Egypt seeking partners south of the border

Dina Ezzat , Wednesday 29 May 2019

Cairo is courting Sudan’s leading military figures

Abdel-Fattah Al-Sisi and Abdel-Fattah Al-Burhan
President Abdel-Fattah Al-Sisi during his meeting with the chief of Sudan’s military council Abdel-Fattah Al-Burhan (Photo: Handout by the Egyptian Presidency)

This week’s meeting in Cairo between President Abdel-Fattah Al-Sisi and the chief of Sudan’s military council Abdel-Fattah Al-Burhan could mark the beginning of wide-ranging cooperation between Cairo and Khartoum, says a senior Egyptian official.

Saturday’s meeting is Al-Burhan’s first overseas trip. “Egypt’s relations with Sudan have gone through many ups and downs in the last 30 years. Now there is a feeling we might be seeing the beginning of solid relations on all fronts,” says the official.

Government sources say this is not about the ascent of the military to power in Sudan — Omar Al-Bashir, they point out, was also a soldier — but about the determination to avoid a political vacuum in a country of direct national security interest to Egypt.

An Egyptian source told Al-Ahram Weekly that “Cairo fears that political chaos would lead to a security chaos in Sudan.” The fact that the ruling military council is nearly in full control of Khartoum and Om Durman and its suburbs and not the rest of the country is pushing the major Arab governments for more support of the transitional ruling council.

Following Al-Bashir’s assumption of power in the late 1980s relations between Egypt and Sudan were characterised more by squabbles than cooperation. In 1995 Cairo openly accused Khartoum of involvement in an attempt on the life of then president Hosni Mubarak in Addis Ababa after he arrived to take part in a summit of African leaders.

The tensions never really cleared, even when Cairo showed solidarity with Al-Bashir during the last months of his rule.

“Al-Bashir was always playing games, trying to ply one side against the other. Everybody knew this,” says Haitham Mekkawi, a member of Sudan’s Alliance of Freedom and Change.

Speaking from Khartoum, Mekkawi argued undoing the damage Al-Bashir inflicted on the country’s foreign policy is an urgent issue for post-Bashir Sudan.

“This is something that has to be done by the military and civilian political leaders and Egypt is clearly a priority given our historic ties and proximity.”

According to the Cairo official, it is too early to predict the path of future relations but the overall picture seems promising.

“The focus [of talks between Al-Sisi and Al-Burhan] was obviously on developments in Sudan but bilateral relations were also discussed,” the official added, and “joint security interests” would have topped the bilateral agenda.

Since the days of Mubarak Cairo has been demanding Sudan stop offering refuge to militant Islamists, calls that expanded under Al-Sisi to include leading figures from the Muslim Brotherhood.Al-Burhan made no final promises, says the official, but was clearly committed to working with Egypt on security matters.

Egypt and Sudan have a number of longstanding disagreements beyond security. There is Khartoum’s support for Ethiopia’s Grand Renaissance Dam, though in the last months of his rule Al-Bashir seemed to be readying for a U-turn on the issue.

According to Cairo-based Western diplomats, during top level meetings between Egyptian officials and representatives from influential Western capitals Cairo continues to solicit support for its position on the dam.

An official Sudanese source with knowledge of the decision-making process in Khartoum said this week that the initial willingness of Al-Burhan and his second in command, Hamdan Daglo, to pursue an alliance with the Cairo-Abu Dhabi-Riyadh axis suggests the future trajectory of Khartoum’s relations.

Following his one-day visit to Cairo, Al-Burhan headed straight to meet Crown Prince Mohamed bin Zayed in Abu Dhabi. Meanwhile, Daglo had already been to Riyadh to meet with Mohamed bin Salman.

A Cairo-based European diplomat who follows Sudan closely says the overall message Khartoum is conveying is a willingness on the part of the “new military leaders of Sudan to pursue an alliance with Egypt, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates over Turkey and Qatar, Al-Bashir’s traditional allies during the last decade”.

It is noteworthy, says the diplomat, “that both Al-Burhan and Daglo already have established contacts with leaders in Egypt, Saudi Arabia and the UAE where they have a history of serving or else overseeing joint military cooperation.”

Mekkawi argues “relations with Egypt inevitably constitute a different story to those with other Arab countries, even with Saudi Arabia and the UAE whose aim is to win Sudan to their side and undercut the heritage of Al-Bashir’s ties not just with Qatar and Turkey but also with Iran.”

Like Saudi Arabia and the UAE, Egypt is also keen to ensure the cooperation of Sudan over Red Sea security.

During the last few years of Al-Bashir, Cairo had grown increasingly concerned about Khartoum’s willingness to allow Ankara and Doha access to the Red Sea.

According to the Cairo official, furthering cooperation over Red Sea security was raised during Al-Burhan’s visit to Cairo.

Then there is the longstanding dispute over Halayeb and Shalatin, the triangle of land on the Egyptian and Sudanese border that both countries claim. It was not, says the official, on the agenda of the Cairo talks between Al-Sisi and Al-Burhan.

“We are working on consolidating relations not on disagreeing,” he said. “Sudan is going through a hard time and we want to make sure it regains stability.”

To secure truly positive prospects for Egypt-Sudan relations, argues Mekkawi, it is important that Cairo takes into account the views of Sudan’s revolutionary leaders as well as its military council.

“We understand that Egypt has followed its own path since the January Revolution and made its own choices. We hope it acknowledges the right of the Sudanese people to do the same.”

Mekkawi was speaking on the eve of a general strike that revolutionary leaders had called to force the military council into agreeing to wider participation in managing the transitional phase.

The general strike was not backed by some political opposition figures, including former premier Sadek Al-Mahdi who has close ties with Cairo.

Speaking on Monday Al-Mahdi said that a general strike “is a weapon that should only be used after it has been agreed on by everybody”.

Al-Mahdi returned from Egypt to Sudan days before the beginning of the demonstrations that eventually led to Al-Bashir’s fall and did not immediately join the calls for change.

According to the European diplomat who spoke in Cairo, “it is very clear that Egypt’s priority on Sudan is to support the military council and the traditional opposition. But Cairo is also aware that it should not antagonise public opinion in Sudan which is why it is playing its cards very carefully.”

Eddie Thomas, an expert on Sudan who has authored several volumes on the country, believes it is too early to make any final judgements on the path Sudan’s foreign policy — be it towards Egypt or any other country — is likely to take.

The ouster of Al-Bashir, he says, stripped Sudan of its sole foreign policy-maker. Today leading members of the military council are on the side of Egypt, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates but there are others on the council who might solicit alternative alliances.

It is also significant, Thomas adds, that Sudan’s revolutionary leaders are seeking a different political path to the one that emerged in Egypt following the ouster of Mubarak.

The situation is complicated, Thomas argues, by the fact that “the Islamists of Sudan” constitute the ruling class, created under Al-Bashir during the last 30 years.

And at the end of the day, says Thomas, the military council is not yet in full control because the people are still on the streets.

 *A version of this article appears in print in the 30 May, 2019 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly under the headline: Seeking southern partners

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