As Sudan moved towards achieving a democratic transition, Egypt, its northern neighbor, has been concerned about its reformist developments. From Cairo’s perspective, an unfriendly turn of events in Sudan could be damaging for its interests in various ways. 

Throughout its treacherous ongoing transition from dictatorship towards democracy, Sudan’s more positive developments have gained Egypt’s praise. Following the appointment of Prime Minister Abdallah Hamdouk and a new cabinet, in September 2019, Cairo congratulated the government and stressed both countries’ relations and historical ties. 

Yet Egypt has also been one of the states interfering in Sudan’s transition, adding to its historical involvement in the country. Egypt once viewed Sudan as being part of its territory. This was nurtured more so in the colonial era, when the Anglo-Egyptian Condominium was agreed between the British Empire and colonial-Egypt to jointly administer control over Sudan without conceding influence. Lasting until 1956, this was also to ensure that an independent Sudan, or one controlled by other colonial powers, could disrupt and dispute the water flow along the river Nile – a pressing issue even today. 

Egypt’s relations with Sudan quickly soured following Omar Bashir’s coup and ascension to power in 1989.

Egypt’s relations with Sudan quickly soured following Omar Bashir’s coup and ascension to power in 1989.  As president of Sudan, Bashir had formed an alliance with the Muslim Brotherhood – a faction that Egypt considers a terrorist organization. This made it challenging to deal with the government, according to Egypt’s former defense minister, Rakha Hassan, while other differences had also threatened Egypt’s own economic and security interests.

Due to Sudan’s instability with its second civil war, Egypt opposed the prospect and subsequent calls for southern secession in Sudan in 1997 peace talks, as this could have threatened its Nile water supply. Though in favor of a united Sudan, Cairo did not have much sway in the country’s future peace talks. 

Yet even after South Sudan seceded in 2011, Egypt scrambled to secure its own influence in the south. South Sudanese author Deng Aling wrote that Egypt aimed to secure the Sudan People’s Liberation Army’s (SPLA) influence over the south, unify the movement to gain influence over the country, and prevent attempts from Sudan, Israel, and Ethiopia to gain a hold in the South. This was meant to secure Egypt’s control over the Nile and prevent external attempts to use its water. 

Arguably the biggest challenge came in April 2019, when anti-government protests, starting as early as December 2018, gathered pace and eventually forced Bashir’s 30-year rule to end. This finally gave Cairo more of an opportunity to intervene in the country.

Soon after Bashir’s hasty departure, Cairo’s close Gulf allies Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates quickly moved in to ensure the survival of authoritarian military rule and prevent civilian democracy.

Soon after Bashir’s hasty departure, Cairo’s close Gulf allies Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates quickly moved in to ensure the survival of authoritarian military rule and prevent civilian democracy.

They pledged $3 billion to the Transitional Military Council (TMC) — this after Saudi Arabia had already paid some $90 million to the ex-president Al-Bashir — and supported a future government headed by General Abdel Fattah al-Burhan and his notorious deputy Mohammad Hamdan “Hemedti” Dagalo.  Hemedti is known for war crimes in Darfur under Bashir and massacres on protesters during sit-ins after Bashir’s downfall. 

Though Egypt voiced support for Sudan’s wishes following the revolution, it played a covert role in influencing the transition, with parallel objectives to Riyadh and Abu Dhabi’s. Hemedti and other TMC figures repeatedly visited Cairo, receiving President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi’s blessing. Meaning that alongside the abundant financial support they received, they also gained legitimacy at the time. Egypt’s support emboldened Hemedti and the TMC to brutally repress protesters following the revolution. 

Egyptians and external observers warned that Sudan’s revolution risked facing the same fate as Egypt’s failed transition; when the 2013 military coup had overthrown the elected Muslim Brotherhood government of Morsi, leading to increased authoritarianism.

Egypt had security concerns from its ‘backyard’ neighbor Sudan, particularly as five irregular armies existed prior to Bashir’s departure. Cairo has arguably sought to ensure that such divisions did not lead to civil war, as this was a worry following the regime change and the TMC’s ascension.

Aside from these security threats, Cairo had three main demands for the TMC: Hand over Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood exiles, do not provoke the disputed Hala’ib triangle issue – an Egypt-controlled district that has triggered Egyptian-Sudanese tensions since the colonial era– and suspend an agreement with Turkey to control the port city of Suakin and its alleged aims of building a military base there. 

Above all, Egypt sought a friendly regime to ensure its Nile water supply was not threatened. 

With some slight differences, all three – Egypt, Saudi Arabia, and the United Arab Emirates – were unified in seeking to contain democratic transformations in Sudan.

With some slight differences, all three – Egypt, Saudi Arabia, and the United Arab Emirates – were unified in seeking to contain democratic transformations in Sudan. Furthermore, it gave Cairo and its Gulf allies the opportunity to cleanse the new regime of Islamist influence. 

Egypt’s foreign policy since the 2013 coup has transformed notably. Having cracked down on the Muslim Brotherhood, Cairo has sought to fight the faction elsewhere. It has re-established cooperation with Israel to harshly blockade the Gaza Strip to isolate Hamas, which traditionally had Muslim Brotherhood links. And it has supported the rogue warlord Khalifa Haftar in Libya, whose self-styled Libyan National Army (LNA) has tried to forcefully seize control of the country and crush political Islamists like the Brotherhood.

Cairo also saw an opportunity to drive Sudan away from Qatar, whom all three states intervening in Sudan had blockaded and severed ties with since June 2017, accusing the Gulf state of supporting “terrorism”. 

Egypt in its tripartite alliance with Riyadh and Abu Dhabi actually persuaded Sudan’s powerful military generals to dispose of Bashir, since his alliance with Turkey and Qatar and warmth to the Brotherhood had threatened Cairo. 

Riyadh and Abu Dhabi do not share Egypt’s traditional economic, security, and strategic concerns in the country, and therefore have a more short-sighted strategy.

Yet Riyadh and Abu Dhabi do not share Egypt’s traditional economic, security, and strategic concerns in the country, and therefore have a more short-sighted strategy. This could in fact isolate Egypt and limit its future abilities to influence Sudan’s regime, particularly should a post-transitional government continue rejecting external interference, as the opposition has previously done. 

After all, given the sheer magnitude of protests in Sudan, as well as pressure from the U.S. and the African Union, the military was forced to sign a power-sharing deal with the Sudanese opposition in July 2019. Furthermore, Hemedti’s wishes to establish himself as a future Sudanese strongman are limited by his heinous reputation for military violations. 

However, Cairo may seek to use the threat of Ethiopia’s Grand Renaissance Dam on the Nile, which has been under construction since 2011, to unify relations with Sudan. Both Khartoum and Cairo have feared this project could jeopardize their own water supplies and even pursued talks with Ethiopia over such future concerns in December 2019. With warnings that Egypt may face an ‘absolute water crisis’ by 2025, maximizing its water control is evidently vital for Cairo. 

Though the path forward is still uncertain and Sudan’s future government likely won’t be as easily manipulated by Egypt, the stakes are still very high for the neighboring countries’ relationship.