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What does the fighting in Sudan mean for Egypt?

What does the fighting in Sudan mean for Egypt?
5 min read
24 April, 2023
Analysis: The stability of its southern neighbour is of vital importance to Egypt's strategic and security interests.

Following the outbreak of violent fighting in Sudan, Egypt’s President Abdel Fattah Al-Sisi told the UN that he is “deeply concerned over the ongoing clashes” and warned of the “dangerous repercussions on the country’s stability”.

In recent years, Sisi has ensured close ties with Sudan, as talks with Ethiopia over the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam (GERD) are at a deadlock and stability in Sudan has been viewed as integral for Egypt’s own national security on account of unrest in Libya and Ethiopia.

Although his grand projects have been stymied in the past few months due to pressure from Gulf states and the IMF to exhibit fiscal frugality, Sisi continues to model himself as the father of the Egyptian nation.

In the past week, Sisi has positioned himself as a regional leader intent on mediating peace in Sudan and eager to engage with the international community to assist his neighbour.

The conflict could represent an opportunity for Sisi to re-assert his status at an international level, while Cairo’s intervention may be required as Sudan and Egypt’s political fates are deeply intertwined.

Egypt’s powerful military ruler has primarily been seen to support General Abdel Fattah al-Burhan, the head of Sudan’s army and transition council. The two generals signed an agreement in 2021 to strengthen military cooperation and have met on several occasions, largely to discuss the developments of the GERD project.

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“Traditionally Egypt has supported the Sudanese army, no matter who's in charge of it over the years,” David Shinn, former US ambassador to Ethiopia and African Affairs professor at George Washington University, told The New Arab.

“I'd be very surprised if they would shift their position and I think the army is in a stronger position anyway.”  

But this isn’t to say Sisi hasn't been associated with Rapid Support Forces (RSF) leader Mohamad Hamdan ‘Hemedti’ Dagalo in the past.

“Egypt has received official visits from both Burhan and Hemedti in the last couple of years. Sisi has also met with Hemedti during his visit to Khartoum before,” Sherif Mohyeldeen, a specialist on Sudan-Egypt border relations, explained to TNA.

“Despite its standing with the official army of Sudan, Egypt is showing more flexibility than its early policy toward the Libyan conflict.”

A video grab taken from AFPTV video footage on 19 April 2023 shows an aerial view of black smoke covering the sky above the capital Khartoum. [Getty]

What is Egypt's stake in the conflict? 

Sudan's stability is in Egypt and the region's strategic interest, but Cairo is highly unlikely to engage directly at this stage and will focus its energy on peace-making efforts, according to several Egypt-based political analysts. 

This past week, Sisi affirmed his intention of non-interference in Sudan and all Egyptian troops taken hostage by the RSF have now been returned safely. As Mohyeldeen told The New Arab, “Egypt’s foreign policy when it comes to military intervention is not to intervene directly, unless it’s the last possible option”.

Shinn echoed this sentiment. “I would be very surprised if Sisi would take unilateral action and enter uninvited, but perhaps if Burhan felt sufficiently threatened by the RSF or anyone else for that matter.” 

As the fighting escalates with no signs of slowing, Sudan’s neighbour and political ally Egypt may inevitably be drawn to take some kind of action, according to the analysts. 

Shinn believes it’s already implied that Burhan may ask Sisi for assistance due to the presence of Egyptian air force troops in Northern Sudan.

“That may have been a routine kind of engagement on behalf of Egypt and may not have been as a result of any perceived threat coming from Hemedti, but I find the timing of it rather interesting,” he said.

“It may very well have been a concern of Burhan that Hemedti would try something like this, and therefore Burhan would want to have the Egyptians in Meroe in the northern part of the country."

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In the past few decades, Egypt has maintained a highly militarised position along the Egypt-Sudan border and following the 2021 agreement it has held joint military training sessions on the Sudan side of the border. This includes the one last week in the northern Sudanese city Meroe, where over 200 Egyptian hostages were taken by the RSF.

Despite military agreements and cordial diplomatic relations in recent years, Egypt has kept up a strict, hard border with Sudan and demands stringent visa requirements. According to Human Rights Watch, an estimated two to five million Sudanese migrants live in Egypt, with the majority entering the country by unofficial means and remaining undocumented.

Following the onset of fighting, fleeing Sudanese citizens still need a visa to cross the Egyptian border. However, as the fighting continues this could be relaxed.

Mohyeldeen is hopeful that Egypt will support Sudan and provide assistance, “but with international support, as the domestic socio-economic situation has deteriorated in Egypt during the past two years”.

Destroyed vehicles in southern Khartoum on 19 April 2023 amid fighting between Sudan's regular army and paramilitaries following the collapse of a 24-hour truce. [Getty]

Ongoing Nile dispute

According to several analysts, the elephant in the room is the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam. Ethiopia’s ongoing GERD project, which is reportedly 90% completed, is considered an existential threat to Egypt, which relies on the Nile for almost all of its water and agricultural needs.

In recent years, Sisi has worked hard to ensure Sudan takes Egypt’s side in its decade-long dispute with Ethiopia. Sisi’s meetings with Sudan in the past few years have strongly focused on the outcome of the GERD project, with Egypt assuring Sudan of strengthened relations and increased security cooperation in return for support in the GERD saga.

Sisi has long stressed Egypt’s unwavering position towards GERD and the importance of both water security and sovereignty, previously emphasising that “nobody will compromise Egypt’s [share of] water”.

Shinn believes “there have been timeframes when Sudan has been generally sympathetic towards the Ethiopian position and other times more recently when they had been sympathetic towards the Egyptian position. And in the last couple of years, they have been pretty strongly pro-Egyptian”.

The support of Sudan has been viewed as the key to maintaining an upper hand in the GERD discussions and Shinn highlighted that Egypt will continue to pull the Sudanese in their direction.

“It's very relevant to all of this and whatever happens in Sudan could well impact the position on the dam,” Shinn added.

Lara Gibson is a Cairo-based journalist closely following Egypt's economic and political developments. 

Follow her on Twitter: @lar_gibson