Sun refuses to set on desert border dispute: A territorial row involving Egypt and Sudan has its foundation in the days of British rule, writes Charles Richards, Middle East Editor

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The Independent Online

IT WAS Boutros Ghali who first established the border between Egypt and Sudan that is now causing such a rumpus between the two countries.

It is a dispute in which the personalities and history evoke a whole chapter of Britain's imperial past. At that time Sudan was known as 'the Soudan', where the British government maintained the fiction that it ruled equally with the puppet government in Egypt through the Anglo- Egyptian condominium.

Ghali, the grandfather of the present United Nations Secretary- General, was Egypt's foreign minister when he put his name, together with that of Lord Cromer, to a document that first demarcated the border between Egypt and 'the Soudan'. Foreign Office functionaries do not draft their like any more.

'Whereas certain provinces in the Soudan,' went the preamble, 'which were in rebellion against the authority of His Highness the Khedive have now been reconquered by the joint military and financial efforts of Her Britannic Majesty's government and the government of His Highness the Khedive,' and so on.

The boundary chosen was simple enough: a line running west to east along the 22nd parallel through Wadi Halfa, the second cataract in the middle reaches of the Nile, which marked the natural boundary between the two domains. However, like so many boundaries drawn up by colonial fiat on the African continent, the demarcation ignored the limits of tribal homelands.

Three years later, in 1902, a new administrative line was created, which zigzagged towards the Red Sea to the point known as Halaib. The main tribe was the Becharia, sometimes called the Bishareen, a sub division of the Beja, immortalised by Rudyard Kipling in his poem Fuzzy-Wuzzy.

We've fought with many men acrost the seas,

An' some of 'em was brave an' some was not:

The Paythan an' the Zulu an' Burmese;

But the Fuzzy was the finest o' the lot.

Therein lie the seeds for the present dispute.

When Sudan became independent in 1956, the dispute over Halaib was drummed up into an issue by the rival regimes, with Nasser's brisk new nationalism asserting its claim to Halaib, and the Sudanese insisting that the 1902 administrative adjustment had in fact altered the international border.

Last December the issue came once more to a head. Egypt called for tenders for oil exploration contracts in areas offshore from Halaib. In a border skirmish in April, two Sudanese policemen were shot and killed. Egypt made an immediate apology. Threats of resorting to 'other means' to resolve the issue raised the temperature.

The disagreement was yet another symptom of the growing tension between Egypt and Sudan. The relationship has always been difficult and sensitive. The Sudanese look on Egypt with suspicion, as old slave-traders and colonialists interested in Sudan only for doormen and the water of the river Nile.

The Sudanese, who have always been overshadowed by their more powerful neighbour, have however adopted a much more assertive foreign policy. Sudan's weak military junta is much beholden to the Islamic zealots controlled by the charming and dangerous Dr Hassan al-Turabi, who openly speaks of exporting revolutionary Islam. Egypt has accused the Sudanese of arming and financing its own Muslim militants. Evidence that exists is minimal and seems largely a diversion from the country's pressing internal security problem.

Earlier this week, the undersecretary of the Sudanese Foreign Ministry, Ali Muhammad Uthman Yasin, flew to Cairo to calm the storm. Despite high-level talks with Egyptian leaders, the dispute continues to rankle.

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