Egypt's evolving diplomatic approach to Sudan's war

Sudan war
8 min read
25 June, 2024

Since war erupted in Khartoum in April 2023, millions of Sudanese rushed to leave the country, with many heading to the northern border with Egypt to escape fighting between the Rapid Support Forces (RSF) and the Sudanese Armed Forces (SAF).

*Ahmed entered Egypt illegally last summer through a now well-developed smuggling network that has flourished since the war began.

Driven by relentless shelling near his home in Omdurman and the loss of his business, which was ransacked and looted by RSF soldiers who took control of the city, he decided to flee.

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Upon reaching Wadi Halfa with his children and in-laws, just 34 kilometres from the Egyptian border, he realised he was the only one with a valid passport.

But with funds dwindling and facing an indefinite wait for passports to be issued for his family, plus the prospect of a long and expensive visa process to enter Egypt, Ahmed and his family decided to embark on the journey illegally.

"If we stay, we die; if we go, we could die, but we decided it was worth risking,” Ahmed told The New Arab.

Since Ahmed made the perilous journey last year, the war has spread and attacks on civilians have only escalated, including the recent massacre by the Rapid Support Forces in Wad al-Noura, Gezira state, where at least 200 civilians were killed.

As a result of the violence and the spread of hunger and starvation, the number of individuals interested in crossing the border illegally as well as the cost associated have both increased.

"Egypt has had to be more pragmatic. The previous wariness that Egypt was a destabilising force in Sudan is gone"

According to *Idris, a broker who collaborates with smugglers, “prices have increased by about 20 percent due to more people heading to Abu Hamad wanting to enter Egypt”, he told The New Arab from Sudan’s Northern State.

Over the past year more than half a million Sudanese individuals have sought refuge in Egypt, and the Egyptian government, which is already hosting around nine million migrants and refugees amidst deteriorating economic conditions, has worked hard to contain the fighting in Sudan.

In the early months of the conflict, Egypt organised a high-profile summit, bringing together heads of state of Sudan’s neighbouring countries in July 2023. Notably absent from this gathering were the warring generals, General Abdel Fattah al-Burhan of the Sudanese Armed Forces and General Mohamed Hamdan 'Hemedti' Dagalo of the Rapid Support Forces.

Additionally, Egypt was an important facilitator of the clandestine Manama talks between the deputies of the SAF and the RSF. However, neither initiative resulted in the ceasefire that Egypt had hoped for.

Around 1.5 million Sudanese have fled the country to escape the war. [Getty]

Under the leadership of President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi, Egypt has maintained close ties with the SAF and at the time fighting erupted, Egyptian Air Force personnel were in Sudan conducting joint military exercises with the SAF.

The RSF stormed the Meroe air base in Northern Sudan and arrested nearly 200 Egyptian soldiers. They were airlifted out of Sudan days later.

However, Egypt’s strategy has evolved as a result of the war and Cairo has shown readiness to engage with anyone that could help it silence the guns in Sudan.

“Egypt has had to be more pragmatic,” according to Michael Wahid Hanna, the US Program Director at the International Crisis Group. “The previous wariness that Egypt was a destabilising force in Sudan is gone,” Hanna told The New Arab.

"Cairo has shown readiness to engage with anyone that could help it silence the guns in Sudan"

As of late, Egypt has sought to mend ties with former foes and has done so by hosting Abdalla Hamdok in March.

Hamdok, who had previously held the position of prime minister following the revolution that toppled Omar al-Bashir's regime, is currently leading the Coordination of Civil Democratic Forces, also known as 'Taqaddum' - a civilian anti-war alliance that brings together a range of civil society groups, political parties, and professional associations.

Before the war, it was widely believed that Egypt had given Hemedti and Burhan, who presided over the transitional Sovereignty Council and were partners at the time, the green light to overthrow Hamdok's government in October of 2021. This move was guided by Hamdok's openness to the Ethiopian Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam (GERD), which Egyptian officials perceived as a threat to their national security.

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Following its outreach to Hamdok and after a failed attempt to facilitate direct talks between the belligerents using Hamdok as an interlocutor, Egypt has recently announced an inter-Sudanese political dialogue to be hosted in Cairo at the end of June. The conference seeks to bring together "all Sudanese civil political forces," aiming to foster "comprehensive and lasting peace in Sudan".

But just days later, the African Union High-Level Panel on Sudan, chaired by Mohamed Ibn Chambas, announced a similar initiative scheduled for July, creating confusion and doubt as to which and whether any political dialogues would take place.

According to a Cairo-based political analyst and journalist, who asked to remain anonymous, “Taqaddum is wary of an Egyptian initiative because of its [Egypt’s] closeness to SAF and SAF-aligned groups, but Taqaddum is also wary of the African Union because it wants to include the National Congress Party in the discussions".

The source added that “the SAF-aligned groups are more interested in engaging with the Egyptian initiative because Egypt shares their vision of an army-led transition".

Under the leadership of President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi, Egypt has maintained close ties with the SAF. [Getty]

The “SAF-aligned” groups the source referenced consist of 48 political parties and civil society organisations that signed a charter in Cairo in May advocating for a post-war transition shared between civilians and the Sudanese military while supporting the military in its fight against the RSF.

These groups, now collectively referred to as the Sudan Charter Forces (SCF), notably include leaders of armed former rebel groups such as Minni Minawi, the leader of the Sudan Liberation Movement and Governor of Darfur, and Gibril Ibrahim, head of the Justice and Equality Movement and the current minister of finance.

Minnawi and Gibril's forces are now actively engaged in fighting the Rapid Support Forces alongside the Sudanese Armed Forces in El-Fasher, the historical capital of Darfur. The move has been criticised by El Hadi Idris, the current vice-president of Taqaddum, who blames them for having "sabotaged" efforts to preserve peace and security in El-Fasher.

The central challenge awaiting any prospective political dialogue lies in the fundamental opposition between the positions of both the SCF and Taqaddum in regards to the warring parties, making consensus-building a challenging feat.

"Enmity between Sudan's main political power brokers poses a major threat to the success of peace talks"

While the SCF recognises “the legitimacy of the armed forces and their responsibility for maintaining security,” Taqaddum sees that the SAF lacks any constitutional legitimacy, indicating in a recent statement that “there is no legitimate authority in Sudan since the coup of October 25, 2021”.

Moreover, SCF members have attacked Taqaddum’s claims of neutrality and accused it of clandestinely siding with the RSF. In a recent post on X, Minni Minnawi levelled accusations against the National Umma Party (NUP), which is part of the Taqaddum coalition, of being “a partner in the Rapid Support Forces crimes in Gezira”.

This accusation stems from the appointment of Siddig Othman Ahmed, allegedly linked to the NUP, as the head of the civil administration in territories under RSF control within Gezira state.

The formation of local governments in RSF-controlled territory emerged from a Declaration of Principles agreement signed by Taqaddum leader, Abdalla Hamdok, and Hemedti in January in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia.

The agreement contains a commitment by both the Rapid Support Forces (RSF) and Taqaddum to "establish civil administrations" that could "provide for the basic needs of the civilians". The formation of one such administration with a leader allegedly tied to a political party within Taqaddum has fuelled accusations that it is collaborating with the RSF.

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Taqaddum’s interactions with the RSF have led the SAF-led government to issue arrest warrants against Hamdok and the Taqaddum leadership, citing incitement to war against the state and undermining the constitutional order, among other crimes.

The suspicions harboured by the SAF and its politically aligned factions towards Taqaddum complicate any potential mediation role that Egypt had hoped Hamdok or Taqaddum could play between Hemedti and Burhan.

Another stumbling block that could frustrate a comprehensive political dialogue is the inclusion of the ousted Omar al-Bashir's Islamist National Congress Party (NCP). Al-Bashir was overthrown after a popular revolution in 2019 by the two generals whose forces are now fighting across Sudan.

The African Union (AU) conducted discussions with NCP members in Cairo shortly before Hamdok's visit and has expressed its desire to include them in an inter-Sudanese dialogue as part of the AU’s mandate of inclusivity and the pursuit of a comprehensive political solution.

However, Taqaddum firmly rejects any role for the NCP in any dialogues, despite accusations by Taqaddum leaders that the NCP ignited the war between the SAF and RSF and also controls the SAF.

Hussam Abualfatah of the Sudanese Congress Party, a key player within Taqaddum, explained to The New Arab that the NCP is a “terrorist organisation for igniting this war, and for infiltrating, subjugating and sabotaging the security and military institutions”.

While enmity between Sudan’s main political power brokers poses a major threat to the success of such talks - if and when they take place - some, such as *Ahmed, who risked his life to leave Sudan, find the idea of returning home inconceivable, even if a ceasefire is soon reached.

“Me and my family have come to the conclusion that there is no going back - not from the perspective of building a future or from a perspective of safety.”

*Names changed at the request of interviewees

Elfadil Ibrahim is a writer and analyst focused on Sudanese politics