Visit of Sudan’s military ruler to Egypt opens new chapter in relations

Egypt, which has its own battle against the Muslim Brotherhood, does not want to see Sudan become a haven for Muslim Brotherhood operatives.
Sunday 02/06/2019
Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi (R) meeting with the chief of Sudan's ruling military council, Lieutenant General Abdel Fattah al-Burhan Abdulrahman, , in Cairo, May 25. (The Egyptian Presidency via AFP)
Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi (R) meeting with the chief of Sudan's ruling military council, Lieutenant General Abdel Fattah al-Burhan Abdulrahman, , in Cairo, May 25. (The Egyptian Presidency via AFP)

CAIRO - Abdel Fattah al-Burhan choosing Egypt as the first country to visit since he took over as the head of Sudan’s Transitional Military Council showed a strong desire to open a new chapter in relations with Cairo, analysts said.

“This is especially true with Egypt being an active player in the Arab and African regions,” said Amira Abdel Halim, an African affairs specialist at Egyptian think-tank Ahram Centre for Political and Strategic Studies. “Egypt has a lot to offer Sudan to help it get over the problems of its transition.”

Burhan, who visited Egypt May 25, is the most senior Sudanese official to arrive in Cairo since the downfall of Omar al-Bashir’s regime April 11.

Burhan’s trip to Egypt came as negotiations between the Transitional Military Council (TMC) and revolutionaries who brought al-Bashir down stumbled on priorities. The TMC also accused some revolutionary groups of being supported by foreign powers.

Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi told Burhan that he followed developments in Sudan closely and that Egypt was ready to offer whatever support needed to help Sudan overcome the difficulties it faced.

“Egypt backs the free will of the Sudanese people and its desire to formulate Sudan’s future,” Sisi said.

Cairo and Khartoum struggled to see eye to eye in the past and ideological differences existed with al-Bashir’s Islamist regime and its foreign policy line.

Al-Bashir often played Egypt against its regional adversaries, Turkey and Qatar, and backed construction of the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam, which would deprive Egypt of a sizeable amount of water it gets from the Nile.

The door now seems open for a new era in relations between the neighbouring countries with the TMC showing interest in closer coordination with Egypt.

Egypt has many interests in Sudan, analysts said. Unrest in Khartoum put pressure on decision-makers in Cairo. There are fears that an unstable Sudan would compound security issues for Egypt.

“Stability in Sudan, which shares an extended border with Egypt, is very important for security here,” said Mohamed al-Shazly, a former Egyptian ambassador to Sudan.

The border between the two countries is a hotspot for smuggling arms and people, which is why Egypt intensified security in the area. Before al-Bashir was brought down, his administration agreed with Cairo on organising joint border patrols.

Burhan reportedly agreed with Sisi on beefing up security on the border and handing over Islamist fugitives wanted in Cairo, another area of potential cooperation between Cairo and Khartoum.

Egypt, which has its own battle against the Muslim Brotherhood, does not want to see Sudan become a haven for Muslim Brotherhood operatives. Some members escaped to Sudan after the downfall of the Muslim Brotherhood regime of Muhammad Morsi in 2013.

“The two countries need to cooperate on this, given that the Brotherhood in both countries is at its weakest now,” Shazly said.

Egypt wants to ensure that Turkey and Qatar will not have leverage in Sudan in the post-al-Bashir era. Egypt, Sisi said, is ready to support Sudan so it can meet the challenges of the current phase, away from any foreign interference.

Beneath Egypt’s fears that regional rivals would influence events in Sudan is its belief that the attempts aim to harm Egypt’s national security, analysts said.

At the heart of the fears is a December 2017 agreement between al-Bashir and Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan for Turkish control over the Sudanese Red Sea Island of Suakin.

Egypt looks at potential Turkish presence in the island, near the southern entrance of the Red Sea, with suspicion. However, al-Bashir’s downfall threw the Suakin Island deal into uncertainty.

Whether fledgeling understandings between Cairo and the interim administration in Sudan will survive Sudan’s expected transition will be decided in the coming weeks, analysts said.

There are still hang-ups in the relationship between the two countries, including a dispute over the border territory of Halayeb and Shalateen. Egypt and Sudan also need to formulate a common stance on their shared benefits and problems emanating from Ethiopia’s dam, they added.

Still, the understandings are small details in the larger picture of Sudan’s co-option of Egypt, the United Arab Emirates and Saudi Arabia, analysts said.

Egypt was the first leg in a foreign tour by Burhan that included the United Arab Emirates. Two days before Burhan arrived in Cairo, TMC Deputy Chairman Mohamed Hamdan visited Saudi Arabia and met with Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman bin Abdulaziz.

“Sudan demonstrates a commitment to this bloc of Arab moderates,” said Ahmed Abdel Dayem, a professor of African relations at the College of Higher African Studies at Cairo University. “This shows that the new administration in the country is keen on taking sides with common interests.”

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