On the map, Egypt’s southern border is one straight line that stretches from east to west along the 22nd parallel North. Yet a small triangle on the far end of the southeastern corner has been
the subject of conflict between Egypt and Sudan, both claiming it is part of their respective States.
Following President Mohamed Mursi’s recent visit to Sudan, statements were made by Sudanese officials claiming that the Egyptian President had agreed to cede the disputed triangle of Halayeb and Shalateen on Egypt’s southeast border to Sudan. These allegations were swiftly denied by the Egyptian presidency. Amid such contradictory statements, a video surfaced of Mohamed Mahdy Akef, the former general guide of the Muslim Brotherhood (MB), in which he gives his opinion about the issue of the Egyptian-Sudanese border.
According to Mr Akef, the MB does not see borders between Islamic and Arab States as any problem. These borders were set by colonial powers at a time when they occupied Arab and Muslim territory, and during which Arabs and Muslims were severely disadvantaged; true brothers, he said, should in no way fight over a few additional metres here or there.
Mr Akef said the border issue was contrived to induce hostilities between Egyptian and Sudanese brothers. Whether the Halayeb and Shalateen triangle is Egyptian or Sudanese soil, Mr Akef sees no problem because the MB see the future of the two Islamic countries as one nation united by religion and language and linked by the artery of the Nile.
Statements made by Essam al-Erian, vice-chair of the MB Freedom and Justice Party, rubbed more salt into the wound. He faced enormous public and political disapproval when he confirmed that it was the right of the President and in line with the Constitution to cede the Halayeb and Shalateen triangle to Sudan. In this he alluded to the Article 145 in the new Egyptian constitution, the official translation of which reads: “The President of the Republic shall represent the State in foreign relations and shall conclude treaties and ratify them after the approval of the House of Representatives and the Shura Council. Such treaties shall have the force of law after ratification and publication, according to established procedures.
Approval must be acquired from both Legislative Houses with a two-thirds majority of their members for any treaty of peace, alliance, and all treaties related to the rights of sovereignty. No treaty contrary to the provisions of the Constitution shall be approved.”
Historically, that the Halayeb and Shalateen triangle belonged to Egypt was settled in accordance with the Anglo-Egyptian condominium agreement, a treaty signed between Egypt, Sudan, and Great Britain on 19 January 1899. It was signed by Boutros Ghali, Egypt’s then Minister of Foreign Affairs, and by the British controller general in Egypt, Lord Cromer. Article 1 of the treaty sets the separating border between Egypt and Sudan on the 22nd parallel North. The treaty provided that both the Egyptian and British flags must be raised on all Sudanese territory, because at the time it was under joint Egyptian and British authority. The only regions where only the Egyptian flag was to be raised were Swaken and Wadi Halfa, because the agreement put them solely under Egyptian authority. Because these two regions fell below the 22nd parallel North and consequently further to the south than Halayeb and Shalateen, it proves that the disputed areas are beyond any doubt Egyptian territory.
During the 1930s, however, Egyptian Interior Minister Ismail Sidqi issued an administrative edict that the residents of Halayeb and Shalateen could have national ID cards issued from Sudan. The purpose was to ease the procedures of issuing these IDs because Sudanese administration centres were closer. Nevertheless, the Egyptian government continued to be responsible for flying food supplies to the region by plane.
The status quo held until 1958, when the Egyptian government sent an official memorandum to its Sudanese counterpart objecting to a new Sudanese parliamentary elections law which included Halayeb among the Sudanese constituencies. Egypt’s objection claimed Egypt’s right to the region that fell north of the 22nd parallel North but which has long been under Sudanese administrative control. This was the first time the region was officially disputed between the two nations.
The dispute escalated under Mubarak in the 1990s, when a Canadian company discovered petroleum and other minerals in the area. The Sudanese government granted the company petroleum exploration rights in the Red Sea waters off the Halayeb region. Egypt responded by dispatching a military force to the Sudanese border to protect the region, and especially the High Dam, from possible foreign aggression.
Egyptian political analysts believe it is not possible for Sudan to issue statements about sensitive matters unless negotiations have actually taken place and promises given by President Mursi. They see that the Egyptian president would have then made a grave mistake by putting back on the table items that have long been settled.
The strategic expert Major General Hussam Sweilam says that, as matters rest, it appears the MB may have no qualms about ceding the Halayeb and Shalateen triangle despite the maps and documents that prove the Egyptian border extends as far as the 22nd parallel North, which is below this area. The constitution Article 145, he says, is elastic and may be exploited to provide necessary legal backing when needed.
“Despite all that has been said about the errors of the Mubarak regime,” Sweilam says, “the former president must be given credit for protecting our borders from foreign threats. When the Sudanese president sent gunmen to seize Halayeb and Shalateen in 1992, the then president Mubarak dispatched a military force that ousted the gunmen and regained control of the region.”
No Arab borders
Major General Sweilam interprets the text of Article 145 as allowing the president to redraw the country’s borders with the approval of both houses of parliament. The real problem, however, is that the MB do not believe borders should separate Arab states, and aim to build an Islamic Emirate uniting all the Arab countries. Sudanese President Omar al-Bashir has also stated that there should be no borders between Arab countries.
The MB might also wish to relinquish Halayeb and Shalateen to Sudan, Sweilam says, in return for easing the smuggling of weapons into Egypt. He believes that ceding this strategic area in return for the normalisation of relations with Sudan and the strengthening of its Islamic regime would be a deal made at the expense of Egypt. It is quite similar to the proposal to cede 720 kms of North Sinai to Hamas in return for the same area in the Naqab desert, a deal once suggested to and vehemently rejected by Mubarak.
The statements made by the Sudanese officials but quickly denied by the Egyptians have infuriated members of the Judiciary. Professor of Constitutional Law Shawqi al-Sayed confirmed that the president did not have the power to relinquish possession of any piece of Egyptian soil, even hinting that doing so would be high treason. It would also cost him the constitutional legitimacy from which he gets his right to the presidency; any agreement that President Mursi offers to any other nation must fall within the scope of his competences.
Dr Sayed finds the negation of the presidency appropriate but needs more elaboration, especially that it is impossible for Sudanese officials to make statements about a matter if it has not been addressed during official negotiations.
So far, however, no such elaboration has been offered by any Egyptian official, and the matter remains in limbo.
19 May 2013
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