Showing posts with label egypt. Show all posts
Showing posts with label egypt. Show all posts

Wednesday, January 30, 2019

The Bir Tawil Trapezoid--the Geographic, the Adorable, and the Imperialistic

On the border between Egypt and Sudan there are two small areas of land that remain in dispute--the Hala'ib Triangle, and the Bir Tawil Trapezoid. Hala'ib borders the Red Sea, and both countries have been laying claim to it since the 1950s. The Bir Tawil Trapezoid, on the other hand, is a mostly desolate wasteland, and both countries, well...they don't not claim it, but they certainly don't claim it either.

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A scenic stretch of Bir Tawil
Like many of the geographic struggles in Africa, this one dates back to colonial times when both Egypt and Sudan were a part of the British Empire. In 1899, while separating the areas into two distinct administrative districts the border between Sudan and Egypt was drawn at the 22nd parallel. Unfortunately, this border seperated two nomadic tribal groups--the Ababda and the Bisharin--from large sections of their traditional homelands. The Ababda, who's traditional grazing ground includes Bir Tawil, were deemed to have more in common culturally with the Egyptians, and the Bisharin, who sometimes occupy Hala'ib, were deemed to be more Sudanese. Consequently, in 1902 the border was redrawn, and Bir Tawil was incorporated into Egypt, while Hala'ib went to the Sudanese.

Flash forward to 1956, and Sudan has finally kicked their colonial overlords to the curb. Egypt, who had show the English the door in 1922, stood by the 1899 border--straight along the 22nd parallel. This hadn't been a point of friction until Sudan gained independence, and adopted the 1902 border--allotting Bir Tawil to Egypt, and granting themselves Hala'ib.

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Bir Tawil is circled in red.
What follows has been a relatively bloodless game of North African chicken. While neither country would say no to Bir Tawil, claiming Bir Tawil would mean giving up any claim to Hala'ib, which is a much more attractive plot of land. Hala'ib not only has access to the Red Sea, but it also is rich in resources, with substantial manganese deposits. Egypt was eager to start exporting manganese, and it was the Sudanese government allowing a Canadian oil company to do exploration in the triangle that kicked this whole dispute off.

There have been no armed conflicts over the triangle, though Egyptian troops were sent into the region in 1958 after Sudan attempted to hold elections, and remain there to this day. The Sudanese withdrew their troops in 2000, and the area has been under de facto Egyptian control ever since.

All of this leaves Bir Tawil mostly unadministered. It's easy to see why neither government wants to claim the trapezoid--there's little but rocks and desert. As mentioned, the Ababda graze their animals there part of the year, but there are no permanent residents. Bir Tawil has been largely regarded as a no man's land since the 1960s.

There are, however, several individuals who have claimed Bir Tawil, and attempted to create their own sovereign nation. Most famously was Jeremiah Heaton, an American farmer who wanted to make his daughter's dream of becoming a princess a reality. In 2014 he made the treacherous journey through the Egyptian desert to Bir Tawil, and planted a homemade flag in the grounded. He renamed the area North Sudan, and declared himself king, and his daughter a princess.

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Heaton, his daughter, Emily, and their flag.
Once he returned home to Virginia he didn't relinquish his claims. He set about trying to get his territory recognized officially as a country, with the goal of establishing experimental agricultural centers that would research the most effective farming methods for the food unstable region. However, as Sealand could attest, gaining recognition for a new country is no easy feat, no matter how noble the cause.

Not only is Heaton battling with Egypt and Sudan over the area, he's also fighting against an American journalist, an Indian, two Russians, and a whole host of other people who saw Bir Tawil on a map, and decided to make their own country. Every few years another claimant pops up, but none of the claimants actually live in the area.

Which brings us to the people who actually inhabit Bir Tawil--the Ababda people. The Ababda have inhabited southern Egypt, northern Sudan, and parts of Ethiopia since at least Ptolemaic times, possibly earlier. Though they don't live in Bir Tawil year round, the area is an important part of their yearly migration. Amusing and heartwarming as it might be for random foreigners to claim this no man's land, it must be conceded that the trapezoid isn't a no-man's-land, at least not entirely. This brings into the contentious age old question about land ownership between nomadic and settled societies, and how much land nomadic cultures can lay claim to.

However, as far as international land disputes go, Bir Tawil is undoubtedly the most light hearted. No blood has been spilled over the region, there's not even a real occupying force. Sure, there's some random flags scattered over the 2,060 square kilometers in the trapezoid, but that's an eyesore that can be dealt with. Besides, it made one seven year old girl a very happy princess.

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Sources
Virginia Man's Claim on African Land is Unlikely to Pass Test
Welcome to the Land No Country Wants
Bir Tawil
A History of Bir Tawil
Bir Tawil: The Land No Country Wants
The Halayeb Triangle