Uncertainty at the border

Dina Ezzat , Tuesday 25 Apr 2023

Egypt is worried that a protracted conflict in Sudan will exacerbate the precarious security of its borders, reports Dina Ezzat


On 23 April, Egypt announced that it was coordinating with Sudanese authorities to secure the safe return of Egyptian nationals. By Sunday evening, close to 500 citizens had been evacuated.

While Cairo has said that more than 10,000 Egyptians are registered as living in Sudan, a government source says the Egyptian community is likely to be far larger. He explained that the majority of registered citizens are school and university students, teachers, professionals and other workers based in Sudan with their families. “The number is certainly much bigger, and our objective is to start an operation that will allow any Egyptian who wishes to come back to find a safe way to do so,” he said.

Also on 23 April, Egypt announced that one of its diplomatic had been injured by gunshot in Sudan. A Foreign Ministry statement urged Egyptians in Sudan to exercise utmost caution, called on Egyptian nationals in Khartoum to remain in their homes for the time being, and identified places that Egyptians who do not leave in Kartoum should head to facilitate their evacuation.

Government sources said that as well as evacuating its nationals, Egypt will help to facilitate the return of other nationals if requested to do so by their governments.

Last week, Cairo officially acknowledged the UAE’s role in facilitating the return of 177 soldiers who were in Sudan on a joint military exercise. Speaking on condition of anonymity, a number of government sources said, however, that the range of Cairo’s contacts as it continues to plan to bring its citizens home, includes Sudanese, regional and international players.

The same sources added that the government is also expecting an influx of Sudanese and other refugees.

“This is a complex humanitarian situation and we have to accommodate it, though it will have to be done in a way that takes Egyptian security concerns into account. We cannot allow the humanitarian situation to turn into a security threat for Egypt,” said one source. He went on to say that enhanced security measures have been introduced not just to the borders between Egypt and Sudan but also the border between Egypt and Libya.

Egypt is worried about the possible influx of arms and militants from Libya, and maybe elsewhere around the Sahel and Sahara, into Sudan. The source declined to comment on reports that forces were being sent from eastern Libya to support the RSF.

“The motives and actions of regional players is one thing, the security of our borders another. We recognise the positions of the various players, and we work on consolidating the security of our borders,” he said.

From an Egyptian perspective, border security is dependent of securing political settlements in Sudan and Libya.

“Our foreign policy on both these fronts is dictated by legitimate security concerns. We may not always agree with choices being made by our neighbours’ leaders, but we are in close coordination with them,” said an Egyptian diplomat.

“We have lengthy borders with both Libya and Sudan, two countries that have been battling instability. This is not the case with other regional players.”

The diplomat said it would be inaccurate to characterise Cairo as allying with Abdel-Fattah Al-Burhan Egypt, the head of the SAF, against RSF head Mohamed Hamdan Dagalo. “The head of the SAF also happened to be the leader of Sudan’s transitional government,” he said.

Cairo-based foreign diplomats argue that while the influence of regional players may have fanned the conflict, it is just one factor among many. “The problem is that Al-Burhan could not be expected to condone the existence of a parallel army, and Dagalo was not prepared to work under Al-Burhan,” said one diplomat.

Most foreign diplomats in Cairo agree that the immediate trigger for the fighting was the collapse of the framework agreement that was supposed to be signed on 6 April in Khartoum.

So what comes next? Both the African Union and the Intergovernmental Authority on Development (IGAD) have said they are willing to mediate but ongoing hostilities mean no mediators have been able to get to Khartoum.

Diplomatic sources are sceptical about the appetite of either side to engage in negotiations, though on Sunday an informed Western diplomat said “ideas” were being discussed in some Western and some Arab capitals. He added that “it is still early” and “nothing final has been formulated.”

“Any deal would have to open space for civilians to rule their country, the original demand of the Sudanese Revolution,” he said. Nor did he think the split in civilian forces between those willing to work with Al-Burhan and those opposed to working with him insurmountable.

Government sources say Cairo is in constant contact with concerned regional and world capitals, but caution it is premature to talk of any political initiative before a sustainable ceasefire is reached.

Regional diplomats are keeping their eyes on three dates. The first is the United Nation Security Council (UNSC) open session on Sudan, expected on Tuesday, which will discuss a joint US-British initiative. A New York-based diplomat, however, warned that UNSC members are unlikely to reach a consensus or do anything beyond call for a ceasefire. If the conflict continues, he added, then some other positions might be considered.

The second date is the Arab summit scheduled to convene on 15 May in Saudi Arabia. Riyadh, say diplomats, is keen to present itself as a leading regional player and has been in consultations with both the US and the UK on a possible deal to be presented at the summit.

The third date is the African Union summit due in the third week of July in the Kenyan capital Nairobi. While an informed diplomatic source said that the AU would be the favoured mediator of both Al-Burhan and Dagalo, there are few indications at the moment that either is willing to make the compromises necessary for any mediation to work.

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

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