The expulsion of two Sudanese journalists from Egypt, at the beginning of this week, has further heightened the diplomatic and political tensions that have reached an almost uncontrollable frenzy in the past two months.
Al-Tahir Satti, a columnist at Al-Intibah daily newspaper was deported after being told his name appeared on a “no entry” blacklist held by Egyptian intelligence. Similarly, Iman Kamaladeen, a journalist with the Al-Sudani daily paper was kicked out less than 24 hours later.
It is unclear what prompted the Egyptian action, particularly as the events came just days after the countries’ foreign ministers met in Khartoum for political consultations in the hope of finding common ground to resolve outstanding issues between the two sides. It is clear, however, that the public disagreements between the two and the tit-for-tat acts of reprisals touches on deeply-held, conflicting assumptions that the Sudanese and Egyptians have about each other.
Although, the main issues of contention can easily be identified, the hidden depth of feeling is not always apparent, and historical grievances based on ‘misunderstandings’ appear to be coming to the surface. At the centre of the controversy lies the disputed sovereignty of the Halayeb Triangle, Sudan’s support for Ethiopia’s so-called Renaissance Dam which threatens Egypt’s water supply from the Nile River and Egypt’s support for armed groups fighting the Sudanese government.
Speaking to MEMO about the recent incident, the journalist at the centre of the controversy, Al Tahir Satti, explained that prior to travelling to Egypt, he had no idea he might be prevented from entering. Back in Khartoum, he had followed closely the diplomatic exchanges between Egypt and Sudan and had written columns in his paper defending Sudan’s sovereignty over the Halayeb Triangle, referring to the presence of Egypt as an “occupying force.”
But on arrival at Cairo International airport, he soon realised there was a problem.
“My first inkling that something was wrong is when I gave my passport to an officer from Egypt’s internal security,” Satti said.
He disappeared for a while, which is when I began to get concerned. I rang my contacts including the Sudanese Embassy in Cairo. The officer returned to escort me to a building deep in the heart of the airport where the words ‘Security Prison’ were written above the entrance. I had no idea what was going on.
Despite the diplomatic veneer of mutual respect which ended the meeting between the ministers in Khartoum, it was clear that both Sudan and Egypt were engaged, behind the scenes, in actions and manoeuvres that almost completely contradicted the diplomatic show of unity and the call for an easing of tensions.
Cairo had drawn up secret plans to prevent “undesirables” like Sudanese journalists who they alleged threatened Egypt’s national security. For its part, Sudan continue to prepare submissions to the United Nations which included the disputed territory firmly within its borders to shore up its case to eject the Egyptian army from the Halayeb territory.
At this stage, neither side appear to want to back down from a series of “media wars” reflecting long standing animosities that, despite the diplomatic posturing, continue to surface and is firmly rooted in the fundamentally different interpretations that the two sides have of Sudanese-Egyptian history.
Pharaohs and colonisers
The Egyptian view is Sudan was once under its control, citing such evidence as Egypt’s pre-republican, deposed monarch’s official title: King Farooq of Egypt and Sudan. The other supporting claim is the view that before the colonisation by the British, there were no identifiable boundaries dividing the two countries. Egypt ran from Alexandria in the north down to the Ethiopian border in the south, according to various Egyptian commentators.
Sudan’s view, however, is entirely different. It claims the attachment to Egypt was solely due to the presence of the British who ruled over the territories as a unified territory. The Sudanese say Sudan was never ruled by the Egyptians.
These fundamental differences have become the backdrop of the constant ridicule that Sudan says it has been subjected to, in particular, over the past few months. Inflammatory Egyptian television presenter, Tawfiq Okasha, among others, is contemptuous, to say the least, of Sudan’s claims of territorial sovereignty over Halayeb.
“There is no such place called Sudan…Khartoum is nothing but one of the federal states of Egypt. Anyone who claims Halayeb and Shalateen belongs to Sudan has gone senile,” Okasha mocked.
Other Egyptian commentators reacted angrily at the notion that the Sudanese civilisation was older than Egypt’s and the intervention of Sudan’s information minister, Ahmed Bilal Osman, was greeted with further ridicule by Egyptians who devoted considerable airtime to challenging and putting down Sudanese claims that its civilisation predates Egypt.
“Look at these [Sudanese] pyramids. They look like cheese triangle,” commented an Egyptian in a video posted on YouTube.
Toxic media wars
Satti, who returned to Sudan via Addis Ababa after the intervention of the Sudanese Ambassador to Egypt, told MEMO that he believed the Egyptians themselves were fed up with the poor quality of the country’s media.
“After the [Al-Sisi coup of] 2013, the Egyptian media has become a complete laughing stock prone to insulting countries, not just Sudan,” Satti said.
They [the Egyptian media] have damaged relationships with Qatar, Saudi Arabia, the Emirates and African nations like Ethiopia; there are totally irresponsible. They have no manners or professionalism to speak about issues between countries without insulting, mimicking or hurling abuse.
At last week’s ministerial meeting, Khartoum and Cairo agreed not to help each other’s opposition groups and called for an easing of tensions and an end to the hostile media campaigns. But the events of the last few days have not gone down well in Sudan and have led to calls for a reciprocal policy of exclusion to be imposed against certain Egyptian journalists.
Political and social commentator Yasir Abdullah Ali told MEMO, “There is a growing distrust towards the Egyptians because publicly they appear to be saying one thing, but privately they’re doing quite the opposite.”
Ali continued: “There’s a feeling that the Egyptian media represent the true position of the Egyptian government because the media is heavily controlled by the state and the government do not appear to be doing anything to stop the disparaging insults,” he said.
Egyptian commentators have also express distrust towards the Sudanese and questioned the motivation of President Omar Al-Bashir’s government.
Journalist Magdi Shendi, editor of Al Mashad weekly, told Al Jazeera Mubasher that the onus for resolving the diplomatic problems rested with Sudan who he said was taking advantage of Egypt’s disagreement with Saudi Arabia.
“Sudan must stop playing politics with this issue. Halayeb only becomes an issue when the ruling party is trying to deflect local problems inside Sudan,” he said.
However, the overriding feeling in Sudan about the current Sudanese-Egyptian relations is the belief that Egypt wishes to turn back the hands of time.
Satti told MEMO: “Egypt continues to place pressure on Sudan to weaken its position and considers that Sudan cannot make its own decisions as an independent country. It is well known, we Sudanese believe, rightly or wrongly, that Egypt would love to return Sudan back to the days of colonialism and take back control!”