Egypt/Sudan: Could a military government in Khartoum be good news for Cairo?

By Mourad R. Kamel

Posted on Thursday, 2 December 2021 19:19, updated on Friday, 3 December 2021 09:57
Egypt Sudan
Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi meets Sudan's Gen. Abdel Fattah Abdelrahman al-Burhan at the Presidential Palace in Khartoum, Sudan, Saturday, March. 6, 2021. (Presidency of Sudan via AP)

While the international community criticised the military coup led by Sudan’s General Abdel Fattah al-Burhan in October, its neighbour Egypt kept a neutral position, leading many to wonder if Khartoum’s military government is an asset to Cairo.

In 1995, former Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak arrived in Addis Ababa to attend the opening of an Organisation of African Unity summit. He would have never believed that upon his arrival, and for the third time in 22 months, his enemies would try to take his life, but in vain.

The motorcade which carried Mubarak – who had just landed in the Ethiopian capital – had reached the Palestine Embassy near Meskel Square, when two vehicles blocked its path and gunmen started shooting at the president’s car. Two of his bodyguards were killed, and the president was whisked away to the airport to return to Cairo.

Egypt accused Sudanese leader Hasan al-Turabi, while Ethiopia severed diplomatic relations with Sudan. Cairo also managed to have the UN Security Council impose sanctions on Sudan, with the USA adding the African country to its list of State Sponsors of Terrorism.

It was not until December 2020 that the Trump administration removed Sudan from the list, but the dynamics of power between both countries had already changed, following the 2011 uprising that shook Egypt and the rest of the region.

With radical domestic changes and a noticeable political absence in the international scene, the ensuing chaos exposed Egypt’s weak power structure. Cairo became more reliant on Gulf states as its economy became volatile. This power vacuum has waned Egypt’s influence on Sudan and the rest of the Horn of Africa.

There is some indication of dissonance between the more securitised elements of Emirati policymaking […] and those in the country’s ministry of foreign affairs […]

That same year, Ethiopia began construction on its Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam (GERD). Egypt thus began to slowly lose its hydro hegemony as the Nile Basin dynamics between upstream and downstream countries shifted. Addis Ababa also began to exclude Cairo from competing with other Middle Eastern powers for regional influence in the Horn of Africa. Instead, regional hegemony intensified between the Saudi-Emerati bloc versus the Qatar-Turkey one.

A decade later, the region has been revamped. Egypt has regained its regional position and pertinence as a regional power by brokering talks between Israel and Hamas as well as its rapprochement with Turkey, and by modernising its warfare. Sudan, on the other hand, was shaken by a civil uprising that led to the end of Omar al-Bashir’s 21-year grip on power. This was followed by a transitional government and most recently, a military coup.

Egypt’s possible involvement in Sudan’s 25 October coup

On 25 October, when the Sudanese people woke up to news that the military had taken control of the country and arrested key government officials – including Prime Minister Abdalla Hamdok –  many took to the streets. To date, the military has killed and abused civilians protesting against the coup.

However, many of them have been pointing to Egypt’s support for the military. “The two Abdel Fattah[s] are often compared, as people are very critical of Egypt’s influence on the coup in Sudan. Many Sudanese protesters say that Burhan is Sisi’s client,” says Eliott Brachet, an independent journalist who has reported on events in Sudan since September 2020.

Suspicions of Egypt meddling in Sudanese politics are not irrelevant. The Wall Street Journal reported that on the day prior to the coup, Burhan had “reassured Jeffrey Feltman, the US envoy to Sudan, that he didn’t intend to seize power”. According to the article, after this exchange, the 61-year-old Sudanese General boarded a plane to Egypt, where he met with President Sisi, who reassured him that his plot would get regional support, as reported in the WSJ.

“Burhan’s auspicious pre-coup meeting with Sisi in Cairo, as well as a meeting of Sudanese intelligence and RSF officials in Israel is one of a range of indicators that suggest Sudan’s military consulted with Egypt and Israel ahead of the coup,” says Jonas Horner, deputy project director for the Horn of Africa at International Crisis Group.

Looking in the mirror

Burhan might remind Sisi of his younger self as both men have had similar resumes. Other than holding the same first name, they were both military trained in Egypt and are both concerned that the GERD will deprive them of precious water resources.

Most importantly, however, both men seized power in the aftermath of chaos. Sisi was 59 years old (just two years younger than Burhan is today) when he took over in 2014, after President Mohamed Morsi was ousted. Nevertheless, contrary to Sisi, who enjoyed Saudi and Emirati backing at the time, Burhan finds himself alone: Riyad and Abu Dhabi were part of a US/UK joint statement urging him to restore the transitional government in Sudan.

“There is some indication of dissonance between the more securitised elements of Emirati policymaking [that are] comfortable with a larger role for Sudan’s military and those in the country’s ministry of foreign affairs that viewed the coup as a concern for peace and stability in Sudan,” says Horner.

Sudan’s stability is key to the Egypt

Since the fall of Omar al-Bashir’s regime in 2019, Egypt and Sudan have grown closer. In 2021, Sisi visited Khartoum for the first time since becoming president in 2014. Both governments signed a military cooperation agreement in which Cairo pledged to meet Khartoum’s military needs, as numerous countries from the Horn were facing security turmoil. This rapprochement has prompted the Egyptians to support the Sudanese army and sustain a common vision of military rule in Sudan.

[…] a Sudan which is weakened by internal disturbances and [division], would not be in Egypt’s best interests.

“A military-dominated or military-friendly government in Khartoum is good news for Cairo’s attempts to pressure Ethiopia into a favourable resolution to the contested final aspects of the GERD negotiations. The erstwhile civilian-led government indicated a far more balanced approach to the issue that more readily promoted Sudan’s interests. Egypt is also concerned about the prospect of Sudan drawing more heavily on the Nile as part of its own attempts to boost agricultural productivity to help the recovery of its sclerotic economy,” says Horner.

Senior General Mohamed Daglo – the right hand man of Abdel Fattah al-Burhan – says the US and the EU don’t have much choice but to support the coup in Sudan, if their respective leaders want to avoid a new refugee crisis. ​​“Because of our commitment to the international community and the law, we are keeping these people together,” he told Politico, leaving many to wonder whose responsibility it is.

Denial of involvement

Even so, Egypt rejects any accusations of its involvement in the coup, underlining that it does not meddle in the affairs of other countries. During the opening of the US-Egypt Strategic Dialogue, US Secretary of State Anthony Blinken stated that both countries have “a shared interest” in re-establishing Sudan’s democratic transition. According to Al-Monitor, Maryam Al Mahdi, Sudan’s recent foreign affairs minister, said the civilian camp in Sudan had “good ties with the Egyptians and almost daily contact”, but she has not been heard from since the coup took place.

“There’s a portion of Sudanese civil society that thinks that Egypt has supported the coup in Sudan. However, I do not think there’s any truth in that because a Sudan which is weakened by internal disturbances and [division], would not be in Egypt’s best interests,” says Sherif, an independent political analyst, who directs The Egyptian Analysis – a blog which focuses on political and military news in regard to Egypt. “It’s important for Egypt and Sudan to have a coordinated stance when it comes to the GERD, especially given that any threat from the GERD would have higher implications on Sudan than Egypt.”

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