An Egyptian military delegation, headed by Chief-of-Staff Lieutenant General Mohamed Farid, went to Khartoum on 1 March to attend the seventh meeting of the Egyptian-Sudanese Joint Military Committee.
At the same time, Sudanese Foreign Minister Mariam Al-Sadiq Al-Mahdi met her Egyptian counterpart, Sameh Shoukri, and other Egyptian officials in Cairo. The exchanges reflect the determination of Cairo and Khartoum to work together to confront the threats and dangers both countries face.
Sudan and Egypt both have grave concerns about the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam (GERD) project. They fear Addis Ababa will proceed with the second stage of filling the dam’s reservoir four months from now despite failing to reach an agreement on the rules governing the filling and operation of GERD.
The filling could directly imperil Egypt’s water security and wreak hydraulic and environmental disasters on Sudan. The Sudanese irrigation minister has warned that GERD poses a threat to 20 million people, half the population of Sudan. For Egypt, there is the spectre of the catastrophic repercussions of a sharply diminished strategic water reserve aggravating the problem of water scarcity. On top of these threats, Sudan has had to repel incursions into Sudanese territory by Ethiopia, secure its borders, and manage the multiple challenges of its own delicate interim phase.
Military cooperation between Egypt and Sudan received the greater part of the impetus created by the recent visits. The Armed Forces’ statement released after the military meeting in Khartoum summed this up when it referred to the “strategic partnership” between the two countries.
In addition to extensive joint military training exercises and manoeuvres, the partnership includes an agreement to strengthen security not just along the two countries’ shared border but along coastal borders and land borders with neighbouring countries. Observers view these measures in the context of ongoing disputes with Ethiopia, whether bilateral, like Khartoum and Addis Ababa’s border tensions, or the trilateral, as over the dam.
Speculation arose in the media in response to the chief-of-staff’s remark that Egypt was ready to meet Sudan’s military needs. A military source in Cairo explained that the higher level of military cooperation between Cairo and Khartoum involves increased military training programmes and closer cooperation across a range of military and security activities. He stressed that Cairo does not need to have a permanent military presence in Sudan and, contrary to speculation, is not seeking to establish military bases there.
In this context, a parallel can be drawn with Libya. Egypt did involve itself militarily in the Libyan conflict. Instead, Cairo supported efforts to unify the Libyan National Army (LNA) and strengthen its ability to confront security risks, especially those close to Libya’s border with Egypt. At the same time Cairo was keen to demonstrate that, if necessary, it had the capacity to intervene rapidly in the face of any threat to Egypt’s western border, establishing a powerful military presence there, just as the Southern Fleet and the Berenice military base on the Red Sea furnish a powerful military shield in the area of Bab Al-Mandeb and the Horn of Africa.
A military adviser interviewed by Al-Ahram Weekly said that “establishing military infrastructure abroad is very costly and can create more problems than it solves”. He added that a “flexible and strategically conceived realm of military cooperation is still the best solution for dealing with common threats and dangers”.
On Egyptian-Sudanese cooperation he said: “It should be borne in mind that the agreements signed between Cairo and Khartoum are a natural outcome of the level of cooperation that the two sides initiated over two years ago in the framework of the Joint Military Committee.
The seven meetings that this committee has so far held have demonstrated the extent to which both sides are able to unify views, as General Abdel-Fattah Al-Burhan, chairman of the Sudanese Transitional Sovereignty Council, said during his meeting with President Al-Sisi. In return, Al-Sisi said that Egypt supports all efforts to promote peace, stability, and development in Sudan during this pivotal stage in its history, out of the firm conviction that the security and stability of Sudan is an integral part of Egypt’s security and stability. He also stressed that Egypt will always reach out to Sudan to promote cooperation, wellbeing and development, and that this is a fixed strategic approach.”
Egypt is providing qualitative development support to Sudan in its interim phase, a task being shouldered by the Armed Forces’ National Service Projects Organisation (NSPO).
The source in Cairo observed that President Al-Sisi’s Saturday visit to Sudan, hot on the heels of the meeting of the Joint Military Committee and at Sudan’s invitation, came at the “right time”. Addis Ababa appears bent on continuing its policy of imposing de facto realities on the ground after nearly 10 years of negotiations over the dam, talks that have been marred by Ethiopian intransigence.
In the face of Addis Ababa’s refusal to compromise, Cairo and Khartoum appear to have moved towards a policy of strategic deterrent entailing a unified stance and coordinated action, one example of which is their call for the resumption of trilateral talks mediated by a quartet consisting of the African Union, the UN, the EU, and the US. Addis Ababa, for its part, has persisted with its attempts to separate negotiations from the process of filling the GERD reservoir. Cairo continues to favour diplomacy as the main option for resolving this crisis, and the strategic partnership with Sudan may shift balances in a way that bolsters the diplomatic mechanism. It is unlikely, however, that this is Cairo’s only option.
Ultimately, Egypt’s and Sudan’s vigorous and multifaceted joint action in response to shared strategic threats increases Egypt’s manoeuvrability diplomatically, and across its vital security sphere. At the level of regional security arrangements, the model alliance that Egypt is building with Sudan is a reflection of the strength of Egypt’s regional presence and the dynamism it brings to bear in addressing the national security threats and challenges posed by regional tensions.
*A version of this article appears in print in the 11 March, 2021 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly