Hopes for better relations in the wake of Sudan’s al-Bashir visit to Egypt

Sisi and al-Bashir agreed to take future cooperative steps over Nile water discussions.
Sunday 25/03/2018
Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi (R) walks with his Sudanese counterpart Omar al-Bashir following their meeting in Cairo, on March 19. (Egyptian Presidency)
In-step, for now. Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi (R) walks with his Sudanese counterpart Omar al-Bashir following their meeting in Cairo, on March 19. (Egyptian Presidency)

CAIRO - Egyptian-Sudanese relations were expected to improve after the countries’ leaders agreed to enhance cooperation and solve problems that have impeded progress, Sudanese Ambassador to Cairo Abdel Mahmoud Abdel Halim said.

“Khartoum has a keen desire to strengthen its ties with Cairo,” Abdel Halim said. “This is why it is open to all suggestions on achieving this goal.”

Sudanese President Omar al-Bashir visited Cairo on March 19 for talks with Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi on bilateral cooperation. The meetings came two weeks after the reinstatement of Sudan’s ambassador to Cairo following his recall to Khartoum in January.

“The visit [of the Sudanese president to Cairo] reflects the positive spirit that prevails between our two states,” Sisi said at a briefing after his meetings with al-Bashir.

He cited the importance of non-interference in the affairs of other countries and increasing cooperation. Al-Bashir acknowledged that cooperation was the only option for Sudan and Egypt. “There is a strong political will in both countries for cooperation,” al-Bashir said. “There is a need for more closeness and consultations as well.”

Al-Bashir’s visit to Cairo came one week after Egypt’s acting intelligence chief, Abbas Kamel, visited Khartoum for talks with the Sudanese leadership after weeks of increased tensions between Cairo and Khartoum.

Egypt views Sudan’s growing ties with Turkey and Qatar with unease and al-Bashir had accused Egypt’s intelligence services of supporting opposition forces in Sudan. There has also been pressure over Ethiopia’s Grand Renaissance Dam project and a renewal of tensions over the disputed border territory known as the Halayeb Triangle.

However, Halim’s return to Cairo augured improved relations between Cairo and Khartoum, analysts said.

“The administrations in the two countries are discussing problems in their relations with full transparency,” said Mohamed Orabi, a former Egyptian foreign minister. “This is enough for them to reach a settlement to these problems in a way agreeable to both of them.”

There are hopes in Egypt that improved relations with Sudan will lead Khartoum to change its position on Ethiopia’s multibillion-dollar hydroelectric dam project which Cairo says will significantly reduce Egypt’s share of Nile water.

Although Sudan has indicated it is backing the Grand Renaissance Dam and said the project would result in a net improvement, political upheaval in Ethiopia following the resignation of Prime Minister Hailemariam Desalegn could mean room for manoeuvre.

Sisi and al-Bashir agreed to take future cooperative steps over Nile water discussions, including another meeting later this year in Khartoum.

The discussions between Sisi and al-Bashir come after a January agreement to have foreign ministers and head of intelligence services meet.

“This panel is a good way for the two countries to talk directly to each other and try to find solutions to problems between them,” said Amani al-Tawil, the head of the African Studies Programme at Egyptian think-tank Ahram Centre for Political and Strategic Studies. “Both countries will gain nothing by escalating their verbal attacks against each other.”

The panel is to convene in April in Khartoum. Its most recent meeting was in early February in Cairo.

Cairo’s desire to secure stronger cooperation from Sudan was clear during al-Bashir’s visit, not just in terms of the presidential talks but also at the level of the reception he was given.

Sisi assured al-Bashir that electricity could be an area for cooperation between the two countries. Khartoum expects the Grand Renaissance Dam project to make up an energy shortfall.

Over the past three years, Egypt has moved from electricity deficit to surplus after it spent billions of dollars on the construction of electricity plants. The size of the electricity deficit Sudan suffers was evident in a nationwide outage on January 10 while al-Bashir was making a televised address.

Sisi also agreed with al-Bashir on enhancing consultations on Nile water-sharing in light of a declaration of principles both leaders signed in Khartoum in March 2015, together with Desalegn.

Sisi invited al-Bashir to a public rally at a sports stadium in Cairo where the Sudanese president was met with thunderous applause from the Egyptian crowd.

“There are many common interests between these two countries,” Orabi said. “These common interests can dwarf any differences but it will take real work on both sides to focus on these interests and push the differences aside for a while.”