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Thursday, 15 April 2021

Egypt and Sudan: Strategic bonding

Egypt and Sudan are cooperating more and more closely in military and other areas, as signalled by President Abdel-Fattah Al-Sisi’s visit to Khartoum this week

Dina Ezzat , Sunday 7 Mar 2021
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Egypt and Sudan are widening the scope of collaboration, including on GERD which threatens their agricultural lands and fresh water supply from the River Nile (photo: AFP)
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Against the backdrop of various high-level meetings between Egypt and Sudan, President Abdel-Fattah Al-Sisi is expected to visit the Sudanese capital Khartoum between Thursday and Saturday, according to informed government sources.

The expected presidential visit comes shortly after Egypt extended an invitation to Sudanese Prime Minister Abdalla Homdok to visit Cairo. It also comes after President Al-Sisi received Mariam Sadek Al-Mahdi, Sudan’s newly appointed minister of foreign affairs, in Cairo. Most significantly, it comes hours after top military personnel from both Egypt and Sudan signed a new agreement on military cooperation in Khartoum.

On Tuesday, the military chiefs-of-staff of Egypt and Sudan, Mohamed Farid and Mohamed Othman, respectively, said that the military cooperation agreement was set to allow for closer cooperation on all issues of relevance to national security in every possible way and on every front.

“We are faced with common regional threats, and we have to work together to face these threats on all fronts,” Farid said.

Also on Tuesday, this time in Cairo, Egyptian Foreign Minister Sameh Shoukri and Al-Mahdi were echoing their equal determination for joint coordination to take place in the negotiations with Ethiopia over the construction, filling, and operation of the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam (GERD), a mega-dam built on the Blue Nile in Ethiopia without the agreement of the two downstream countries of Egypt and Sudan.

The two ministers called for international mediation to facilitate a legally binding agreement with Ethiopia ahead of the second filling of the dam that Addis Ababa is planning to execute this summer without the agreement of either Cairo or Khartoum, just as it did last summer during the first filling of the dam.

Khartoum has requested the Democratic Republic of Congo, the current chair of the African Union (AU), to engage the UN, the EU, and the US to help push for a deal on the dam in the coming weeks or months. In Cairo, Egypt’s top diplomat gave his full support to the proposal on Tuesday.

“We are seeing a moment in which Egypt and Sudan have the equal political will to consolidate cooperation to serve their common interests,” said another Egyptian diplomat. “We don’t necessarily agree on everything, but we do agree that we need one another to help face up to some serious threats,” he added.

According to this diplomat and to a Sudanese diplomat, both speaking on condition of anonymity, the GERD is a pressing concern for both countries, though it is not the only one. They said that the security of the Horn of Africa and the situation in the Sahel and Sahara, with its impact on the overall situation in North and East Africa, were also matters of concern for both countries.

“Sudan stands at a strategically sensitive point between the Sahel and the Sahara and the Red Sea coast. This area faces serious security threats, including trafficking by militant groups, arms, and drugs,” the Egyptian diplomat said. He added that the new military pact that Egypt and Sudan signed in Khartoum on Tuesday would help both countries coordinate their security strategy “on these very troubling fronts”.

“We have been seeing an increase in militant activities all along the shores of the Red Sea, especially around Somalia and Eritrea, and we have been monitoring the infiltration of militants that are being pushed through into the Sahel and Sahara zone to end up first in Chad and then in Libya,” the Egyptian diplomat said.

He added that Egypt was “discussing military cooperation deals with several other countries in both the Horn of Africa and the Sahel and Sahara,” stating that “we have good reasons to want to act promptly there. We cannot just let things go.”

According to the Sudanese diplomat, Khartoum is equally keen to avoid possible militant infiltration. The country has recently seen its name removed from the US list of countries supporting terrorism, and it is hoping for stability and security in order to be able to better position itself as an attractive destination for investment and to help a frail economy get back on its feet.

“In this respect, we welcome cooperation with Egypt to serve the interests of our two countries,” he said.

What is mostly at stake today, however, according to both diplomats, is security in the Red Sea. With the fluid situation in Yemen that is verging on the status of becoming a failed or non-viable state and the growing foreign military presence in and around the ports of the Red Sea, both Egypt and Sudan need to make sure that they are alert to possible security breaches.

Both Egypt and Sudan are members of the recently launched Red Sea Forum along with six other countries from Africa and Asia. However, as the Egyptian and Sudanese diplomats said, what Egypt and Sudan share is perhaps much more than either shares with the other members of the forum.

Late last year, Egypt and Sudan carried out their first joint military drills called Nile Eagles-1. These were conducted in Sudan. According to Egyptian and Sudanese diplomatic sources, future naval drills could be coming up this year.

The prospects of military cooperation, crucial as it is for both countries, and the question of the equally crucial GERD negotiations are not the only matters of common interest for Cairo and Khartoum. Economic cooperation in gas and oil, mining, agriculture, and trade are also of interest to both Egypt and Sudan.

Cairo and Khartoum have been slowly but surely discussing major schemes for economic cooperation that would cover agriculture and industry. The launch of these could be announced during the visit by Hamdok to Cairo in the coming days or weeks.

“Much will depend on the talks that President Al-Sisi will be holding in Khartoum. This visit is a very firm show of the commitment on the side of Egypt at the highest level to reach out to Sudan. It shows that for Egypt Sudan matters whoever is ruling in Khartoum,” the Egyptian diplomat said.

According to Amany Al-Tawil, a senior Sudan expert at the Al-Ahram Centre for Political and Strategic Studies, the current movement in Egyptian-Sudanese relations will produce a new framework for bilateral relations between the two Nile Basin countries.  

“I think we are about to see qualitative progress in cooperation between the two countries. We are seeing the beginning of an unprecedented process of strategic bonding,” Al-Tawil said.  

*A version of this article appears in print in the 4 March, 2021 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly

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