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Almost entirely unnoticed by the outside world, relations between Egypt and Sudan have deteriorated ever since Ja`far an-Numayri's military regime was overthrown in 1985. The Sudan unilaterally abrogated both the Integration Charter and the military pact, both of which had bound it to Egypt since 1974. Relations reached a new low under the Sudanese government of as-Sadiq al-Mahdi in 1988, when the Egyptian minister of defense, Muhammad `Abd al-Halim Abu Ghazala, warned Egypt's southern neighbor that the Egyptian army would strike if the free flow of the Nile waters was tampered with.1

Cairo was so annoyed with Sadiq al-Mahdi that it was the first to recognize Colonel Hasan `Umar al-Bashir when he overthrew Sudan's democratically elected government in a military coup on June 30, 1989. President Husni al-Mubarak hoped that the Bashir regime would soon resume Sudan's cordial relations with Egypt. But Bashir proved worse than his predecessor on the subject of Sudanese relations with Egypt. Indeed, his government soon became the most hostile Sudanese regime faced by Egypt ever since the Sudan became independent in 1956.

Mubarak (and many others, as well) has ascribed much of Khartoum's bellicosity to the malign influence of Dr. Hasan al-Turabi, the fundamentalist Muslim leader who heads the Sudan's National Islamic Front (NIF), and to the NIF's close relationship with Iran.2 Whether true or not, Sudan's hostility toward Egypt has expressed itself in two main ways: radicalism; and the Halayib issue, which centers on a border question. Of the former, much is known outside the region; of the latter, surprisingly little. Yet the Halayib question, though rather artificial and very obscure, nevertheless indicates well the low ebb into which Egyptian-Sudanese relations have sunk in recent years.


The Halayib problem, like many border controversies in the Middle East, goes back to the imperial past. In January 1899, when Great Britain and Egypt signed the so-called Condominium Agreement for the administration of the Sudan, Sudan's border with Egypt was drawn along the latitude of 22 north. That put Halayib and its environs on the Red Sea within Egyptian territory, thereby dividing tribes, such as the `Ababda and Bishariyin. Tribal members suddenly found themselves on both sides of a border across which they had hitherto been able to roam freely.

To allow these tribes to resume free movement across the border, the Egyptian minister of war signed an administrative arrangement on November 4, 1902, in which his government agreed to allow the Sudan to administer the Halayib triangle (hereafter, Halayib), an area consisting of some twenty-five thousand square kilometers. This agreement did not, however, imply a renouncement of Egyptian sovereignty over the region.3 Sharif at-Tuhami, a senior Sudanese ex-minister, claimed recently that the Halayib triangle came into existence in 1903, when Egypt agreed that it would be administered by Khartoum.4 But, in fact, the only official document that speaks about sovereignty pertaining to Halayib is the 1899 agreement, which left the area under Egyptian sovereignty.

So long as the Sudan was under Anglo-Egyptian control, the question of sovereignty never really arose and any potential conflict remained dormant. Cairo consistently sought the unity of the Nile Valley, hence it hardly mattered whether Halayib lay on the Egyptian or the Sudanese side of the border. However, all Egyptian maps included Halayib and its environs, north of latitude 22, within Egypt's international borders, both before and after Sudanese independence.

Matters changed after 1956, when the Sudan opted for independence, and especially once `Abdallah Khalil, the leader of the Neo-Mahdist Umma Party, became prime minister on July 5, 1956. President Gamal Abdel Nasser sent troops to occupy the region, claiming that since it lay north of latitude 22, it could not be included as a constituency in Sudan's forthcoming elections.5 But the real reason behind his move was Nasser's resentment of the Umma Party's policies and his desire to teach Khalil a lesson, for Khalil had rejected Nasser's notion of pan-Arab unity, as well as his notion of "positive neutrality." Instead, he supported the Eisenhower Doctrine and allied the Sudan with the United States. Matters deteriorated as troops massed on both sides of the border, at which point Khalil warned Nasser that he would complain to the Security Council.

Finally, Muhammad Ahmad Mahjub (Mahgoub), then Sudan's minister of foreign affairs, convinced Nasser to defuse the conflict by warning Egypt's president that the Halayib issue would unite all of Sudan against Egypt. Nasser's emotional response is yet remembered in Sudan: "Take Halayib and take Aswan, if you desire. I shall not allow Arab blood to be shed on the lands of Egypt or the Sudan, however grave the issue."6 With this flourish of rhetoric, Halayib left the stage for twenty years.

In 1978, under Numayri's military rule, the Halayib issue flared up again when Texas Eastern discovered small quantities of crude oil in the region. Sharif at-Tuhami, then Numayri's minister of energy, had granted the American company a concession in the Red Sea region, which included Halayib, and he did so without consulting Cairo. The Egyptian government warned Texas Eastern that its concession included Egyptian territory north of latitude 22, and thus it required Egyptian approval if it wanted to pursue its search in that region. A crisis was only averted by an agreement between Presidents Numayri and Anwar as-Sadat, in which they permitted Texas Eastern to pursue its search throughout the concession area on the condition that should oil be discovered north of latitude 22, Egypt would get its share. Sadat said half-jokingly: "We'll see what our Sudanese brothers will offer."7 As luck would have it, Texas Eastern discovered neither oil nor natural gas in commercial quantities, and it left the region in 1983, following the renewal of hostilities in southern Sudan. The Halayib issue again abated.


Sudan's present rulers pulled the Halayib issue out of the historical archives, so to speak, when they granted a Canadian oil company a concession to search for oil, once again without consulting Egypt. Furthermore, they stopped the Egyptian Phosphate Company from excavating magnesium in the Halayib region after seventy-five years of uninterrupted work. Finally, they ordered Egyptian citizens in the Halayib triangle to replace their Egyptian documents with Sudanese identity cards.

Faced with Egyptian protests, Bashir and his colleagues responded that since the entire, vast area of the Sudan belongs to all Arabs, who are cordially invited to live there, why quarrel about tiny Halayib? Bashir even told Mubarak that he would welcome Egyptian workers and agricultural experts to settle permanently in Sudan and cultivate its lands for the benefit of all Arabs. In February 1992, the Sudanese authorities flew an Egyptian delegation headed by Dr. Osama al-Baz, President Mubarak's advisor on foreign affairs, on a flight over the fertile Sudanese Gezira, and Egyptians were invited to cultivate it. Sudanese observers then concluded: "We offer them the whole Sudan and they insist on…Halayib," which, they said, makes no sense.8

But, according to Salah al-Muntasar, editor of a Cairene weekly, the Sudanese government was really using Halayib to arouse anti-Egyptian feelings among Sudanese. What made Halayib an issue was not the border question itself but the desire of Bashir and Turabi, Bashir's ideological mentor, to provoke Egyptian ire.9 Egyptian and Sudanese commentators agreed that neither Egyptians nor Sudanese could possibly regard Halayib as an issue worth fighting over. Sudan has problematic borders with all its African neighbors and is fighting a religious-ethnic war in its south. Hence, it can ill afford hostilities with Egypt, its strongest neighbor.

Nevertheless, matters came to a head on December 31, 1992, when the Sudanese government complained to the U.N. Security Council about Egyptian attempts to annex Halayib. It claimed that Egyptian forces penetrated a region some twenty-eight kilometers south of Halayib on December 9, cutting off the road linking Halayib to Port Sudan and virtually putting the town of Halayib under siege. Khartoum responded by taking over Egyptian institutes of learning in the Sudan. It further retaliated by fully opening the Rahad and Kafana canals, using more water than permitted in its agreement with Egypt.10

Three further developments occurred in 1993. First a minor armed conflict within Halayib broke out on May 8, 1993. Secondly, the Sudanese authorities closed down Egyptian consulates in Port Sudan and El-Obeid on June 25, 1993, to which the Egyptians retaliated by closing the Sudan's consulates in Alexandria and Port Said. Thirdly, and probably more significant, the Sudanese claimed that Cairo is carrying out a settlement policy in Halayib to establish an Egyptian majority there.

The Halayib conflict presently rests here, with neither side seemingly willing to compromise, but both willing to stop the argument before it evolves into a major conflict.


Halayib is more a symptom than a root cause of declining Egyptian-Sudanese relations; it is therefore unlikely to cause war unless more central issues intervene. These issues are two in number: Islamist subversion and water politics.

The Sudanese attempt to undermine Egypt's present regime is the most serious source of potential Egyptian-Sudanese trouble. Turabi has declared that the old reactionary order, consisting of President Mubarak and other rulers, is about to collapse, and that a new "Islamic nationality" will take its place.11 According to many sources, Sudan's fundamentalist leaders are infiltrating into Egypt, with impunity, Islamicist terrorists of Egyptian nationality trained in the Sudan with Iranian aid.

The Iran-Sudan axis has assumed ever more threatening postures since the Kuwait war. During 1992, some eight Iranian missions visited the Sudan and drew up several agreements, one of which concerned promoting the Islamic revolution in Africa under NIF guidance. This effort has taken various forms, including the smuggling of Soviet weaponry from Iran via Khartoum to General Muhammad Farah Aideed, America's arch enemy in Somalia.12

The U.S. government had reason for concern about developments in the Sudan even before it got involved in Somalia, Khartoum's fundamentalist rulers granted asylum to `Umar `Abd ar-Rahman, the sheikh accused of being the spiritual mentor of President Sadat's murderers, of inspiring the World Trade Center bombings, of planning to blow up central buildings and tunnels in New York, as well planning to assassinate President Mubarak, U.N. secretary-general Boutros Boutros-Ghali, and several American politicians. He entered the United States on a visa obtained at the U.S. embassy in Khartoum.

As for water, it is the most sensitive issue in Egyptian-Sudanese relations, for Egypt depends on the waters of the Nile River for its very survival. In fact, the recent anti-Egyptian hysteria in Sudan, which included threats of cutting Egypt's share of Nile waters, is reminiscent of the December 1924 ultimatum issued by Lord Allenby in the wake of the assassination of Sir Lee Stack by Egyptian nationalists. It also recalls the threat to bombard the High Dam in Aswan, which came from Baghdad via the NIF's anti-Egyptian demonstrators in Khartoum, during the Gulf war.

Halayib, therefore, is not a major point of conflict in itself. The Sudan's present rulers are aware of their relative weakness; they are therefore doing their utmost to play it down; Halayib rarely figures in the Sudan's state-controlled media. It is thus no wonder that it is hardly noticed by the outside world. But if the major factors threatening to push Egypt and the Sudan to arms continue to wax, Halayib will quickly become a hot spot to watch.

Gabriel Warburg is professor of modern Middle Eastern history at the University of Haifa and a former director of the Israeli Academic Center in Cairo.