Relations between Egypt and Sudan have been moving in a positive direction, foretelling a potential long-term détente in the erratic ties between the two countries. This rapprochement has been based on a number of bilateral issues; but its importance lies in its links to the broader regional context that influences the calculations of both sides in the relationship.
Factors behind improving relations
The July 2018 visit to Khartoum by Egyptian President Abdel Fattah El-Sisi – his first trip abroad following reelection – marked a shift in the trajectory of ties between the two countries. It succeeded in diffusing the tension that has characterized relations between them in recent years, and inspired a policy of rapprochement in both Cairo and Khartoum.
Recent positive interaction between the two countries has revolved around the following developments:
First, both countries host elements that oppose the ruling regime of the other. This is one of the root causes of the tension between them. However, there were reports in February 2018 that Khartoum had asked a number of people who belong to the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood to leave Sudan.
A spokesperson for the Egyptian Foreign Ministry, Ahmed Abu Zeid, denied receiving any official notification from Sudan to this effect. The Sudanese regime also denied the presence of MB members on its soil; however, this does not rule out the existence of mutual understandings between the two sides with regard to the expulsion of resident members of each country’s opposition movements.
Furthermore, in early July 2018, authorities at Cairo airport denied entry to the leader of the Sudanese opposition Umma Party, al-Sadiq al-Mahdi, on his return from Berlin.
The second development is the decline in tension regarding the issue of the Renaissance Dam. There has been a breakthrough for Egypt – relatively speaking – on this matter due to the unexpected derailment in the construction of the Renaissance Dam due to financial and administrative problems. This has coincided with a change in Ethiopian leadership and a slowdown in the pace of work on the dam as a result of financial and administrative problems. Furthermore, on August 30, 2018, Egypt’s Ministry of Electricity and Energy announced plans to provide Sudan with electricity. Together, these developments may establish a new context in which tensions over the dam may decline further.
The third development is the diffusion of the ongoing border dispute between the two countries. Egypt recently escalated the land dispute over the Halayeb triangle on the Red Sea. In response, Sudan filed a traditional complaint at the UN against Egypt, ramped up its media campaign against Cairo and withdrew its ambassador to Egypt in January 2018 (who returned after two months).
Despite an agreement by the two sides to adopt a calmer approach to disputed issues in the wake of Sudanese President Omar al-Bashir’s visit to Cairo in March 2018, Egypt’s Ministry of Housing announced plans in June to construct housing units in the contested Halayeb Triangle, infuriating Khartoum.
However, El-Sisi’s visit to Khartoum in July 2018 served to calm the media war over the issue. In addition, an announcement was made concerning arrangements to hold a meeting at the end of September 2018 that would involve the foreign ministers and chiefs of intelligence of both countries. The aim of the meeting was to jointly prepare a dossier to be presented at the meeting of the Egyptian–Sudanese higher committee during El-Sisi’s visit to Khartoum in October 2018.
Cairo is also using this opportunity to seek discussions on other positive aspects beyond the resolution of the Halayeb dispute, such as the prospect of a railroad link connecting the two countries to support and facilitate the movement of people and goods between them.
The fourth incentive is the need to avoid clashes over regional conflicts. Recently, the roles of the two countries have overlapped – to a certain extent – in their involvement in regional altercations.
The 2017 Cairo Declaration (also known as SPLM Declaration of Unification) was signed between two factions of the Sudan People’s Liberation Movement on November 16, 2017 at the headquarters of Egypt's General Intelligence Directorate in Cairo. Khartoum then successfully hosted negotiations between the two factions in the summer of 2018, which led to the signing of a peace agreement.
The improvement in relations between Cairo and Khartoum has also had positive effects with regard to Libya – a report published by Asharq Al-Awsat in April 2018 indicated that a military delegation of Khalifa Haftar’s forces travelled to Sudan thanks to Egyptian mediation. Furthermore, a number of Egyptian soldiers held hostage in Libya were released by Sudan’s General Intelligence Services in late-July 2018.
The fifth and final determining factor in the improving relationship is the increased pace and variety of joint development projects between Sudan and Egypt. The engagement of both sides in such projects in several sectors aims to deepen common interests. High-level meetings were held in August to discuss prospects for cooperation between the two countries in several areas including pharmaceuticals, livestock and fisheries, agriculture, electricity, transportation and higher education. In this context, Sudan has agreed to allocate two million square meters for the creation of an Egyptian industrial zone in the country. This is despite Khartoum’s repeated claims that Cairo has not abided by the Four Freedoms Agreement which was signed between the governments of Egypt and Sudan on September 4, 2004, allowing each country’s citizens to freely move across each other’s borders and to reside, work and own property in either state.
Motivations for rapprochement
The above-mentioned developments reflect the progress in relations between the two countries achieved during 2018. In order to understand the prospects for their future relations, however, and whether they will endure, one must look to the motives of each.
Sudan, for its part, is primarily motivated by a desire to overcome its international isolation by opening up to its regional neighbors. Moreover, this would help Sudan overcome its economic hardships by benefiting from development projects launched by Egypt and its regional allies. Khartoum’s openness towards Cairo would also represent balance in the country’s foreign policy – through rapprochement with the Egyptian–Saudi–Emirati axis while also maintaining good relations with Qatar and Turkey.
Egypt, meanwhile, has chosen to improve relations with its southern neighbor for a number of reasons. First, the Egyptian regime likely views this rapprochement with the Bashir regime as a means of containing regional Islamists, whilst also addressing one of its major weaknesses in its tripartite talks related to Renaissance Dam. Second, Cairo’s rapprochement with Khartoum as part of its “Head South” strategy to improve relations with African countries, has served to neutralize any potential threats from Sudan against Egyptian interests in the Red Sea. These include the future Turkish military presence in Suakin Island, as well as Qatar’s plans to develop the ports at Suakin and Port Sudan.
It is likely that further practical steps will be taken to maintain the momentum of the current rapprochement between Egypt and Sudan, as it apparently serves both countries’ direct interests as well as those of the region and East Africa. However, rapprochement and the expansion of their common interests will not resolve all existing controversial issues between the two countries. Both sides will likely resort to political maneuvers to manage their relations, given the interrelated nature of outstanding matters of contention. Moreover, both sides will require sufficient time to overcome their unfortunate history, set aside their differences and build bridges of trust.
Ahmed Nadhif | 28 Jul 2021
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