Tensions rise between Cairo and Khartoum as Sudan recalls ambassador

There are increasing apprehensions in Cairo towards Sudan’s actions, particularly reports that it has offered refuge to thousands of members of the Muslim Brotherhood.
January 15, 2018
Increasing apprehension. Egyptian Foreign Minister Sameh Shoukry on his way to attend a meeting in Khartoum, last year. (AFP)
Increasing apprehension. Egyptian Foreign Minister Sameh Shoukry on his way to attend a meeting in Khartoum, last year. (AFP)

CAIRO - A worsening economic crisis at home, strengthening ties with Qatar and Turkey and Egypt’s reported attempts to sideline Sudan in talks with Ethiopia over Nile water stand behind Khartoum’s political escalation with Egypt, analysts said.

“Khartoum only wants to deflect attention from the problems it has at home,” said Mohamed el-Shazly, Egypt’s former ambassador in Sudan. “The Sudanese regime thinks picking trouble with Cairo now will be a good way out of the tough economic problems Sudan suffers.”

Sudan recalled its ambassador in Cairo for consultations on January 4. The ambassador’s recall followed a media campaign in Egypt against a visit Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan paid to Sudan. During the trip, Erdogan and Sudanese President Omar al-Bashir discussed cooperation and signed several deals.

Sudan agreed to give Turkey administrative control over the Red Sea island of Suakin, a measure viewed with suspicion in Egypt, which is concerned about the security of the Red Sea and the Suez Canal considering deterioration in its relations with Erdogan’s Islamist-leaning administration.

Egyptian Foreign Minister Sameh Shoukry on January 7 said the ambassador’s recall was related to a disputed border territory between Egypt and Sudan. On January 8, Sudan renewed a complaint at the UN Security Council against what it described as Egypt’s “occupation” of the border triangle of Halayeb, which Khartoum claims.

Khartoum has been renewing the complaint since 1958 and wants Egypt to agree to international arbitration on the issue. There has been no movement on this issue, with analysts viewing the recent escalation as directly related to recent developments in Sudan, particularly recent protests over economic issues.

“The tough economic crisis is one of these new realities,” Shazly said. “Sudanese citizens are out on the streets and nobody knows where the current public anger at the economic failure of the Sudanese regime will reach.”

Riots in several Sudanese cities over a rise in the price of bread took a bloody turn on January 7 when a high school student was killed and five others injured by police.

The rise in the price of the bread followed the government’s elimination of some subsidies and the suspension of a controlled foreign exchange rate regime.

The Sudanese government said economic conditions would improve in a few months but there is little confidence on the streets as living conditions become tougher for citizens.

Despite tensions that date to the mid-1990s, Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi has tried to mend fences with Khartoum. Sudan was one of the first countries that he visited as president.

However, there has been increasing apprehensions in Cairo towards Sudan’s actions, particularly reports that it has offered refuge to thousands of members of the outlawed Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood movement.

Strengthening ties between Khartoum and both Qatar and Turkey — viewed by Cairo as rivals — have also stoked concerns.

“The fear in Cairo is that Qatar and Turkey want to turn Sudan into a thorn in Egypt’s side as part of their regional strategy to besiege the country and undermine its political and economic revival,” said Amany al-Taweel, a researcher from think-tank Al-Ahram Centre for Political and Strategic Studies.

“Sudan is becoming part of a regional alliance aiming primarily to weaken Egypt by increasing tensions on its borders, whether this is on the southern border with it or on the western border with Libya.”

The divergence in interests between Cairo and Khartoum was more apparent regarding a hydroelectric dam being constructed by Ethiopia on the Nile, Egypt’s only source of water.

The dam would significantly decrease the amount of water Egypt receives from the Nile every year, Cairo warned.

On November 19, Sudanese Foreign Minister Ibrahim Ghandour, outlined an additional reason for his country’s support to the Ethiopian project. He said the Ethiopian dam would prevent Egypt from taking part of Sudan’s water share.

This might explain the emergence of reports that Egypt wants to sideline Sudan in negotiations with Ethiopia over the dam. Egypt denied the reports but analysts said Khartoum is acting as if they were true which justifies the latest recall of its ambassador from Cairo.

“Sudan has the right to defend its own interests,” said Sudanese political analyst Mohamed Latif. “Egypt does not have the right to marginalise Sudan in negotiations over the dam because this dam is a national security issue for Sudan as it is for Egypt.”