Khartoum, Asharq Al-Awsat—With instability on its borders and simmering domestic conflicts, Sudan was one of the Arab world’s biggest hotspots before the wave of revolutions that swept across the Middle East in 2011. Today, Khartoum faces numerous additional problems on the foreign policy front, including violence and chaos in neighboring Libya, the possibility of renewed violence in South Sudan, and international condemnation over the prosecution of Mariam Yahia Ibrahim Ishag for apostasy and adultery.
Asharq Al-Awsat spoke to Sudan’s foreign minister, Ali Karti, about Khatoum’s attempts to cope with the instability in Libya, South Sudan, and elsewhere, and the renewed international attention the country has received.
Asharq Al-Awsat: Some observers say that links between Sudan and Qatar have become more visible recently, and that this is an example of the formation of new alliances in the wake of the wave of revolutions in the Arab world. What are your thoughts on that?
Ali Karti: Sudan and Qatar enjoy a longstanding relationship which is reflected in [Qatar’s] political support for Sudan’s issues in all forums, especially at the [UN] Security Council, when Qatar was a member two years ago. Doha also supports major projects in Sudan, and invests in many large-scale projects in agriculture, mining and the construction of electricity power lines. We were visited by the Qatari foreign minister before the Eid Al-Fitr holidays to discuss these projects, but I do not want to categorize these visits between Khartoum and Doha as part of a “political axis” because the relationship has not changed, and our relationships with a number of Arab states are appreciated and respected. Therefore we continue to support joint economic and brotherly interests, and Arab issues in general, and they must not be seen as being at the expense of any Arab state, even one which did not have good relations with us.
Q: Is there a possibility of using Sudan’s relationship with Qatar to resolve some of the differences between the Gulf states?
Let me assure you that whenever Sudan participates in any event and at any level, these issues are always discussed with the parties concerned. We emphasize the importance of resolving matters despite the difficulties these efforts face. It is worth noting that the emir of Kuwait makes great efforts to achieve reconciliation and Sudan has had meetings with the emir in support of these efforts.
Q: Does that mean that President Omar Al-Bashir discussed an initiative to resolve these differences during his meeting with the emir of Qatar, Sheikh Tamim Bin Hamad?
The visit by President Omar Al-Bashir came in response to an invitation from the emir of Qatar, and it was an important meeting in which the two leaders discussed joint interests. Naturally, they also discussed the [wider] Arab and Gulf situation, and [this] also included a discussion on resolving the differences between Qatar and the neighboring Gulf states, in support of the efforts of the Kuwaiti emir.
Q: Is there any dialogue in relation to resolving the recent cooling in Sudan’s relations with Saudi Arabia?
Certainly, there is continued dialogue between the officials of both countries whenever there is an opportunity to meet with Saudis, and the results will be announced at the right time. I think that it is necessary to be patient in order to reach a solution which is acceptable to both sides. We are hurt to see differences between one Arab state and another, as well as Arab states and Iran, but we try to remain neutral, and whenever we can we bring parties together. We all need each other to confront Israeli arrogance and the double standards of the West, especially the United States.
Q: An urgent meeting was held recently between Egyptian President Abdel-Fattah El-Sisi and President Omar Al-Bashir. What was discussed during this brief meeting?
I think that the visit itself sends a message concerning a number of issues, including the strengthening of relations between the two countries, which is a Sudanese–Egyptian wish that was shown by the timing of the visit, only a few days after the Egyptian president took his presidential oath. The two leaders discussed a number of issues including the construction of roads between the two countries. They also discussed ways to improve economic relations and trade links, as well as discussing events in the Arab world, especially Libya. The leaders also discussed African issues and the issue of the Nile Basin, where it was agreed that the interests of all the basin states should be considered, to ensure all states benefit from the Nile [waters]. As for the disputed areas between Sudan and Egypt including Halayeb, the two leaders agreed that they should be discussed in a brotherly manner.
Q: Did you notice anything new during the meeting concerning the Egyptian president’s stand on the Ethiopian Renaissance Dam issue?
For the first time, I saw a new Egyptian stance on the Renaissance Dam, and I personally heard different views before. For the first time, we heard a senior Egyptian official say they are interested in the concerns of others. Of course the interests of the Egyptian people come first, but the issue is different after the meeting with the Ethiopian prime minister, [during] which [it was] promised that the Renaissance Dam conflict was on the way to being resolved after Egypt agreed to return to the trilateral approach to resolve the issue. It is a move worthy of respect and was discussed by Sisi with Bashir during the meeting.
Q: What is the truth behind the call by Libyan military commander Khalifa Haftar for the Justice and Equality Movement (JEM) to fight alongside him in Libya, and what are the consequences of such action for Sudan?
The situation in Libya is difficult to judge, and some people may think Sudan is against Libya. There are parties who want to make Libya a base for anti-Sudan movements but I think Haftar realizes this, and I don’t expect him to [pursue this] as he faces internal problems. I call on him to focus on internal Libyan issues and leave Sudan, the JEM, and other rebel groups alone, and Sudan will not interfere in Libya in return. If he did say what has been reported, then I call on him to consider Sudan’s stance in support of the Libyan people. There are many things that Sudan could do to bring the Libyan people together and we hope to find a way to a peaceful solution.
Q: What of the allegations that there is a relationship between Khartoum and South Sudan opposition leader Riek Machar?
There is no relationship whatsoever between the Sudanese government and Riek Machar. We are eager to keep normal relations as we are not hostile towards Machar. The government of South Sudan is, and that is their business. The two sides will reach agreement soon, so why would we be hostile to anyone, whether it is [President] Salva Kiir or Machar? They are part of the South Sudan tribal and political reality and we don’t differentiate between them. Our issue will always be the adherence of South Sudan in implementing the eight agreements between us, whether with Kiir or anyone else. We will deal with a government on the ground whatever the problems, as it is the government that is responsible for the implementation of the agreements.
Q: Do you think Juba will keep to the agreements it has reached with Khartoum?
I will not say there is a deliberate intention [to break them], but I think there are some arguments in the South between those who want normal relations with Sudan and others who follow the old militant views. These were supported by organizations, groups and Western politicians who worked on the continuation of the same policy, which was to tear Sudan apart. They only accepted the referendum begrudgingly as a prelude to their plans, and when they ensured the separation of South Sudan, they started to work on the disruption of agreements signed with the South, especially those which improved relations between the two countries, because this would destroy their conspiracy. Else, how could any sane person believe that the opening of the borders between the two countries was a problem to South Sudan?
Q: Do you think that President Salva Kiir does not have the sufficient will to deal with this problem?
I did not say that, but this means that there is a battle of wills in the South which leads to confusion. I think President Kiir represents the side which wants to implement these commitments, but unfortunately, obstacles remain to the implementation of the eight agreements, through attempts from the outside to create divisions and doubts in the relations between the two countries, such as the reports published in Western media alleging that Sudan was fighting alongside Machar, but they are futile. They know the two sides of the conflict represent a [domestic] South Sudanese issue, and we as a government recognize an elected government [in South Sudan], just as other states in the region do, and we lead initiatives to resolve the issues. However, if we took a decision to side with one of the parties, it will be obvious that we have done so, as is the case with the Ugandan forces who entered South Sudan and joined the fighting. Sudan, however, does not blatantly intervene in this manner, which was seen in the involvement of the JEM in fighting alongside Salva Kiir.
Q: In your opinion, what drives the JEM to fight for Salva Kiir against Machar?
The JEM was in Libya and has learned from its experiences there until the revolution started against Gaddafi. It stood against change to help those who helped it and gave it the arms to fight Sudan. When it was pressured, it escaped directly to South Sudan to avoid being pursued on the Libyan border, where it found refuge and support from its old friends in the Popular Movement who represented this view and supported rebel movements against Sudan. When the war started, it was natural to fight for those who provided it with support and shelter.
Q: What are the facts surrounding the departure of Christian detainee Mariam Yahia Ibrahim Ishag from Sudan, and why did she go to Italy specifically?
The woman in question, Mariam Yahia Ibrahim Ishag, wanted to travel abroad before, but at the time, the judicial procedures were not completed. As soon as they were, she was released and allowed to leave. She took out a passport under her original name and left for Italy, which she wanted to do herself, without pressure from anyone. Her choice of Italy was due to the request by the Italians following a direct agreement between them and the Americans, as she had spent the time of her appeal at the US embassy in Khartoum.
Q: If she decided to return to Sudan, will the government grant her a visa as a Christian citizen?
If she uses her Sudanese passport with the same Sudanese name she used on departure, she is welcome as a Christian citizen, because Sudan is a haven for religious coexistence. However, if she decided to come back using another passport, the government has the right to grant or reject her visa application, noting that she always had the right to stay in her country as an ordinary citizen if she wanted to do so.
Q: You previously said that sentencing her to death damaged Sudan and that was described as political compromise . . .
The question of political compromise in this issue was not on the table at all, and as for the damage to Sudan, it stems from the fact that the issue was primarily judicial, and the sentence was a judicial [matter] too. At the time, the issue was at the stage of sentence appeal, so, it was difficult to interfere, because the legal options were broader than the options which were considered in the initial sentencing, which could have helped explain the issue of religious coexistence which Sudan was known for.
Q: But it seemed to others that you were looking for another sentence?
I was not looking for another sentence or option, but I said at the time that there could be other speedier options, and this is fixed in the Shari’a, as there are also options in [Islamic] jurisprudence and fixed rulings in Shari’a, and therefore, the issue could have been different. And in any case, the sentence is valued and respected, and after it was appealed and a new sentence was issued, it was also valued, as we respect our judiciary and judicial institutions.
This is an abridged version of an interview originally conducted in Arabic.