Egypt and Sudan mend fences but road ahead far from smooth

Cairo and Khartoum stand at opposing sides of the ideological spectrum.
Sunday 29/07/2018
Sudanese President Omar al-Bashir (R) greets Egyptian President Abdel Fattah  al-Sisi in Khartoum, on July 19. (Egyptian Presidency)
Cautious rapprochement. Sudanese President Omar al-Bashir (R) greets Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi in Khartoum, on July 19. (Egyptian Presidency)

CAIRO - Egypt and Sudan are preparing for a new chapter of cooperation spurred by changes in the Horn of Africa and attempts by Cairo to prevent Khartoum from aligning with rival regional powers.

Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi met with Sudanese President Omar al-Bashir in Khartoum in mid-July. Sisi was already scheduled to go to Sudan in October — a trip Sisi said would still take place — but developments in the Horn of Africa may have accelerated the meeting timetable, analysts said.

“These developments include rapprochement between Ethiopia and Eritrea,” said Sudanese political analyst Abdel Moneim Abu Idriss. “This rapprochement is leaving Sudan out in the cold and makes new alliances important for Khartoum.”

Ethiopia and Eritrea are normalising relations after years of tension. The changing relations between Addis Ababa and Asmara will have major repercussions on regional alliances and relations between the two countries, analysts said.

The United Arab Emirates and Saudi Arabia, Egypt’s strongest backers in the Arab Gulf, were instrumental in the potential amity between the two states but this has left Sudan feeling left out and Cairo saw an opportunity to build bridges with its southern neighbour.

In a statement July 20, al-Bashir and Sisi welcomed potential peace between Ethiopia and Eritrea, which they said, boosted peace and stability in the Horn of Africa.

Nevertheless, Sudan, which has been supporting Ethiopia’s construction of a multibillion-dollar hydroelectric dam, feels threatened by the new Ethiopia-Eritrea alliance. The dam is expected to deprive Egypt of a significant portion of its annual share of Nile water,

This is why Khartoum appears open to stronger ties with Egypt but the road ahead is far from smooth, analysts said.

Cairo and Khartoum stand at opposing sides of the ideological spectrum, with each of them sharing a similar level of mutual suspicion.

Egypt is the Arab state where political Islam was born and stopped when Sisi’s government battled the Muslim Brotherhood, which was Egypt’s most vibrant Islamist movement before 2013.

Cairo apparently does not trust al-Bashir’s Islamist-leaning regime. Sudan was also an important refuge for Muslim Brotherhood figures escaping Sisi’s crackdown.

“Ideological differences between the two regimes are a sticky issue that might hamper the aspired mending of fences,” said Tarek Fahmi, a political science professor at Cairo University. “Both sides need to make an effort to prevent these differences from standing in the way.”

Cairo offered proof of its goodwill before Sisi went to Khartoum. On July 1, Egyptian authorities denied Sadiq al-Mahdi, the head of the Sudanese opposition National Umma Party, entry into the country.

Mahdi had been a frequent visitor to Cairo and the denial of his entry was apparently a sign of new understanding between Cairo and Khartoum, although the Egyptian government has not commented officially on the incident.

Sudanese authorities reportedly promised to reciprocate Cairo’s gesture. Reports said the Sudanese government asked some Muslim Brotherhood figures to leave.

In Khartoum, Sisi said he would return to the Sudanese capital in October as scheduled. “You will see nothing but goodwill from us,” Sisi said at a meeting with Sudanese media. “Ties between Egypt and Sudan are unparalleled anywhere in the world.”

Sisi and al-Bashir, in their statement, warned against interference by “foreign powers” in the Red Sea, highlighting the need for greater bilateral coordination and consultations. They also agreed to boost economic and trade cooperation and encourage joint investments.

Egypt and Sudan are to form a ministerial committee to oversee implementation of joint projects. The committee is to convene August 7 for the first time

Egypt wants to prevent Sudan from falling into the orbit of rival powers, especially Turkey and Qatar, with which Sudan has been intensifying contacts and cooperation for several years. Cairo accuses Doha and Ankara of destabilising Egypt by influencing countries in its immediate vicinity, including Libya and Sudan.

It is not clear what Cairo will offer Khartoum in return for slowing the pace of cooperation with Ankara and Doha but Egyptian analysts point to numerous benefits to increasing ties between Egypt and Sudan.

“Sudan will be left out of all the alliances that are being formed now and this makes it important for it to start rethinking the status of its ties with Egypt,” said Mona Omar, a former assistant Egyptian foreign minister. “Economic cooperation between the two countries can also throw a lifeline for Sudan as it struggles economically.”