Egypt – Sudan: Does Burhan visit signal Cairo’s backing?

By Sherif Tarek
Posted on Monday, 18 April 2022 16:12

Sudan's Abdel Fattah al-Burhan beside Egypt's Abdel Fattah al-Sisi © Egyptian Presidency/Handout/EPA/MaxPPP
Sudan's Abdel Fattah al-Burhan beside Egypt's Abdel Fattah al-Sisi © Egyptian Presidency/Handout/EPA/MaxPPP

Abdel Fattah al-Burhan made his first visit to Cairo since Sudan's October coup d’état. While some saw his visit as a clear-cut sign of Egypt's political endorsement with Khartoum, others see it as simply pragmatism.

In recent years, Cairo and Khartoum have grown closer in terms of military cooperation, Red Sea security and trade. The pair teamed up, for example, to push back against Ethiopia’s Grand Renaissance Dam (GERD) to protect their share of Nile water.

But apart from diplomatic calls to break Sudan’s wayward deadlock through dialogue, Egypt has not formally taken sides in the aftermath of its southern neighbour’s coup, which was followed by international condemnation.

Egypt’s stance on the coup came into question when Burhan – following a Gulf tour that included stops in Abu Dhabi and Riyadh – paid a visit to Cairo on 30 March, his first since removing the country’s civilian Premier Minister Abdalla Hamdok and other governmental officials from their duties.

Precarious, not entirely trustworthy

For decades, Burhan served under the longstanding autocrat Omar al-Bashir, climbing up the ladder within the military institution during the Islamist president’s reign.

Following the ouster of Bashir on the back of mass demonstrations in 2019, a short-lived military-civilian government was formed by Bashir’s affiliates and Hamdok. The latter, seeking to tame rampant stagflation, put in place austerity measures. This stirred public anger, before Burhan led the coup to kick off a new one-man show.

Burhan has been evoking memories of Bashir’s internationally-deplored practices, such as violent crackdowns on protests, and drawing criticism and condemnation in recent months.

Burhan has not proved that he has severed ties with the old regime that belongs to the Muslim Brotherhood.

This, in addition to his links to the Islamist camp, has put some distance between the Sudanese military strongman and the Egyptian regime as well as the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC), even with the existing collaboration among them, says Amani el-Taweel, an Africa-focused researcher at the Cairo-based Al-Ahram Center for Political and Strategic Studies.

“You can’t rule out the possibility that another coup would take place in Sudan [against Burhan] like the one that happened during the time of Bashir,” she tells The Africa Report.

“Burhan has not proved that he has severed ties with the old regime that belongs to the Muslim Brotherhood,” which Egypt and other Gulf states, particularly Saudi Arabia and UAE, deem a political outcast, says Taweel.

Still worthy of backing?

Despite renouncing political Islam, Egypt and the UAE “prefer military regimes which are easier to deal with” than democratic governments like the one that was headed by Hamdok, says Mohamed Kheir Omer, a former Sudan Commissioner for Refugees, and political analyst focusing on the Horn of Africa.

There is no doubt that Egypt supports the coup, despite its quiet diplomacy.

Receiving Burhan in the Egyptian capital is tantamount to a semi-official announcement that Cairo is backing the incumbent Sudanese authority “with all its soft and hard power”, he adds.

“According to media sources, Burhan visited Egypt one day before the coup and announced the coup after he came back from there,” Omer tells The Africa Report. “Egyptian officials also visited Sudan after the coup. There is no doubt that Egypt supports the coup, despite its quiet diplomacy.”

Burhan, who has been leading a transitional council in Sudan, has been facing international sanctions over what critics describe as an encroachment on democracy.

Protests against him over the past months, amid an ailing economy, have been recurring and often end with deadly clashes with security forces; the death toll of civilians has exceeded 90. 

With the mounting pressure, Burhan has been on the lookout for foreign support to validate his status and burnish his image. “Egypt’s support does legitimise the coup,” Omer says.

At the end of the day, it’s all about GERD

Supporting Burhan or not, Egypt’s compelling interests with Sudan may, above all, delineate both countries’ bilateral ties.

“Egypt wants more support on the GERD and may have other concerns such as economic relations, the risk of increasing instability in Sudan and countering UAE and Israeli influence in Sudan, a country Cairo considers to be within its domain of influence,” Will Davison, Nairobi-based senior analyst at the International Crisis Group, tells The Africa Report.

A statement by the Egyptian presidency following the meeting between Burhan and Egypt’s President Abdel-Fattah al-Sisi in late March, said: “Egypt realises the critical circumstances Sudan is currently going through”.

I can say that this is dealing with reality, because we’re on the verge of the third filling of the Renaissance Dam and this is the authority in charge in Sudan regardless of whether this authority is [publicly] backed or elected.

It has also stressed the need to continue “intensive consultations and mutual coordination” to put an end to the drawn-out feud over GERD.

Taweel perceives the meeting between Burhan and Sisi to be a much-needed step to face the possible menace of GERD. “I cannot consider this [the visit] to be official support” for Burhan, she says.

“I can say that this is dealing with reality, because we’re on the verge of the third filling of the Renaissance Dam and this is the authority in charge in Sudan regardless of whether this authority is [publicly] backed or elected.”

Different priorities and motives

While the statement of the Egyptian presidency highlights the “common destiny” Egypt and Sudan share, it overlooks the different approaches the two nations have taken towards GERD.

Under the premiership of Hamdok, Sudan started to take a firm stand over GERD only after Ethiopia had refused to sign the Washington tripartite agreement in February 2020. Both countries were concurrently at loggerheads over al-Fashaga border conflict. Beforehand, Sudan’s posture on GERD was anything but decisive.

“For Egypt, GERD has always remained the main concern. For Sudan that may not be the case at the moment. I think keeping the fertile al-Fashaga triangle that was retaken from Ethiopia is the main concern for Sudan,” Omer says.

Glue between Egypt and Sudan

The topic of GERD may have been what brought closer relations Cairo and Khartoum in recent years.

Although Taweel does not expect Sudan’s position towards GERD under Burhan to differ greatly from that of the ousted government, both Egypt and Sudan remain set on reaching an accord with Ethiopia.

READ MORE GERD: The dam of discord

“Egypt appears keener on adopting a tougher stance towards Ethiopia over the GERD than Sudan, which is consumed with internal affairs,” says Davison.

“Possible options include renewed diplomatic escalation and strengthening the Egypt-Sudan military alliance,” he adds.

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