties and the fall of Morsi

By Tarique Niazi
Published: Monday 30 November -0001

Geopolitics, a mineral-rich disputed territory, Egypt-Sudan Ties and the fall of Morsi

Relations between Egypt and Sudan have long been frozen in their disagreements over the distribution of natural resources, especially that of land and water. Their contested claims to borderlands, such as Halaib Triangle in the Red Sea region, and Nile water are anchored in their colonial past, when Egypt and Britain co-governed Sudan until 1956. Egypt is thus Sudan’s mother country, although Sudan towers over Egypt in terms of its territorial heft, vast agricultural potential and as a critical source point of the Nile that is Egypt’s lifeline. Yet Egypt is indifferent to Sudanese diplomatic and not-so-diplomatic efforts to reclaim Halaib Triangle, an area of about 1,000 square miles on Egypt’s southern border with Sudan.

Egypt has, all along, considered Halaib a cornerstone of its national interest that is not negotiable. When Egypt’s deposed President Mohamed Morsi took over in June 2011, he apparently followed the lead of his predecessors on this fractious issue, but his view of the contested area significantly diverged from his fellow leaders in one crucial respect. Egypt’s past leaders -- Gamal Abdel Nasser, Anwar Al-Sadat and Hosni Mubarak -- framed the Halaib question in strictly nationalist-secular terms as “national interest.” In such framing, they were in step with world diplomacy that regards national interests as rational, defensible, respectable and amenable to solutions. Morsi, however, sidestepped the nationalist-secular framing of the Halaib issue in favor of an “ideological unity” with the incumbent Sudanese government, which he thought transcends nationalism and its narrowcasting.

Egypt and Sudan: Ideological Twins?

This shift gave a new cast to Egyptian-Sudanese contentions that began to take a dramatic turn under Morsi. He reached out to Sudan to embrace it as Egypt’s ideological twin, and thus end the acrimony that festered between the two for decades. As a matter of fact, Morsi saw his mirror-image in a religious conservative government seated in Khartoum, although the nomenclature of Sudan’s ruling “National Congress Party” is a far cry from sounding “religious,” especially in contrast to the Muslim Brotherhood.

For its part, Khartoum regarded Morsi, both literally and metaphorically, a godsend and lapped up his overtures, setting in motion highest-level exchanges that were record-setting, despite the grumbles in Khartoum to the contrary. Morsi and his Sudanese counterpart Omer Hassan Al-Bashir have since respectively visited each other in April 2013 and September 2011. Morsi’s visit to Khartoum took place just three months before he was deposed on July 3 by his defense minister Abdel Fatah al-Sisi whom he also chose for ideological considerations of “piety.”
Morsi, who has been depicted by his critics as “Islamist Internationalist,” wanted to charm Sudan with an ideology of shared faith; while Al-Bashir hungered for an opportunity to settle the long-simmering dispute over the Halaib border area.
Since Morsi was swept into office, the Halaib issue bubbled from dormancy to the surface to become front and center in Egypt-Sudan relations. The Egyptian military has long been guarded of the border dispute that it muscularly kept out of spotlight by treating it as a “closed subject,”  one that is not up for discussion in bilateral talks or at multilateral forums.
In 1995, Egypt did not let the Halaib issue make it to the OAU’s (Organization of African Unity’s) Council of Foreign Ministers that met in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, despite Sudan’s frenetic push. Similarly, Egypt rebuffed Sudanese pleas to take the matter to the International Court of Justice (ICJ) for arbitration. All this hedging was meant to ensure that the matter is a “closed subject.”  Conversely, Morsi and his ideological outreach to Sudan was suspected of going just in the opposite direction: To have Egypt walk back from its stated position that Halaib is part of Egypt. Morsi’s “religious internationalism” at the expense of Egyptian nationalism put him at odds with his military that took a dim view of his grasp of Egypt’s national interests, and his ability to steward those interests (see 'A Grand Dam That Felled Morsi').

Although Morsi, in his rhetoric, echoed Egypt’s stated position on Halaib, his ideological overtones were often read to the contrary. While in Khartoum, he declared “to remove all the obstacles, if any, to achieve an actual integration between Sudan and Egypt towards unity which the people of the two countries aspire.”  Egypt, Sudan to Pave the Way for Strong Ties, Broad Cooperation.” Sudan Vision, April 5, 2013.
Back in Cairo, the national defense establishment read into “obstacles” the long-simmering territorial dispute over Halaib that Morsi was willing to swap to further his ideological agenda. His detractors saw him so deeply invested in his agenda and its furtherance that he, in their view, would spare no sacred or secular effort to nurture it. A case in point is his talk of building continent-wide road and rail links between Egypt and Sudan, which he predicted would push Egypt and Sudan to become “one nation and one leadership.”  (see 'Egypt, Sudan to Pave the Way for Strong Ties, Broad Cooperation', Sudan Vision, April 5, 2013).

Ostensibly, an innocent message of “one nation and one leadership" seems to have the deeper undertones of consummation of an ideological marriage. In the spirit of becoming one with Sudan, Morsi and his Brotherhood viewed Halaib Triangle no more than a barren patch of land in a godforsaken territory. 

Is Halaib As Barren As It Looks?

From the look of it, Halaib is desolate country where hardly any vegetation can survive in the absence of moisture that is a persistent feature of this area. If Egypt or Sudan goes by the appearance of the region, they will end up washing their hands of it. But the real wealth of Halaib lies beneath its looks in its sub-surface bowels. It is said to brim with oil, minerals and metals,  including gold. It is this wealth that Egypt is developing and guarding with its engineers, technicians and military troops stationed in the area since the 1990s. Sudan grumbles that Egypt is opening up the area to international companies to license them for drilling oil and prospecting precious metals. In 1993, tensions on both sides flared up to the extent to have observers talking of a “mini war” brewing in the region.
The talk of war did not materialize, but, two years after in 1995, an assassination attempt was made on then Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak, while he was in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, to attend a summit of the Organization of African Unity (OAU). He had to cut short his visit and rush back home. Suspicions immediately fell on Khartoum for being in on the plot to kill Mubarak. Khartoum denied its hand in the bid itself or any role in conspiring it, but Cairo remained unconvinced.
To punish Khartoum, Mubarak retaliated with en mass expulsion of Sudanese government from Halaib and sending in further troop reinforcements to fortify its defenses. Halaib has since been in the iron-cast grip of Egypt and its military. Morsi’s soft talk on Halaib flies in the face of military determination to keep the region at all costs. A military source told Ahram Online that “no political regime can trade away a square inch of this border region,”  a reference to Morsi’s sugared position on Halaib. “There is no problem with political relations and ideological affiliations between political groups. But when these relations turn into courtesies at the expense of national sovereignty, this is where we draw the red line,”  the source assertively concluded. It was widely speculated in Cairo that Morsi during his visit to Khartoum on April 4-5, “promised to do his utmost to return the Halaib border area” to the Sudan.

In this respect, Morsi was said to have given word to his hosts that he would rezone the area to settle the long-standing dispute. President’s spokesman, however, denied that the border dispute even came up for discussion between Morsi and Al-Bashir. What lent credence to these rumors was Gen. al-Sisi’s message to the Sudanese chief of army staff that “Egypt will not forfeit “one inch” of the disputed border region of Halayeb and Shalateen”.
 This message was delivered by Egyptian chief of army staff who visited Sudan on April 28 after Morsi’s visit. The Egyptian military often groused that Morsi didn’t have a mind of his own. He was only fronting the Muslim Brotherhood, which is the real mind behind him, and doing what the Brotherhood bid him to do.
Right before Morsi’s fall, Cairo was abuzz with rumors that the Brotherhood planned to sell off the Suez Canal to Qatar, the Sinai Peninsula to Palestinians (as their alternative home), and Saloum to Libya (on the ground that it forms the natural northern extension of Libya’s eastern border) [13]. If these rumors have any fragment of substance, the whole deal seems like a “yard sale” of Egypt to its neighbors, or land for ideology swap.

Brotherhood On Halaib Triangle

The grand bargain of Egypt may not square with facts, but Brotherhood in Cairo was seen eager to palm off Halaib to Sudan. The Freedom and Justice Party, the political reincarnation of Muslim Brotherhood and the ruling party until July 3, even posted on its Website a map that showed Halaib Triangle part of the Sudanese territory. Later, a spokesman called the post a “mistake” and denied any “ulterior motive” behind it. Yet a Muslim Brotherhood official told Ahram Online that Halaib “leaned demographically and culturally toward Sudan.”

In addition, he added, neither Egypt nor Sudan is interested in it. Halaib residents, who go unrepresented both in Egypt and Sudan, would rather like to have peoplehood of their own. Most Egyptians were crushed by the mistaken cartography of Halaib and the Muslim Brotherhood’s attempts at rationalizing away part of Egypt to advance its ideological agenda. The workaday Egyptian, who has grown up on historical evidence documented in multiple studies and cartography that mark Halaib as part of Egypt, was unwilling to take such a “leap of faith” with the Brotherhood to hand away part of their homeland. In particular, such ideas affronted the Egyptian youth and their patriotism that extends from Egypt’s long history of nationalism. The Tamarod (rebellion) movement, which was dominated by the youth, flooded 30 million young women and men onto the streets of Egypt slurring Morsi with the same epithet they saved for his predecessor Mubarak before he fell in disgrace.

Why is the Brotherhood soft on Sudan and weak in its position on Halaib? Observers trace the answer in historical ties between the Egyptian Brotherhood and the Sudan’s ruling class. According to their narrative, Hassan Al-Turabi, once “eminence grise” behind the Al-Bashir government in Sudan, defected the Muslim Brotherhood to found the Islamic Movement of his own, which was eventually to take the Muslim Brotherhood into its fold. Later, Turabi’s ambitions foundered when he publicly fell out with the Brotherhood in the 1980s.
Meanwhile, his high-profile colleagues such as Omar Hassan Al-Bashir, (Sudan’s President), Nafie Ali Nafie (Al-Bashir’s assistant who claimed that Morsi, during his visit to Sudan, promised to do his utmost to return Halaib to Sudan) and Ali Othman Taha in the ruling National Congress Party still swear their commitment to the core message of the Muslim Brotherhood, i.e., a faith-based state without national frontiers. While the leading lights of National Congress are no longer part of the International Muslim Brotherhood and bore no relationship with the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood, they are still believed to be their ideological twins. It was this twining that inspired a number of Muslim Brotherhood leaders to take refuge in Sudan from Mubarak’s persecution. When the Muslim Brotherhood returned to power in Egypt in June 2011, their Sudanese patrons were jubilant to see the arc of their faith extended and bent towards the halls of power across the Arab world and a wider swath of North Africa. In fact, they had their sights set on the entire continent and its conversion to their worldview. A parcel of land in such a grand scheme of things was hardly worth looking back at.

A Way Out

The national lives of Egypt and Sudan have been interwoven even after Sudan split off Egypt in 1956 to become an independent nation. Aspirations that the two can be reintegrated into “one nation and one leadership,” as Morsi articulated, are not out of place either. But such integration ought to be driven by inclusive nationalism, not exclusionary faith-based alliances. The illusion of faith-fueled supremacy has already trifurcated Sudan. How much more it can be Balkanized. Egypt rather has been a firewall against further dicing and slicing of Sudan. Also, it continues to be its economic anchor as its third largest investor whose investments run into $5.4bn.

Its planned transnational road and rail links will further speed up the cultural, political and economic integration of both nations. For its part, Sudan has Egypt’s back in the 11-nation Nile Basin. As Nilists (i.e., fellow members of the Nile Basin community), all Basin nations share the same ecology and constitute a biological region that is broadly defined by its unusually common ecological features. As such, the whole Basin is one ecological unit bound by shared surface and sub-surface resources.

From this perspective, it looks absurd to let a contested parcel of land become a matter of overblown geopolitical consideration, even if Halaib is a “gold mine” that it literally is. Yet gold, or for that matter oil and minerals are not forever. They are one-off commodities that, once extracted to the last residue, often leave behind devastated communities with busted lives and livelihoods. If the ephemeral basis of commodity economy holds true, then the real answer to geopolitical challenges is formation of the “Nile Basin nation,” bioregionalism, watershed communities, and shared ecologies to transcend conventional national and subnational rifts and ruptures. In short, the choice for all Nile Basin nations, including Egypt and Sudan, is to either become a Nilist or a nihilist!!   

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