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Sudan - Egypt Relations

Sudan was one of the few Arab countries that backed Egypt in 1979 after Anwar as Sadat signed a separate peace agreement with Israel, and Nimeiri had taken a leading role in the early 1980s to help rehabilitate Egypt's position with the rest of the Arab world. Nimeiri was in Egypt en route home from a trip to the United States when his government was overthrown. Egyptian president Husni Mubarak granted Nimeiri political asylum and rejected Sudan's subsequent calls for his extradition. Beginning in 1986, relations gradually improved and they were relatively normal by the time the Bashir coup occurred.

Sudan has long maintained a substantial (though occasionally prickly) relationship with Egypt that was firmly founded on history and the Nile. Combined within Ottoman Egypt and the Anglo-Egyptian Condominium (and even earlier dating back to Cushite Pharaohs), Sudanese and Egyptians refer to themselves as brothers. By its very familiarity and obvious asymmetry, the bilateral relationship undergoes periodic strains. Mutual interests and personal contacts so tightly intertwine this link, however, that a rupture was all but impossible to imagine.

The Egyptian-Sudanese relationship was far deeper and more multi-faceted than many realize. Egypt's primary concern was stability on its Southern border and ensuring its water supply. Measurement of Nile waters was an important function of Egyptian embassy officials. Sudan, Egypt and Ethiopia frequently debated water allocations in bilateral sessions and in formal meetings of a Nile water commission. (Sudan reportedly used only one quarter of its allocation while Egypt used twice its allocated amount.) Islamic fundamentalist successes in Sudan that could stimulate Egypt's religious right worried the Egyptians above other political developments. There was not, however, a strong link between the NIF and Egypt's Muslim brotherhood and assorted Islamic gamaa groupings. Egyptian-Sudanese ties in general were sustained through a variety of socio-economic connections. Among them: a steady stream of Sudanese shoppers, vacationers and job-seekers travelling to Egypt (up to a million are believed to live there); an optional Egyptian school system, elementary through university, in Sudan funded by the goe; the pervasive influence of Egyptian media and popular culture in Sudan; at one time an estimated 20,000 Sudanese university students in Egypt (including 1000 Southerners on Egyptian scholarships); strong commercial and professional relationships; Egyptian development assistance, especially in agriculture; Egyptian training for police, military officers and trade unionists; and a heritage of Egyptian-Sudanese marriages (Sadat's mother was Sudanese; Ahmad al-Mirghani and Mubarak al-Mahdi's mothers were Egyptian).

Despite their close relations, Egyptians admit to being constantly confounded by their unpredictable Southern brothers. Shocked in the 1950's when Sudan on short notice and in a reversal of policy opted for independence rather than union, the Egyptians have since tried, often unsuccessfully, to guide Sudanese policies without seeming overbearing. Many Egyptians privately admit to viewing Sudanese as intellectually inferior. But they recognize the need to deal carefully with Sudanese who are hypersensitive to perceived Egyptian insults to their dignity.

By contrast, most Sudanese were cynical and dubious about Egyptian motives. Many were convinced that the Egyptians had not discarded plans to unite with and control Sudan. (Only a few Sudanese dinosaurs belonging to the old National Unionist Party still supported this once popular dream.) The building of the Aswan Dam, which forced the relocation of Northern Sudanese residents of Wadi Falfa, and the uncompleted Jongolai Canal, believed by Southerners to be an Egyptian plot to divert Nile waters for its benefit, still aroused resentment. They complained about the ubiquitous Egyptian intelligence service. In explaining their attitudes, Sudanese often drew distinctions between Sudanese and Egyptian personality and character traits. Egyptians commonly were said to be carefree, humorous, deceptive and Machievillian, and comfortable with authoritarian rule while the Sudanese described themselves as serious, introverted, honest, direct and politically libertarian.

Sudanese usually said that Egyptians evoked bittersweet feelings. Most Sudanese acknowledged that they felt comfortable with Egyptians and that Egypt was their most intimate and important neighbor. On practically any political issue - e.g. An alternative to Sharia, Libyan integration, hanging of currency violators - the first Sudanese reaction was to wonder about Egypt's reaction. Deep down, Sudanese, even most Umma Party adherents, admitted to the expectation, if not appreciation, of Egyptian guidance and protection. At the same time, reflecting the classic love/hate emotions of a subordinate toward his more powerful guardian, Sudanese enjoyed nothing better than to bait Egyptians and watch them publicly humiliated. A disputed foul in a football match in Khartoum between Sudan and Egypt almost started a riot in early 1989. Most Sudanese enthusiastically cheered for Algeria (as they would for any opponent of Egypt) in Algeria's World Cup matches with Egypt.

The result of the 30 June 1989 coup was a surprise to the Egyptians though, at the time, the Government of Egypt certainly welcomed and encouraged change more than any other government, as a result of its rocky relationship with Sadiq al-Mahdi and his Egypto-phobic Umma colleagues. General Omar highlighted the shift in policy by inviting Egyptian ambassador Sherbini for discussions soon after the coup and making Cairo his first foreign call (in contrast to Sadiq who deliberately snubbed Egypt and travelled widely before visiting Egypt.) With unapologetic declarations of support for the Government of Egypt, the RCC solicited advice of President Mubarak and Ambassador Sherbini. The blandishments and the political turnaround in the Government of Sudan posture toward Egypt had their desired effect, with the Government of Egypt sending emergency assistance and encouraging donations from its wealthier moderate Arab friends.

Mubarak and the Egyptian intelligence service (traditional leading players involving Sudan) clearly wanted to believe in General Omar. Mounting evidence of fundamentalist leanings, unpopularity, and incompetency were discounted, eventually leading in late 1989 to an Egyptian split in perceptions of Sudan between senior intelligence officials and a less sanguine Foreign Ministry. This split quickly became a hot topic of Sudanese political conversation. While bifurcated Government of Egypt views of Sudan apparently remained, Sudanese argued that by 1990 Government of Egypt discontent with events in Sudan had widened and deepened as the Government of Sudan warmed to Libya and failed to make peace with the SPLA. Most believed that the Government of Egypt had retreated significantly from its early support of the RCC and that frostier bilateral relations, and even coup plotting, reminiscent of a year ago are in the offing.

Although Sudanese shop for consumer goods in Cairo and most local merchants (including many Copts) maintained ties to Egyptian companies, Egypt was not Sudan's top trading partner in the 1990s. Official trade had been governed by special trade protocols that provided barter and special accounting mechanisms to deal with the nonconvertible currencies of the two countries. These protocols, largely illusory (trade went on regardless) with fanciful projected amounts - US$360 million in the 1989 protocol - and an overvalued Sudanese pound in relation to the Egyptian pound, broke down regularly with mutual charges of an unfair surplus and failure to live up to the accord. In 1989, the government of Sadiq al-Mahdi abrogated the protocol and resorted briefly to tight restrictions on trade and border traffic (nubians in Northern Sudan traditionally have floated between borders).

With friendlier bilateral ties after the 1989 coup, another lucrative protocol was negotiated. Key problems with the protocols were smuggling, especially of Sudanese camels bypassing Egyptian customs officials, and a complicated multiple exchange rate regime that differed according to various commodities. According to 1990 statistics, Sudan exported 26,607,000 Sudanese pounds (US$ 2,216,000 based on current commercial exchange rate) worth of goods to Egypt in the first half of 1989 - primarily sesame, watermelon seeds and camels. Camels constitute the bulk of exports. (The 1989 protocol assigned a value of US$ 120 million for camel exports; little of the camel trade flows through official channels.) During the same period, imports from Egypt totaled 113,081,000 Sudanese pounds (US$ 9,423,000), concentrated in textiles and other manufactured goods. The temporary rupture in the protocol failed to put a dent into trade patterns. Total official Egyptian trade (imports and exports) for all of 1988 amounted to 161 million pounds.

Pleading poverty and a need to appear evenhanded in Sudan's civil war, Egypt provided little military assistance, much to the Sudanese army's chagrin. A military agreement existed between Sudan and Egypt. A defense treaty signed by Nimeiri was transformed into a weak "brotherhood charter" under Sadiq al-Mahdi. Even this was repealed in 1989 at the insistence of the SPLA. After the coup however, the Government of Sudan announced that the military defense treaty had never been abrogated and thus remained in effect. The Government of Egypt, indifferent to whether a treaty existed or not, showed relatively little interest in the whole affair. Egypt's biggest influence with the Sudanese military was through its training programs, ranging from basic levels to Nasser Higher War college. Several members of the Revolutionary Command Council (RCC) received training in Egypt, which remained Sudan's center of foreign military training. Most Sudanese officers were sympathetic to Egyptians, though they chafed at the lack of material help. Small amounts of military aid in the early 1990s were nonlethal such as uniforms and parachutes. Sudanese were quick to remind the Egyptians that Sudanese brigades fought side by side with the Egyptians during all the Arab-Israeli wars.

By 1991 Sudan's relations with its most important neighbor were strained. This was partially a legacy of Cairo's close support of Nimeiri prior to 1985. Relations with Egypt deteriorated steadily after the RCC-NS came to power. The Bashir regime was convinced that Egypt supported opposition politicians, several of whom, including Mirghani, were granted political asylum; the NDA was also allowed to operate in Egypt. Mirghani and other leaders, including Nimeiri, issued regular criticisms of the government from the relative safe haven of Cairo. The RCC-NS responded by providing asylum to Egyptian Islamic activists against whom were pending various criminal charges and by encouraging NIF supporters residing in Egypt physically to assault the organization's opponents. Relations were further strained early in 1990 when the Egyptian government invited a high-ranking SPLM delegation to Cairo. Even before the Persian Gulf crisis erupted in August, Mubarak accused Sudan of stationing Iraqi missiles on its soil and aiming them at the Aswan High Dam, a charge strongly denied by the RCC-NS. Relations only worsened after Sudan refused to join the Arab coalition against Iraq. As of mid-1991, Egypt had not returned its ambassador to Khartoum and was openly providing financial support to the DUP, the SPLM, and other opposition groups.

In 1995, a failed attempt on Mubarak's life brought additional pressure on Khartoum. The three suspects fled Ethiopia to Sudan and the U.N. passed sanctions, in January 1996. After failing to extradite these individuals, the U.N. passed additional sanctions against Khartoum in April 1996 (limiting/travel for Sudanese and placing restrictions on Sudanese diplomats) and again in August of 1996. After the Mubarak assassination attempt, Bashir make some moves against terrorists.

Egypt has a keen interest in a stable Sudan -- a neighbor which straddles the Nile and has traditionally strong ties to Egypt. While Egypt's political tactics tended to give Khartoum the benefit of the doubt, Egypt made a strong effort to help ensure stability there. Egypt continues to be helpful to implementation of the 2005 Comprehensive Peace Agreement and plans to host negotiations 12-18 June 2005 between the leadership of the National Democratic Alliance (NDA) and senior Sudanese government officials.

Egypt backed up its political efforts with presence on the ground. In Darfur, by 2005 Egypt had medical teams looking after the needs of the local population and military monitors participating in the African Union (AU) mission; Egypt also dispatched over a dozen C-130 flights of humanitarian goods to Darfur and continues to work towards a peaceful settlement. Egypt was also poised to send a significant number of troops to southern Sudan, including engineers to work on infrastructure projects, under a UN umbrella. Both Egypt and the Arab League were actively looking at ways to bolster the economy of the south. SPLM leader John Garang's 2005 trip to Cairo continued a long series of engagement with both sides of the north-south conflict in Sudan.

By 2010 Egypt's top priority in Africa was the future of Sudan. The Government of Egypt would like to maintain Sudanese unity because it believes a break-up will increase refugee flows into Egypt and threaten Egypt's access to Nile waters. However, the Government of Egypt was hedging its bets by providing South Sudan with development assistance including building and staffing medical clinics, helping to clear aquatic plants from the White Nile and building power stations and a university. Egypt was the fifth-largest peace keeping contributor in the world, with the majority of its troops deployed to southern Sudan and Darfur.

The presidents of Egypt and Sudan agreed 19 October 2014 to support the Libyan military in its fight against armed militias in the country following two-days of talks in Cairo. Egypt's Abdel Fattah El-Sisi and his Sudanese counterpart Omar al-Bashir agreed to co-ordinate efforts to achieve stability in Libya through supporting state institutions, in particular the army. The chaos in Libya is one of Egypt's main foreign policy concerns, following cross-border attacks by fighters who control parts of the country's east, including oil-rich Benghazi. Libya's new government accused Sudan of arming "terrorist groups" operating on its soil, a charge Khartoum denied.

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