Too close to home

Ahmed Eleiba , Tuesday 25 Apr 2023

Ahmed Eleiba assesses the consequences of the conflict in Sudan on Egypt



Contrary to the initial assessment of many observers in Egypt that the confrontation between the Sudanese Armed Forces (SAF) and the Rapid Support Forces (RSF) is an example of the recurrent flare-ups between Sudanese players that quickly end once domestic or external parties step in to calm them down, analysts now agree Sudan could be entering a long and dark tunnel.

Clashes between the two sides have spread from greater Khartoum (Khartoum, Khartoum North, and Omdurman) to Al-Fashir in the west, Gedaref to the east, and Merowe in the north. The RSF has seized control of the General Command building, the Presidential Palace, and Khartoum International Airport, as well as areas around embassies, universities, and hospitals, while the army has been fighting to suppress what it regards as the RSF’s insurrection.

The repercussions of the conflict in Sudan could be more harmful to Egypt than has been the case with Libya which has mired in a cycle of anarchy for more than a decade. According to military experts, Egypt’s national security priority in Libya was to secure the border to prevent the upheaval from spilling over, and to help safeguard Libyan’s territorial integrity. With Sudan, the problem extends beyond the border Egypt shares with its southern neighbour.

Egypt’s water security is at stake amid mounting tensions between Cairo and Addis Ababa over the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam (GERD). Cairo most also deal with the differences between its Arab partners’ approaches to the two Sudanese conflict. Given the fragility of the Sudanese state, there is also the spectre of Somalisation further contributing to the disintegration that afflicts the Horn of Africa. Partition into two countries in July 2011 did not bring stability, and there are more than 30 militia factions operating across Sudan.

Egypt found itself in the spotlight at the outset of the crisis. The first shots rang out from Merowe airbase where an Egyptian military contingent was preparing for a joint air exercise to be held in May.

Egyptian observers believe the RSF was trying to seize control over the Merowe airbase to drag Egypt into the dispute. If so, the plan failed. At first, the RSF disseminated misleading information about the presence of Egyptian soldiers, only for RSF commander Mohamed Hamdan Dagalo (aka Hemedti) to issue an apology to Egypt. The RSF detained 27 Egyptian air force personnel. When they fled Merowe after the Sudanese army reasserted its control over the base, they took the detained soldiers with them to Khartoum.

When the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF) convened an emergency meeting headed by President Abdel-Fattah Al-Sisi, it was decided to give the UAE a chance to mediate with Hemedti. Abu Dhabi’s intercession succeeded, marking the first breakthrough in a process that led to a cessation in hostilities in the vicinity of Khartoum airport during the complicated evacuation process, according to statements by the Egyptian Armed Forces and the Egyptian Foreign Ministry.

A former senior official in the Egyptian air force told Al-Ahram Weekly that a military intervention was among the alternatives discussed, though it was viewed as a last resort after all diplomatic channels had been exhausted.

As it contended with the difficulties of freeing the detained air force personnel and bringing them back, Egypt took steps to halt any escalation between the SAF and the RSF. In coordination with Saudi Arabia, it organised a meeting of Arab League representatives who called on the two sides to conclude a truce and return to the political process. In addition, President Al-Sisi contacted South Sudanese President Salva Kiir to discuss a joint ceasefire initiative. Egypt communicated with the UN secretary-general and the African Union in an attempt to promote a ceasefire. Although these initiatives failed to gain traction, diplomatic sources in Cairo said Egypt will continue its efforts to encourage the two sides to halt the violence and is determined to act as an honest broker.

Some observers in Cairo argue that the RSF’s actions taken against Egypt in Merowe have soured Cairo’s relationship with Hemedti and that its bilateral relationship with Khartoum make it more inclined to see the SAF’s point of view. Sources stress, however, that this will not lead to military support. The bilateral military cooperation agreement signed between Cairo and Khartoum is governed by strict parameters related to mutual outside threats. For example, Cairo did not intervene when tensions flared between Sudan and Ethiopia over the Fashqa border region. Egypt has also cautioned against military intervention by foreign powers.

Judging by the Egyptian response to the Libyan crisis, Egypt will most likely focus on managing the immediate repercussions of the fighting in Sudan, Egyptian sources told the Weekly. Securing the borders and evacuating Egyptian citizens from Sudan are among the highest priorities. A crisis management team has been formed for this purpose and tasked with coordinating with the ministries of Foreign Affairs, Defence and International Cooperation, and intelligence agencies. The evacuation operation began on Sunday, bringing home more than 400 Egyptian citizens as a first step. According to local news reports, Egypt has also begun to receive a wave of refugees from Sudan and other countries who flocked to Egypt’s southern border to flee the violence.

The evacuation process is complicated, say Egyptian sources. Egyptians in Sudan are not concentrated in a single area, and many have not registered their addresses. The interruption of Internet services and the difficulty of guaranteeing safe corridors add to the complications. The crisis team is in the process of working out reciprocal arrangements for Egyptian nationals who can reach places where other governments are conducting evacuation operations.

* A version of this article appears in print in the 27 April, 2023 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly

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