Egypt-Sudan reach agreement on border security, questions remain
CAIRO - Egyptian officials said they hope an agreement with Sudan on joint patrols along the Egypt-Sudan border could end rampant arms smuggling and human trafficking in the region.
“The border area has become a hot spot for the smuggling of arms and people into Egypt,” said retired Egyptian Army general and military expert Nasr Salem. “Most of the weapons smuggled into Egypt from the area end up in the hands of terrorists fighting the Egyptian Army in Sinai.”
Egypt has been battling the Islamic State (ISIS) in Sinai for more than seven years. Cairo began an all-out effort this year to combat terrorism in the country.
Arms smuggling along the Egypt-Sudan border increased following the downfall of the Muammar Qaddafi regime in Libya in 2011. Much of Qaddafi’s arms stockpiles fell into the hands of armed groups, with the lawless border area between Egypt, Sudan and Libya used as a key smuggling route.
Arms smuggled into Egypt included machine guns, explosives and grenades. Some media reports, quoting Egyptian Army sources, claim sophisticated anti-tank and anti-aircraft rockets were also among the smuggled weaponry.
In January 2014, militants shot down an Egyptian Army helicopter, using a surface-to-air missile, killing all five crew members on board. That attack demonstrated that militants had man-portable air defence systems that could potentially target civilian planes at low altitudes.
In July 2015, ISIS Sinai attacked an Egyptian naval vessel off the coast of Sinai, using a guided missile.
In December 2017, a helicopter carrying then Defence Minister Sedki Sobhi and former Interior Minister Magdy Abdel Ghaffar was attacked with a surface-to-surface missile minutes after it landed at a military airport in El Arish in North Sinai. Neither official was injured but an army officer was killed.
Such attacks and others are among the reasons Egyptian military planners have sought to convince Khartoum to play a more active role in monitoring and patrolling the border.
Egyptian Defence Minister Mohamed Ahmed Zaki visited Khartoum in November for talks with Sudanese Defence Minister Awad Ibn Ouf. They agreed to joint patrols, Chief of Staff of the Sudanese Armed Forces Kamal Abdul Maarouf said.
“It was agreed to establish joint military patrols between the two countries’ borders, establish mechanisms to control the border and establish future joint forces on the border to combat terrorism, cross-border crimes, control the border and combat all manifestations of evasions,” Maarouf said.
Zaki’s visit to Khartoum was one month after Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi visited the Sudanese capital and met with Sudanese President Omar al-Bashir.
Relations between Cairo and Khartoum have improved in the past year despite tensions over a Nile dam Ethiopia is building and which Sudan is backing. Analysts said mutual security concerns were among the main reasons behind the easing of tensions.
“Cooperation between the two countries in the fight against smuggling in the border area will reflect very positively on the security situation in both of them,” said Mohamed al-Ghabari, a retired Egyptian Army general. “Egypt’s counterterrorism efforts will mean nothing if arms smuggling through the border with Sudan does not come to an end.”
Ending smuggling along the 1,200km border with Sudan will take more than just the expression of will by both sides, analysts said.
Egypt has taken the lead in policing its border with Libya in the absence of a stable government in that country but still faces major difficulties in preventing smuggling through the Western Desert.
“This is why Egypt is badly in need of cooperation from Sudan,” Salem said.
It is not clear how far the Egypt-Sudan cooperation will extend, particularly considering the years-long border dispute between Cairo and Khartoum over the Halayeb and Shalateen border territory. Sudan accuses Egypt of occupying the territory and renewed a complaint to the United Nations this year over the issue.
“This will be a sticky issue and one that could torpedo any understanding between the two states as far as border security is concerned,” said Sudanese political analyst Mohamed Latif. “This is why the two countries need to address this issue today.”