Cairo’s change of attitude towards the Sudanese opposition

Khartoum is proud of having brushed off some of the political dust surrounding Cairo’s relations with the Sudanese opposition.
Sunday 15/07/2018
Egyptian Foreign Minister Sameh Shoukry on his way to attend a meeting with his Sudanese counterpart in Khartoum, last August. (AFP)
New road. Egyptian Foreign Minister Sameh Shoukry on his way to attend a meeting with his Sudanese counterpart in Khartoum, last August. (AFP)

The Sudanese regime has doggedly asked Egyptian authorities to restrict the activities of the Sudanese opposition in Egypt but Cairo had always found excuses for not doing so by invoking the historical ties and peaceful borders with Sudan. Khartoum was not convinced and remained bitter about it, which might explain why it offered a haven to members of the Muslim Brotherhood wanted by courts in Cairo.

Cairo’s hesitancy is probably on its way out because Egyptian authorities have recently refused to receive Sadiq al-Mahdi, leader of the National Umma Party and head of the new opposition “Sudan Call” Coalition. It represented a significant turn of events, long-awaited by Khartoum.

It was even more significant because Khartoum has made significant inroads regarding the Sudanese opposition with Chad and Ethiopia and is working to achieve similar goals with Eritrea and South Sudan. It looks like the proxy wars between Sudan and its neighbours through the opposition have outlived their usefulness.

Khartoum was pleased with Cairo’s snubbing of Mahdi. It was even more pleased when Cairo instructed Egyptian embassies worldwide to deal only with the government in Khartoum or its representatives.

Cairo took these steps after Khartoum told members of the Muslim Brotherhood in its borders to refrain from political action. Mindful of the balance of power in Sudan and the region, the Sudanese regime had taken measures to reduce the presence of Islamist movements in government and the ruling party.

Cairo has always wished for cordial relations with Sudan and given at least the impression of some sort of common grounds in both countries’ positions regarding issues such as Ethiopia’s Grand Renaissance Dam and their border dispute in Halayeb and Shalateen. By reversing its policy regarding the Sudanese opposition, Cairo was hoping to encourage Khartoum to deliver Brotherhood members suspected of being involved in terrorist attacks in Egypt.

Until now, the Sudanese regime had removed all Islamist movements in Sudan from sight — politically and in terms of security. The move was part of internal politics to pave the way for a new presidential term by Sudanese President Omar al-Bashir.

Khartoum did not go as far as asking Cairo to deliver Sudanese opposition leaders. Restricting their movements and their actions was enough. Most of them, including Mahdi, were free to enter and exit Sudan and leaders of the armed opposition stopped going to Egypt some time ago.

The Egyptian measures pleased Khartoum because they symbolise Sudan’s success in closing all outlets for the opposition to express itself. A silent opposition is a non-existing opposition.

Egypt has often been a refuge for the Sudanese opposition. Some leaders have been there for 30 years, since the days when the Sudanese Tajammu’ Party was stationed in Cairo. Following an assassination attempt in 1995 in Addis Ababa on former Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak, Egypt accused Sudan of sponsoring the attempt and allowed the Sudanese opposition much leeway in Egypt.

During those days, it was easy to meet in Cairo with Mahdi, Mohamed Osman al-Mirghani, Mubarak al-Fadil al-Mahdi, Farouq Abou Issa and many other opposition figures. Today, those people are gone or no longer available, either because they switched allegiances or because Cairo wants to please Khartoum.

Khartoum is proud of having brushed off some of the political dust surrounding Cairo’s relations with the Sudanese opposition and scored a moral victory over the opposition and even over Cairo itself. Cairo had hesitated to take such a step because it had thought that the opposition card might come in handy. Besides, Khartoum had always wanted to be treated by Egypt as an equal.

Observers of Egyptian-Sudanese relations can tell that Egypt is trying to please Sudan as if Cairo wants to appease the ghosts of some historical fears and misgivings. Egyptian authorities gave clear instructions to be very civil with the Sudanese residents in Egypt and forbade the official media from criticising the Sudanese regime.

What is aimed at with this good-neighbour attention is to give the Sudanese regime no excuse for reneging on its commitments to Egypt. Cairo wants to hamper any development in Sudan’s relations with Qatar and Turkey. A deeper reading of the developments in Cairo’s attitude towards the Sudanese opposition in Egypt indicates that Cairo expects Khartoum to deliver Egyptian Islamist leaders allegedly involved in terrorist activities in Egypt and who live in Sudan under “official” fake identities.

Egyptian authorities might not be dreaming. Two factors argue in favour of the success of their endeavour. First, al-Bashir is beginning to find those Egyptian guests burdensome. He is irked by some Sudanese Islamist leaders who want to reduce Sudan’s relations with Egypt to just being a thorn in Egypt’s flank. Second, al-Bashir had previously handed over wanted figures as part of political deals. He booted al-Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden out of Sudan to please the Americans and handed over Ilich Ramirez Sanchez, also known as Carlos the Jackal, to the French.

Egypt has had an open attitude about harbouring opposition figures from all over the Arab world. It welcomed them and, rather than use them as a bargaining chip, Cairo usually mediated between them and their regimes. However, Cairo’s change of attitude towards the Sudanese opposition sends a warning to opposition figures from other Arab countries: “Caution. Position may change to suit Egypt’s political interests.”