Heading off collapse

Dina Ezzat , Tuesday 5 Mar 2024

Egypt needs to adopt an aggressive diplomatic approach towards the conflict in Sudan, Sudan expert Amany Al-Tawil tells Dina Ezzat

Heading off collapse



Against the backdrop of declining power on the ground, Abdel-Fattah Al-Borhan, chairman of the Transitional Council of Sudan and head of the Sudanese Armed Forces (SAF), arrived in Cairo on 29 February for talks with President Abdel-Fattah Al-Sisi. The flying visit to Cairo was Al-Borhan’s second since the beginning of the military conflict between the SAF and the Rapid Support Forces (RSF) headed by Mohamed Dagalo (Hemedti) that started in April last year.

Al-Borhan arrived in Cairo as Hemedti was travelling to Tripoli for talks with senior Libyan political figures. Earlier last week, Al-Borhan met the same political figures in Libya.

“It is very clear that the parties who have been unable to either resolve their conflict through political means or settle the battle on the ground are courting support as the war continues,” said Amany Al-Tawil, senior expert on Sudan and head of the Africa Desk at Al-Ahram Centre for Political and Strategic Studies.

Egyptian sources say Al-Borhan’s visit to Cairo aimed to counter Hemedti’s military gains and expand political support.

According to Al-Tawil, though Hemedti’s political standing has been growing since the conflict started 10 months ago neither side is in a position to claim military victory and “tough political compromises have become unavoidable”.

The current “balance of deterrence” means the conflict will almost certainly continue, and the situation is complicated, says Al-Tawil, by the “very obvious fact” that each side enjoys regional and international support.

Egyptian officials say that while Al-Borhan is supported by Cairo, Ankara and to some extent Juba, Abu Dhabi and Addis Ababa have sided with Hemedti. Al-Tawil agrees, adding that Iran is also a player in the unfolding proxy conflict.

“Iran has allies across the region and while its agenda for Sudan is unclear it is hard to underestimate the negative consequences that will ensue should Iran manage to create a space for itself in Egypt’s southern neighbour.”

“Egypt has many reasons to worry about the situation in Sudan,” says Al-Tawil, not least the failure of all political attempts, including an Egyptian initiative proposed last July and the Jeddah Forum promoted by Riyadh and Washington, to kick-start a process that could produce a political settlement.

Abu Dhabi’s attempts to create a transitional mechanism involving Hemedti alongside Abdalla Hamdok, the prime minister of Sudan ousted in October 2022 by a coup jointly led by Al-Borhan and Hemedti, also ended in failure. Meanwhile, the UN Integrated Transitional Mission for Sudan which began work in 2021 was dissolved late last year after it failed to bring the conflicting parties together, and the Intergovernmental Authority on Development (IGAD) in Eastern Africa’s initiatives have also failed to deliver.

“Egypt needs to move forward with an aggressive diplomatic strategy to try to induce a consensus on a political roadmap that will eventually allow for the conflict to end,” argues Al-Tawil, to which end Cairo must engage all political players in and out of Sudan.

Unfortunately, Egypt, like so many other countries, is preoccupied with Gaza and the focus on Sudan has consequently declined, a situation that “cannot go on because the situation in Sudan is really very worrying”.

The presence of non-Sudanese combatants on the ground is of particular concern. “It means that the borders are not under control and Sudan easily could drift into a civil war with ethnic shades which would be a very tough situation not just for the Sudanese people but for the entire region.

“One of the most worrying scenarios, at least as far as Egypt is concerned,” points out Al-Tawil, “is for Sudan to disintegrate along the lines of Somalia where nothing is under control.

“Then there are the conflicting regional agendas of countries which would then use Sudan as a proxy battlefield, including Iran which has been expanding its influence in Africa.”

Al-Tawil adds that it would be hard to imagine that the talks President Al-Sisi had with Al-Borhan in Cairo skipped the issue of Iranian influence or the status of the five million Sudanese living in Egypt. Humanitarian organisations have been monitoring the return of Sudanese who had fled to Egypt in the war’s initial phases only to find it difficult to build new lives in Egypt.

Two weeks ago, UNHCR said that it had signed agreements with the Ministry of Sports to make spaces and activities accessible to Sudanese refugees. It also announced an agreement with the Ministry of Education to create 28 new classrooms in schools in neighbourhoods where Sudanese refugees are concentrated.

Egyptian officials say that the status of Sudanese in Egypt is not subject to any disagreement between Cairo and Khartoum and that the economic problems many Sudanese in Egypt face are a result of the high inflation rates that have also compromised the living standards of many Egyptians.

“Obviously, President Al-Sisi will have made it clear that Egypt does not consider Sudanese living here as refugees but rather as guests of the Egyptian state,” says Al-Tawil.

Since the beginning of the conflict 11 million Sudanese have been displaced, with many who came to Egypt now moving to Chad.

“The issue,” says Al-Tawil, “is how to engineer a start to the end of this conflict in a way that allows the Sudanese people whose dreams were raised by the [October 2019] Revolution to regain a semblance of normality, away from the threat of civil war and the creation of a stronghold for extremist groups like Islamic State in Sudan.”

“Despite the conflict of interests in and around Sudan, Egypt remains in a position to initiate diplomatic momentum that takes into consideration these conflicting views.”

While Cairo has been clear about its support of Al-Borhan in his capacity as head of the SAF and in line with Egypt’s belief in the central role of state institutions in securing stability, according to Egyptian officials Cairo has become more willing to accept a role for the RSF as part of the political equation in Sudan.

* A version of this article appears in print in the 7 March, 2024 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly

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