Al-Bashir cannot solve Sudan’s problems by aligning himself with Doha and Ankara
Since the 1989 Sudanese coup that put Omar al-Bashir in power, the regime in Khartoum has been the antipode of the neighbouring regime in Cairo. Claims by both governments that the two Nile countries share the same fate were just words. Both countries are now levelling accusations at each other.
Cairo has reportedly dispatched military units to Eritrea, while Khartoum declared a state of emergency in the eastern governorate of Kassala on the border with Eritrea. Despite the tensions between Egypt and Sudan, claims that their relations have deteriorated to a state of war are overstated.
The fact remains, however, that the Egyptian regime cannot put any faith in a Sudanese one that is based on the doctrines of the Muslim Brotherhood. While it is true that al-Bashir and the late Hassan al-Turabi, the spiritual father of the Brotherhood in Sudan, had a major falling out, al-Bashir still managed to consolidate his power by relying on the military and the Brotherhood’s political Islam. Sudan’s wars in Darfur and southern Sudan have given him a Machiavellian edge that explains his longevity as Sudan’s strongman.
The Egyptian government, under former President Hosni Mubarak, accused al-Bashir’s regime of plotting assassination attempts on Mubarak. Al-Bashir put the blame on Turabi and sought to mend relations with Egypt.
At the same time, however, al-Bashir opened Sudan to Muslim Brotherhood members fleeing persecution in Egypt, as well as to jihadist movements in the region. Let’s not forget that Osama bin Laden found refuge in Sudan. Cairo had no choice but to consider the Sudanese regime a threat to Egypt’s national security.
Relations between the two regimes have continued to deteriorate. Khartoum accused Cairo of equipping and supporting rebels in Darfur and the south and of harbouring Sudanese opposition. Sudan has cooperated militarily with Iran and supplied weapons to Gaza behind Egypt’s back. Khartoum continues to enjoy what can only be described as an ill-intentioned relationship with Turkey.
The Hala’ib crisis has been another bad chapter in Egyptian-Sudanese relations. Egypt occupied the disputed territory in 1996 and the situation has fluctuated due to changing political moods. What is clear, however, is that through its relations with Ankara, Khartoum is provoking Cairo.
While Egypt’s presence in Hala’ib can be seen as a challenge to Khartoum, Sudan allowing Turkey to have a foothold in the country, and thus jeopardising Egypt’s regional security, is a slap in the face to Egypt. Al-Bashir, therefore, has proven to be efficient and pragmatic in protecting his regime.
Al-Bashir has also taken a pragmatic approach to Saudi Arabia. He sided with the kingdom in the Yemeni crisis, perhaps to atone for his ties to Iran and Islamist movements in the region. Saudi Arabia, in turn, did its best to have the United States lift its sanctions on Sudan and to protect al- Bashir from the International Criminal Court. Al-Bashir got what he wanted from Saudi Arabia and has moved to another feeding ground, namely Turkey.
Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s visit to Sudan in December was the first by a Turkish president since the decline of the Ottoman Empire in 1885. It reshuffled all the cards in the region. Al-Bashir knows very well that Egypt will not tolerate a Turkish presence in Sudan threatening both the Red Sea and Egypt. It is thus not far-fetched to think that the political war between Khartoum and Cairo could escalate into a military confrontation.
What is new is that the Sudanese regime is convinced that Egypt is a threat to it that must be countered. This view is held by Addis Ababa regarding the dispute over the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam and the Nile waters.
It stands to logic that Egypt would be willing to go to war with Ethiopia over what it sees as a threat to its very existence. Similar reasoning could be used to justify Egypt’s reaction to Turkey’s military presence on the island of Suakin, even though it was Sudan’s sovereign right to offer the island to Turkey.
Al-Bashir is naive to think that he can solve his country’s economic and political woes by aligning himself with Ankara and Doha. He’s forgetting that an embargo against Qatar is still in place and Egypt is part of it. He is also being strangely opportunistic by aligning himself with Russia while Washington is lifting its sanctions against Sudan.
By relying on far-away defensive partners rather than considering geographic proximity, he is being unwise and jeopardising his country’s national security.
The Sudanese regime may be justified in seeking economic advantages from relations with far-away countries but, despite Khartoum’s official declarations that there is nothing suspicious in its relations with Ankara, it will be exceptionally difficult to convince Cairo that its deal with Turkey over Suakin is not a threat to its national security.