A SOVEREIGNTY dispute over a remote patch of desert scrubland along the Red Sea coast has brought Egypt's relations with neighboring Sudan to as low a level as they have ever reached.
But the uproar over the Halaib triangle, populated mainly by wandering tribesmen, is as much a symptom as a cause of the dispute between the two capitals, according to Western diplomats and political analysts here. It illustrates Cairo's mistrust of the Islamic regime in Khartoum.
"There are some real issues in Halaib, but it is also a test case when there is tension," says Tahsin Bashir, an adviser to the late Egyptian President Anwar Sadat.
The dispute "betrays a lot of things, the difference in orientation between the two regimes, mutual suspicions and doubts," adds Ali Dessouki of Cairo University.
The Egyptian government's most pressing worry is that Lt. Gen. Omar Bashir's strongly Islamic government in Khartoum is aiding the Islamic fundamentalist militants who have recently launched a series of attacks on security forces in Upper Egypt.
Youssef Waly, Egypt's deputy prime minister, accused Sudan earlier this month of sending weapons to the Egyptian Jamiat Islamiya (Islamic Groups) and training them in desert camps.
Sudanese government officials have strenuously denied the charges, and independent observers here say that although Egypt's southern border with Sudan is long, empty, and porous, there is no evidence that Khartoum is actively assisting fundamentalists.
"I am sure that there are people who cross the border who the Egyptian government doesn't like, and that they have guns," says one Western diplomat. "But I don't find the government's claims at all convincing."
Cairo's accusations, however, reveal the authorities' fear that Sudan's President Bashir, heavily influenced by the fundamentalist leader Hassan al-Turabi, is seeking to export Islamic fundamentalism throughout the region.
Khartoum strengthened its ties with Iran, and "Egypt now feels challenged by Iran not from far away but from close by," explains Muhammed al-Sayed Said, an analyst at the Al-Ahram Strategic Studies Center.
"The special relations between Iran and Sudan cause Cairo intense irritation," he adds. "The fear is of Islamic Jihad movements encircling Egypt, which could be a threat to our national security." Underlying that concern, local observers say, is Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak's personal resentment at the Islamicist direction General Bashir's government has adopted since taking power in a 1989 coup.
AGAINST the advice of several of his aides, who warned of the coup's fundamentalist underpinnings, President Mubarak initially welcomed Bashir's rise to power and became the only regional leader to support his government.
"Mubarak is bitter because he was betrayed by events that showed his assessment of the 1989 coup was totally wrong," says Mr. Sayed Said.
Far from being pro-Egyptian, the new Sudanese government took Iraq's side in the Gulf crisis, when Cairo was engineering Arab participation in the anti-Saddam coalition. And the strength of the fundamentalists within the government grew rapidly.
Mr. Turabi's influence as the eminence grise in Khartoum was already clear last December, when the Sudanese government gave an oil-prospecting concession to a Canadian company in the disputed Halaib triangle.
Egypt maintains that an 1899 treaty gives Cairo sovereignty over the region, and that it only agreed in 1902 to allow Sudan to administer the territory because most of the inhabitants were, and are, Sudanese.
One round of talks on the issue, held earlier this year, made no progress, and a planned second round has never been held, as relations have deteriorated.
After recent talks here with top Egyptian presidential adviser Osama el-Baz, a senior Sudanese official, Ali Yassin, said a new round of negotiations would be held in October. But Cairo's decision last week to take control of five mosques in the Halaib triangle, making them the property of the Ministry of Religious Endowment, is certain to further sour the atmosphere.
Ever since Sudan was known as "the Soudan" to British colonial administrators in the last century, Egypt has regarded its giant southern neighbor as its own hinterland. It was annexed to Egypt for most of the 19th century, and Egyptian president Gamal Abdel Nasser gave Sudan its independence only in 1956.
"The root cause of the difficult moments the two countries are having now is that Egypt cannot get Sudan under control," says a second, more senior Western diplomat. "Relations are bad because Turabi is not influenceable and Bashir is not dancing attendance on Mubarak."
"The Islamicists have a clear view of the world and you cannot accomodate that," argues Sayed Said. "It's a question of Egypt's security, and I think what has happened is a total break, it's final. Egypt will not accomodate this regime any more."