Until recently, Egypt and Sudan’s ties suffered significantly as a result of a laundry list of thorny issues. These include the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam (GERD), the Halayeb triangle territorial dispute, the re-establishment of a visa requirement for Egyptian nationals entering Sudan, Khartoum’s recently-lifted ban on Egypt-sourced agricultural products, alleged Egyptian support for rebels in Darfur, the presence of Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood members in Sudan, Egypt-South Sudan relations, and Turkey’s leasing of Suakin Island. But Sudan’s ongoing wave of unrest throughout late 2018 and early 2019 has served to improve relations between the Cairo and Khartoum regimes notwithstanding these significant causes of tension in bilateral affairs.
Sudan received Egypt’s support, and both capitals quickly took measures in order to improve relations.
Shortly after daily demonstrations began in late 2018, Sudan received Egypt’s support, and both capitals quickly took measures in order to improve relations. Earlier on in the demonstrations, an Egyptian delegation visited the Sudanese capital, which President Omar al-Bashir hailed as “an important message to the Sudanese people and others [about] Egypt’s support and role in ensuring the stability of Sudan.”
Egypt’s top diplomat and General Intelligence chief Abbas Kamel visited Sudan on December 27 to discuss Cairo-Khartoum relations with their Sudanese counterparts. On January 5, Egyptian President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi hosted Bashir’s first assistant, Mohammed al-Mirghani. The two discussed Cairo’s solidarity with the Khartoum regime and Sudan’s stability. The Egyptian head of state emphasized that his country’s security was deeply linked to stability in Sudan which Cairo would support unequivocally.
Bashir arrived in Egypt on January 27, shortly after his visit to Qatar. While in Cairo, he expressed gratitude for Egypt’s support for Khartoum’s response to, what Bashir describes as, chaos fueled by foreign conspirators. That after Bashir’s visit to Egypt the government of Sudan lifted its ban on Egypt-sourced agricultural products (imposed in March 2017) underscored the new direction of Cairo-Khartoum relations. Additionally, the meeting this month between Sudan’s Minister of Tourism and the Egyptian Ambassador to Sudan in which the two discussed deepening bilateral ties in the area of culture further highlighted the warming of ties.
Ultimately, despite strong differences and conflicts of interest between Egypt and Sudan’s governments, the leadership in Cairo recognizes that if the Khartoum regime falls under pressure from its own citizens, Egypt could be a big loser. Officials in Cairo oppose the outgrowth of Tunisia-like Arab Spring revolts in the region, fearful of the flames of revolution spreading across international borders in the Middle East and North Africa. Therefore, supporting status quo regimes is one pillar of Egypt’s foreign policy. Another is working almost exclusively with national armies, as opposed to militias, in the Arab world’s hotspots.
These two dimensions of Cairo’s foreign policy both help explain the Sisi regime’s perspective on the unrest that began shaking Sudan in late 2018, as well as the unresolved Syrian and Libyan civil wars. Put simply, in the case of Sudan, the Egyptian leadership is not interested in improving its image in the eyes of demonstrators and pro-democracy activists. Instead, good relations with the Khartoum regime are Sisi’s priority. With Egypt and Sudan facing similar problems—both governments have harshly cracked down on political dissent while also imposing austerity measures on their citizens—Cairo is as sympathetic to the Sudanese regime’s forceful response to the demonstrators’ sustained public campaign as it is fearful of how a democratic revolution in a neighboring country could inspire more Egyptians to challenge their own government’s legitimacy, especially as this month new rounds of amendments to the 2014 constitution will put even more power in the hands of Egypt’s president and military.
Of course, any power vacuum in Sudan that could possibly follow an ouster of Bashir would raise major concerns among Egypt’s leadership on security grounds too in the face of threats posed by armed extremists. The potential for transnational terror groups to exploit chaotic unrest in Sudan would naturally leave Egypt unsettled given the countries’ shared border. As the turmoil in Libya has created countless terror threats to Egypt since the fall of Muammar Gaddafi, the prospects for major instability and violent unrest in another neighboring country are troubling to Cairo.
Egypt’s leaders hope that Bashir will weather this storm and that his regime can wait out this period of unrest.
Looking ahead, it is unclear where the ongoing wave of protests across Sudan will lead the country. Egypt’s leaders hope that Bashir will weather this storm and that his regime can wait out this period of unrest. Cairo’s relationship with Khartoum will likely continue improving with Bashir’s clique indebted to Egypt for its support during this ongoing crisis, possibly leading to a major political payoff for Cairo. Should Bashir survive this unrest, the odds are good that Egypt could extract concessions from Sudan on some of the unresolved contentious issues between the two states such as the GERD dispute, where recently Cairo has regarded Khartoum as siding with Ethiopia against Egypt, and the disputed question of sovereignty over the Halayeb Triangle.
Yet if Bashir fails to survive the revolutionary movements, the next regime may view Egypt negatively based on Cairo’s strong support for Sudan’s current president and his tactics for staying in power. Based on how quickly Egypt and Sudan have gone from tense relations that raised concerns about a war in 2018 to a rapprochement in 2019, Sisi is clearly willing to accept that risk and lend Bashir’s government the full support of Sudan’s neighbor to the north.