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In October 2016, Egyptian President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi invited his Sudanese counterpart, Omar al-Bashir to Cairo to attend festivities marking the anniversary of the 1973 Arab–Israeli war and to bestow on him the Star of Sinai, the highest military medal in Egypt. Scenes of Bashir sitting next to Sisi in an open car inspecting the Egyptian army units were widely seen as evidence of improved relations between the two countries after years of tensions. Up to that point, things between them had been strained, dating back to the 1995 attempt on the life of then-Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak in the Ethiopian capital, Addis Ababa, which Egypt accused Sudan’s government of facilitating.
The new Egyptian–Sudanese honeymoon did not last long, however, and by early 2017 the traditional points of contention began to reemerge. Calculating that the regional balance of power had changed in its favor thanks to improved ties with both Saudi Arabia and the United States, Khartoum asked Egypt to hand over control of the long-contested Halayeb border area in April. When Egypt refused, it triggered dueling media blitzes that seemed likely to worsen diplomatic tensions.
Since then, tensions have continued to rise. Sudan has barred Egyptians from entering the country without a visa, which they had previously been able to do. It also decided to ban Egyptian fruit imports on the grounds that they were contaminated. Finally, Bashir accused Cairo of supplying arms and ammunition to South Sudan. In response, Egypt accused Sudan of harboring members of the Muslim Brotherhood. And according to a Sudanese state television report that Cairo did not deny, Egypt has also moved military units in the territorial waters adjacent to the Halayeb Triangle and sent warplanes to fly over the area.
The roots of the Halayeb Triangle dispute go back over a century. In 1899, the British Empire decided to demarcate the borders between Egypt and Sudan, both of which were under its protection. It picked the 22nd parallel as the separation line between the two administrative units, with the territory in question falling on what is now Egypt’s side. However, in 1902, the minister of interior responsible for both regions decided to give the Halayeb Triangle to the Khartoum administration for reasons related to the cultures of the tribes of that region. This decision is the basis for Sudan’s modern claims to the territory. Meanwhile, Egypt is holding on to the 1899 agreement, and dismisses the 1902 decision as a merely administrative one that never overruled the former.
The dispute over the Halayeb Triangle did not heat up until 1958, when Egyptian President Gamal Abdel Nasser decided to hold a referendum on his appointment as president of the United Arab Republic, a political union of Egypt and Syria. The electoral commission sent to hold the referendum in the Halayeb area was surprised to find another committee from Sudan already there. Out of coincidence, Sudanese parliamentary elections were taking place at the same time. Nasser deployed the Egyptian army to prevent the Sudanese elections from being held in the territory, and Sudan responded with a complaint against Egypt in the UN Security Council. Nasser, who considered himself the ultimate Arab nationalist, decided that it would be unwise to enter into a border conflict with his southern neighbor, and so both sides demurred. Sudan, for its part, has renewed the complaint every year since, but representatives of both Egypt and Sudan have traditionally asked the council to delay discussing it.
The dispute did flare up anew in 1995, when Egypt accused Sudan of being behind the assassination attempt on Mubarak. The accusation specifically alleged that Sudanese intelligence had financed and assisted the Islamic Group and its leader, Mustafa Hamza, in their effort to kill the president. In response, Mubarak deployed the Egyptian army to tighten the control of Halayeb. At the time, Sudan could do nothing but remain silent.
Geopolitically, Sudan’s position is much stronger today than it was in 1995. For one, its relations with Saudi Arabia have significantly improved. After Sisi’s refusal to involve the Egyptian army in the war in Yemen, Bashir hurried to offer Sudanese troops. His country has since become Saudi Arabia’s most important ally in Yemen. According to official estimates, there are over 6,000 Sudanese soldiers there, not including Sudanese Janjaweed, a tribal militia that went into Yemen following the withdrawal of the United Arab Emirates’ forces in April 2016. Bashir has further endeared himself to Riyadh by cutting off diplomatic relations with Iran following the January 2016 attack on the Saudi embassy in Tehran. Doing so put an end to decades of strong relations between Sudan and Iran, but Bashir has in turn gained unlimited financial and political support from Saudi Arabia.
Sudan has become Saudi Arabia’s most important ally in Yemen.
Sudan has also made notable progress in its relations with the United States, which decided last January to lift the economic and trade sanctions that had been imposed on Khartoum to encourage it to combat terrorism. The rapprochement coincided with Sudan’s distancing itself from Iran. In fact, Hezbollah directly charged that Khartoum had handed over information about its training centers in Sudan to Washington. Previously, relations between Hezbollah and Sudan had been strong. In 1999, for example, Ammar al-Moussawi, who is in charge of international relations for the group, told Reuters that “U.S. strikes on targets in Sudan and Afghanistan could prompt further attacks on U.S. interests.” The visit of the head of the Sudanese security and intelligence service, Mohamed Atta al-Mawla, to Washington in March and his meeting with CIA Director Mike Pompeo intensified the accusations that Bashir had, in fact, handed over the information.
Improved relations with the United States and Saudi Arabia, together with the Sisi regime’s weakened political and economic situation, emboldened Bashir to open the Halayeb dispute once again. Egypt already faces trouble on its western border with Libya, which is considered the main source of arms smuggled into Egypt, and its eastern border is a stronghold of Islamist militants. In contrast, up to this moment, its southern border had been relatively calm. Because of domestic political pressure, Sisi cannot retreat or even accept international arbitration to resolve the situation. When the regime was forced last year to hand over the islands of Tiran and Sanafir to Saudi control after signing a maritime demarcation agreement, it provoked a backlash that Sisi was hard-pressed to control. He would not want the same dynamic to repeat itself.
Still, Sisi has little alternative but to try to ease tensions in the Halayeb dispute to avoid further domestic unrest in Egypt. He sent his foreign minister to Sudan to meet his counterpart there, hoping to calm the situation. This meeting resulted in a joint statement calling on the media on both sides to stop their mutually hostile campaigns. Sisi also traveled to Saudi Arabia, both to mend relations with the kingdom and in service of resolving the Halayeb dispute. It is not clear whether the Egyptian leader managed to convince Riyadh of his position, but it is certain that Sisi is on dangerous ground—and his situation could worsen at any moment.