Signs of an increase in the pace of closer cooperation in the military field between Egypt and Sudan have recently emerged, including conducting joint military exercises and intensifying meetings and mutual visits of leaders and officials of the two countries. This paper sheds light on the motives of both Cairo and Khartoum to enhance their military cooperation in the light of the recent local and regional developments.

Indicators of rapprochement

While the two countries share land borders of more than 1,000 km, the Egyptian and Sudanese armies did not carry out joint air exercises before November 2020, the date of the Nile Eagles-1 exercises.[1] Nearly two weeks before those exercises, Abdel Fattah al-Burhan, Chairman of the Sovereignty Council and Commander-in-Chief of the Sudanese Armed Forces, visited Cairo and met with Egyptian President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi.

After al-Burhan's visit to Cairo, the Egyptian Chief of Staff Mohammad Farid visited Sudan in early November 2020 and met with a number of Sudanese military leaders. During the visit, he expressed his expectations of a "qualitative leap" in the military relations between the two countries. He specifically mentioned the fields of training and border security. In a joint press conference with his Sudanese counterpart Othman al-Hussein, the latter described the results of the talks with Egypt as "amazing".[2] The Sword of Arabs exercises in Egypt also witnessed the participation of Sudanese military units, along with Emirati, Bahraini and Jordanian forces.

Motives

The recent increase in the pace of military rapprochement between Egypt and Sudan could be attributed to the following set of motives:

First: the motives of the Egyptian side

  1. The Sudanese-Israeli rapprochement: the Egyptian desire to strengthen military relations with Sudan came after the latter announced its agreement to end the state of hostility with the State of Israel in October 2020. The Egyptian side anticipates that Egyptian interests would be harmed in the future as a result of this step, especially after Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu implicitly indicated his country's support for Sudan in the latter's dispute with Egypt over the sovereignty over the Halayeb and Shalateen region,[3] which was followed by the announcement by Sudanese Foreign Minister Omar Qamar al-Din that his government intends to demand from Egypt to "recover" the Halayeb region without severing diplomatic relations with it.[4] The Egyptian side also fears that the Sudanese-Israeli rapprochement would pave the way for the expansion of the Israeli military influence in the south of Egypt, especially with the assumption by the military field of an advanced level in Sudanese-Israeli relations. In November 2020, the Sudanese Defence Industries System in Khartoum received an Israeli delegation of a security nature,[5] in a step that indicates the willingness of the Sudanese military leaders to deepen their cooperation with their Israeli counterparts.
  2. The international competition to establish naval military bases in Sudan: various countries seek to enjoy maritime influence in the waters of Sudan in the Red Sea, especially Russia, given that Russian President Vladimir Putin signed in November 2020 an agreement that he had reached with the ousted Sudanese President Omar al-Bashir stipulating the establishment of a Russian military logistics centre in Sudan's waters in the Red Sea. Putin's signature was followed by the Sudanese Chief of Staff's announcement that the agreement was "still under study".[6] Al-Bashir had also signed an agreement in 2017 with his Turkish counterpart Recep Tayyip Erdogan stipulating the development by Turkey of Suakin (also Sawakin) Island in the Red Sea, including "the construction of a berth for the use of civilian and military ships".[7] On the other hand, countries such as Germany and Ethiopia have expressed their desire to use Port Sudan for commercial purposes. Cairo fears the increasing possibilities of the presence of foreign powers near its territorial waters, which may constitute a potential threat to it in the future. This possibility – along with other factors – may be what prompted the Egyptian side to announce in January 2020 the launch of the "largest military base" in the Red Sea and Africa in the Barnis region near its border with Sudan.[8]
  3. The Egyptian-Ethiopian dispute over the Nile waters: the rapprochement of the Egyptian army with its Sudanese counterpart came within the framework of the former’s aim of developing its relationship with the Nile Basin countries against the backdrop of the repeated stumbling of negotiations on filling and operating the Ethiopian Renaissance Dam. In December 2020, the Egyptian army released a media report that its leaders were discussing – in the presence of the Minister of Defence – a new strategy for cooperation with the countries of the Basin, which would contribute to the provision of Egypt’s water needs.[9]
  4. The peace agreement between the Sudanese army and the armed movements: the Juba Peace Agreement provides for the integration of thousands of the forces of the Sudan Revolutionary Front (SRF) movements into the ranks of the Sudanese army, as part of a larger plan aimed at rebuilding the latter in terms of both doctrine and organisation. Cairo seeks to keep close to this issue to prevent this shift from straining its relationship with the "new" Sudanese army. Indeed, it succeeded in being one of the guarantors of the peace agreement.

Second: the motives of the Sudanese side

  1. Benefiting from the economic and industrial experiences of the Egyptian army: the Sudanese army aspires to benefit from the expertise of its Egyptian counterpart in the economic field, especially with the increasing demands by the Sudanese political forces to undermine the army’s influence economically, at a time when Sudan is going through such an acute economic crisis that it is difficult to provide strategic goods such as bread and medicine. Sudan has already obtained a grant from the Egyptian army in the form of several semi-automatic bakeries that produce large numbers of bread.[10] The Egyptian Minister of State for Military Production Mohamed Morsi has also signed a memorandum of understanding to develop cooperation between the Egyptian National Organisation for Military Production and the Sudanese Defence Industries System in various fields of manufacturing during the visit of Al-Mutasim Abdullah, Deputy Director of the Sudanese System, to Cairo in November 2020.[11]
  2. Cooperation on border issues: in addition to security and military considerations, the Sudanese army seeks to put an end to the smuggling of goods across its northern borders with Egypt, especially with the increase in smuggling rates of Sudanese goods such as gold and camels, even as the Sudanese economy suffers from a major shortage of foreign currency reserves. This prompted the Sudanese army to agree with the Egyptian side in November 2020 to re-conduct joint military and security patrols in the border areas.[12] The focus of the Nile Eagles-1 on the aerial aspects could also be interpreted in this context, given that search and rescue aircraft and special forces units took part in the exercises. The two armies enjoy a degree of military harmony in this context due to their possession of Russian-made aircraft that participated in the exercises.[13] It is noteworthy that the commander of the Sudanese Air Defence Forces Abdel Khair Abdallah visited Egypt in November 2020. During the visit, he met his Egyptian counterpart Ali Fahmy to discuss ways of developing cooperation between the two sides.[14]
  3. Avoiding straining relations with Egypt: according to Abdallah al-Bashir, Deputy Chief of Staff of the Sudanese Army, the Nile Eagles-1 exercises were carried out at the request of the Egyptian Army Chief of Staff.[15] The prompt Sudanese response to this request could be explained by the Sudanese army’s desire to avoid straining its relationship with neighbouring countries during the transitional phase. Egypt in particular holds several cards that could affect the internal situation, given that it maintains good relations with some armed movements in Darfur. In 2017, the government of Sudan had accused its Egyptian counterpart of supporting movements in Darfur with weapons, which was denied by Cairo at the time.[16] On the other hand, Egyptian forces are currently deployed within the African Union-United Nations Hybrid Mission in Darfur (UNAMID) peacekeeping mission. It should also be noted that some former Sudanese military and security leaders presently reside in Cairo.
  4. Balancing relations with Ethiopia: the Sudanese army seeks to gain the support of regional actors such as Egypt in its moves on the Ethiopian front in conjunction with the escalation of the military conflict between the Ethiopian government forces and the forces of the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF). The Sudanese army seeks to seize the opportunity of the dispute to re-impose its control over the territories of the Al-Fashaqa region that is disputed with the Ethiopian side.

In addition to the above, the Egyptian and Sudanese sides share a common interest in the developments of the Libyan conflict and cooperation in the field of combating extremist Islamist movements. Currently, Sudanese government forces are already active in combating infiltration across the country's borders with Libya. On the other hand, UN reports have referred to the participation of Sudanese armed movements with military forces in the Libyan dispute, even as Cairo supports the forces of the Libyan National Army (LNA) led by Khalifa Haftar.

Conclusion

Following the intensification of international and regional competition to deepen the military presence in Sudan, the Egyptian side employed its Sudanese counterpart’s interest in border control issues and addressing the economic crisis for deepening military cooperation between them. Sudan responded to the Egyptian desire to deepen cooperation in order to avoid straining its relationship with Cairo, as well as benefit from the cooperation in the exercise of regional roles greater than the current ones, especially in the light of the Sudanese army’s desire to regain control over the disputed border areas with the state of Ethiopia.

References

[1] “Nile Eagles-1: the first joint air training between the armies of Egypt and Sudan”, 14 November 2020. Available at: https://bit.ly/2LkBfA0

[2] “Sudanese Army Chief of Staff: we reached amazing results during the Egyptian delegation’s visit”, 1 November 2020. Available at: https://bit.ly/2LfW13D

[3] Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu appeared in October 2020 with a map of Sudan behind him that included the Halayeb and Shalateen region. See the link: https://www.alsudaninews.com/ar/?p=96854

[4] “The foreign minister makes important statements about Halayeb”, 30 October 2020. Available at: https://www.sudanakhbar.com/852514  

[5] “Sovereignty Council in Sudan: an Israeli delegation visited the defence industries system in Khartoum”, 29 November 2020. Available at: https://bit.ly/3lYnNOL  

[6] “The Sudanese army clarifies the truth of the agreement with Russia regarding the establishment of a military base”, 19 November 2020. Available at: https://www.sudanakhbar.com/864855   

[7] “Suakin Island: what will happen to the Turkish-Sudanese agreement regarding it after the overthrow of Al-Bashir?”, 22 April 2019. Available at: https://www.bbc.com/arabic/middleeast-42522494

[8] “The Barnis military base: what is Egypt’s strategic goal?”, 16 January 2020. Available at: https://bit.ly/2JNAj6D

[9] “The Minister of Defence attends the discussion of a research on ‘activating the Egyptian role with the Nile Basin countries’”, 30 November 2020. Available at: https://www.almasryalyoum.com/news/details/2100474

[10] “Egypt sends the fifth flight of the ‘bakery gift’ to Sudan”, 6 October 2020. Available at: https://bit.ly/3gtt67D

[11] “A memorandum of understanding signed between the Military Production and the Sudanese ‘Defence Industries’ in various fields of manufacturing”, 20 November 2020. Available at: https://bit.ly/37M2pr1

[12] “Joint border patrols re-conducted between Egypt and Sudan”, 1 November 2020. Available at: https://bit.ly/36ZTW4t

[13] “Khartoum and Cairo conclude military air training in Sudan”, 20 November 2020. Available at: https://rakobanews.com/sudan-news/political/43696/

[14] “A high-ranking Sudanese military delegation concludes its visit to Egypt after meeting the air defence commander”, 14 November 2020. Available at: https://bit.ly/34kD5HK

[15] “Sudan: a senior official reveals new details about the ‘Nile Eagles’ manoeuvres”, 18 November 2020. Available at: https://alintibaha.net/online/57705/

[16] “Al-Bashir: our army confiscated Egyptian armoured vehicles in Darfur”, 23 November 2017. Available at: https://cnn.it/3m0FOfr  

 

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