Washington Report on Middle East Affairs, February 1993, Page 33
Egypt, Algeria and Tunisia Accuse Sudan, as Halaib Dispute Flares Up
By Michael Collins Dunn
Egypt, Algeria and Tunisia all accuse Sudan of training and arming Islamic extremists from their countries in an attempt to subvert their existing governments. The three countries also charge that Sudan is funded by Iran, and is using Iranian military assistance in the Sudanese campaign against Christian and animist rebels in the south. In the past year the tensions between Egypt and Sudan also have led to a flare-up of an old border dispute, with implied threats of possible military confrontation.
Hasan Al-Turabi's National Islamic Front, the ideological underpinning of the present military government in Khartoum, has welcomed leaders from Islamic movements from elsewhere in the Arab world and in some cases has provided them with Sudanese passports. The Sudanese government denies, however, that it has infiltrated armed and trained terrorists into other Arab states.
Egyptian, Algerian and Tunisian authorities respond that they have evidence of the infiltrations, and that some of their training at camps in Sudan was by Iranian Revolutionary Guards.
The accusations that Sudan is becoming a kind of "Fundamentalist International" headquarters have followed a year in which Algeria cancelled national elections when the Islamic Salvation Front (FIS) was on the verge of a victory; Tunisia has tried the members of the Al-Nahda Islamic group for plotting to kill President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali; and Egypt's tourism industry has been devastated by Muslim extremist attacks on tourists in Middle Egypt. In December, Algeria pulled its diplomats out of Tehran, and Egypt openly accused both Iran and Sudan of being behind the attacks on tourists.
The charges heralded counterattacks by secular governments against Islamic extremists. Egypt has sent thousands of security forces to Upper and Middle Egypt and made massive arrests in the Imbaba district of Cairo, where Islamic groups had virtually controlled whole neighborhoods and set up their own "Emirate of Imbaba."
Egypt also has raised an old border dispute over the so-called "Halaib Triangle'' on Egypt's southeastern border with Sudan. In 1899 the Anglo-Egyptian Condominium Agreement for Sudan set the border between Egypt and Sudan at the 22nd degree of latitude. However, in 1902, for administrative convenience, Britain drew a separate "administrative boundary" under which a triangle of land north of the parallel was placed under Sudanese administration because it was more easily reached from Sudan. This was an "administrative," rather than a sovereign, boundary.
In 1958 Gamal Abdel Nasser sent Egyptian troops into the disputed region but later withdrew them. Egypt protested, however, when in January 1992, Sudan granted a Canadian company oil exploration rights in the waters off the Halaib triangle. Negotiations began, and the Canadian company pulled out of the deal until sovereignty was settled.
What has made the negotiations difficult, however, is the political enmity between Egypt and Sudan. Egyptian border troops now occupy positions in the Halaib triangle, and there has been at least one clash. Egypt insists that the presence of its forces in the disputed region is natural, since it is Egyptian territory. Sudanese statements suggest that Egyptian forces also have penetrated slightly beyond the 22nd parallel, the internationally recognized boundary which Egypt claims.
Egyptian foreign policy adviser Usama Al-Baz, meanwhile, has charged that Iran also is seeking to undermine the Gulf states and Saudi Arabia. There have been reports that Saudi Arabia recently has suspended funding of some Islamic groups which it had helped in the past, on the grounds that they now are seeking to overthrow governments friendly to the Saudi Kingdom.
Countries opposed to Sudan's policies also have begun calling greater attention to the growing plight of southern Sudanese. The Sudanese government, allegedly with Iranian military supplies, has turned around the long-running war in the south with the Sudan People's Liberation Army (SPLA), routing the SPLA from many of its strongholds. Widespread famine, as bad or worse than that in Somalia, is reportedly devastating the south. SPLA supporters claim that Islamic laws are being applied to the Christian population.
Certainly the military government in Sudan, and its intellectual patron Hasan Al Turabi, are feeling international pressure as never before. The Sudanese media even have begun claiming that the U.S. operation in Somalia is somehow aimed at Sudan, as part of a plan for American and Egyptian intervention.
That is certainly unlikely, but it demonstrates that Sudan is feeling the heat from its angry neighbors.
The Egyptian crackdown on the radicals who have attacked tourists and the sweep of Imbaba show that the Egyptian government is seriously concerned about the threat of Islamic extremism, not from relatively moderate Islamic groups like the Muslim Brotherhood but from groups which reject the legitimacy of the secular state entirely.
Egypt has a long history of intervention in Sudanese affairs, seeing Sudan as its strategic depth and the source of its vital Nile waters. Egypt may therefore be tempted to use the Halaib dispute to punish Sudan for its intervention in Egyptian internal affairs. In any case, the dispute currently is about considerably more than a triangle of barren desert. It has become a symbol of the deep divisions now separating Egypt and its southern neighbor. ❑
Michael Collins Dunn is senior analyst of The International Estimate, Inc., and editor of its biweekly newsletter, The Estimate.