Amid simmering regional tensions, Egypt opts for containment with Sudan instead of confrontation

Despite political issues, Egypt is hoping to increase economic ties with Sudan.
Sunday 04/02/2018
Egypt’s President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi listens at the opening ceremony of the African Union summit in Addis Ababa, on January 28.  (AP)
Conciliatory tone. Egypt’s President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi listens at the opening ceremony of the African Union summit in Addis Ababa, on January 28. (AP)

CAIRO - Egypt has adopted a conciliatory tone towards Sudan as Cairo seeks to deal with several foreign policy challenges, particularly Ethiopia’s construction of a multibillion-dollar dam.

A summit between the leaders of Egypt, Sudan and Ethiopia on January 29 in Addis Ababa resulted in an agreement to resolve outstanding issues related to the dam within one month.

“Egypt’s interests are one with Ethiopia’s and also one with Sudan’s. We are speaking as one voice,” Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi said.

There had been fears that increasing tensions between Cairo and Khartoum would lead Sudan to throw its support behind Ethiopia, side-lining Egypt in the negotiations.

In addition to disputes over the Grand Renaissance Dam, reasons for tensions between Cairo and Khartoum include the disputed Halayeb Triangle territory, as well as accusations from Sudan that Egypt was backing Eritrea amid increasing Sudanese-Eritrean tensions.

“Egypt stands to benefit nothing by antagonising Sudan and allowing the deterioration in relations to reach dangerous levels,” said Hani Raslan, a researcher who specialises in the Nile Basin at Egypt’s Al-Ahram Centre for Political and Strategic Studies. “Antagonising Khartoum carries many risks that Egypt is in no need of running.”

On January 15, Sisi had sought to reassure observers that Egypt would not go to war with Sudan.

“I assure our brothers in Sudan that we will never conspire against them,” Sisi said. He called on the Egyptian media, which had been publishing various anti-Sudanese editorials, to calm down.

“Bad relations between Cairo and Khartoum meant that Sudan focused solely on its own interests in trilateral negotiations over the dam,” said water and irrigation expert Nour Ahmed Abdel Monem. “I think this will not be the case if the relations are better.”

Egyptian-Turkish relations have also strongly deteriorated in recent years, with Cairo accusing Ankara of backing the outlawed Muslim Brotherhood.

During a visit to Khartoum in December, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan signed economic cooperation deals with Khartoum. Sudanese President Omar al-Bashir also agreed to give Turkey administrative control over the Red Sea island of Suakin, which set off alarms in Cairo.

Ankara said it intends to rebuild Suakin, which was historically a major port but fell into disuse over the past century. Turkey plans to construct a naval dock to maintain civilian and military vessels on the Nile.

Egypt is acutely sensitive towards any new construction or potential restrictions over the flow of the Nile, given the country’s reliance on trade via the Suez Canal.

“Egypt cannot allow anybody to be in control of this area,” Raslan said.

Egypt entered a Saudi Arabia-led coalition fighting Houthi insurgents in Yemen with an eye towards Red Sea security, focusing particularly on naval support and operations off Yemen’s Red Sea coast.

Following the Addis Ababa meeting, negotiations resumed among Egypt, Sudan and Ethiopia, with the main sticking point being the timeframe for filling the dam. Ethiopia wants to fill the dam’s reservoir in three years but Egypt says this will have a huge negative effect on its water share.

Sudan views the project as an economic boon, making plans to buy electricity from Ethiopia when the dam is complete.

Despite political issues, Egypt is hoping to increase economic ties with Sudan, particularly after the October 2017 lifting of US economic and trade sanctions on the country, with many expecting a middle-to-long-term boost in Sudan’s economy.

“Apart from being an important market in close proximity to Egypt, Sudan is also Egypt’s gateway into Africa,” said Salah al-Guindy, an economics professor at Mansoura University. “Egypt cannot have an economic presence in African markets without help from Sudan.”

Trade between Egypt and Sudan stands at less than $1 billion a year.

“Governments usually think twice before they act in ways or go into alliances that cause harm to countries with which they have strong economic ties,” Guindy said. “When relations between Egypt and Sudan are based on mutual interests, both countries will be very keen on protecting these relations.”