Egypt will host a summit on Sudan on Thursday, involving various military and civilian groups from Sudan as well as the crisis-ridden country’s neighbours.
The summit aims to “develop effective mechanisms” for restoring peace. Given how much of a threat continued fighting in Sudan poses to Egypt, it is understandable how the leadership in Cairo has seized this opportunity to try to help bring stability back to its southern neighbour.
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As Sudan’s military strongmen fight each other for power, the three-month conflict has spilled over its borders and Egypt has many concerns pertaining to its border security, territorial integrity, sovereignty and economic health.
Cairo is wary after the conflict in Libya, another neighbour, represented major challenges, so President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi’s government is determined to fortify Egypt against the crisis in Sudan.
Egypt’s leaders would like Sudan’s conflict to wind down without General Mohamed Hamdan Dagalo, also known as “Hemedti”, emerging as the dominant figure in Sudan’s political arena. He is the leader of the Rapid Support Forces (RSF) paramilitary.
Until the fighting does end, Cairo is determined to at least have it take place as far away from Egypt’s territory as possible.
Non-state actors could potentially exploit Sudan’s crisis in ways that would directly threaten Egypt.
Since the 2011 Egyptian revolution, the country has faced attacks from al-Qaeda-affiliated groups crossing into Egypt as well as smuggling, which helps explain Cairo’s militarisation of its southern border.
“At a security level, the Egyptian leadership is concerned about the risk of terrorist infiltration along the border,” Alessia Melcangi, senior fellow at the Atlantic Council, told Al Jazeera. “This situation would put additional pressure on the Egyptian security forces, who are already engaged on the western border with Libya and at the border crossing with the Gaza Strip in defence of the Sinai Peninsula.”
The possibility of Sudan’s crisis spreading to other African countries is also unsettling to el-Sisi’s government. “Cairo does not want to have any repercussions from the division in Khartoum,” Imad Harb, the director of research and analysis at the Arab Center Washington DC think tank, said in an interview with Al Jazeera. “Most importantly, however, is the fear that extensions of the conflict in Chad and the Central African Republic, but definitely in Libya, may help create security issues for Egyptian authorities.”
The timing of Sudan’s crisis is bad for Egypt. As a country on the brink of default, Egypt’s credit rating could be downgraded to junk status, meaning that its bonds would be worth very little.
“The [Egyptian] economy is in an extremely fragile state, damaged by years of borrowing and the effects of the pandemic and the Russian invasion of Ukraine,” said Mirette F Mabrouk, a Middle East Institute senior fellow and founding director of the institute’s Egypt studies programme. “Inflation has soared to its highest-ever level. There is a hard currency shortage, and the budget has already seen cuts to social spending.”
Egypt now waits for another IMF bailout and hopes to secure more money from Gulf Cooperation Council states. But Gulf support is “unlikely because nobody wants to put money in a country such as Egypt, where money is completely being wasted for vanity projects, such as that new capital outside of Cairo”, according to Andreas Krieg, an associate professor at the Defence Studies Department of King’s College London.
Gregory Aftandilian, a senior professorial lecturer at American University in Washington, DC, also doubts that Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates or Qatar would provide much help to Egypt any time soon. “The Gulf states have given Egypt billions of dollars over the past decade, but now they seem to want strings attached to their aid,” he told Al Jazeera.
Roughly 256,000 Sudanese refugees have entered Egypt since mid-April. Without an end in sight to Sudan’s turmoil, hundreds of thousands more Sudanese might come to Egypt later this year, making the government fearful of the potential financial burden.
Sudan’s conflict has also negatively impacted Egypt from a trade standpoint, especially in the agricultural sector. “Sudan is a major importer of Egyptian manufactured goods and exporter of agricultural products to Egypt,” Harb said.
Consequently, officials in Cairo expect food prices to be affected, and political stability in Egypt is always linked to food prices.
Tensions with Ethiopia
The Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam (GERD) also fits into the picture. Egypt and Sudan, which are downstream from the dam, have been in a dispute with Ethiopia over the GERD’s construction for years. The stakes are high because 95 percent of Egypt’s water comes from the Nile.
“The Nile River is vital to both [Egypt and Sudan] as it serves as a crucial resource for water, food, transportation and agriculture,” Melcangi told Al Jazeera. “Any decrease in water supplies would have catastrophic impacts on Egypt’s food security and jeopardise the livelihoods of millions of people involved in its agricultural sector.”
Continued warfare in Sudan may undermine Khartoum’s ability to help Cairo negotiate with Addis Ababa.
“While Sudan and Egypt do not have entirely the same concerns about the dam, there had been enough of an overlap to ensure that they both presented a fairly unified front in the negotiations,” Mabrouk said. “The war upends any guarantees about that unified front.”
Within this context, Harb explained that “another important concern is that Ethiopia might find that it is in its interest to support the RSF against the [Sudanese army] that Egypt supports”, which would be “calamitous for Egypt” given the GERD conflict. Considering Hemedti’s links to Ethiopia, the Egyptians see the RSF as posing an intolerable threat to Egypt, leaving Cairo with the view that supporting army chief Abdel Fattah al-Burhan is necessary.
Despite its proximity, Cairo lacks the on-the-ground influence that Abu Dhabi and Riyadh have built up in Sudan.
Egypt also does not belong to the so-called Quad, comprising Saudi Arabia, the United Kingdom, the United States and the UAE, which sponsors mediation in Sudan in coordination with the United Nations and the African Union.
Despite such factors, Egypt has been pursuing diplomatic approaches towards Sudan aimed at winding down the crisis, which has entailed Cairo not only doubling down on its support for Sudan’s army but also engaging Sudanese figures such as the Justice and Equality Movement’s Gibril Ibrahim and the Sudanese Liberation Army’s Minni Arko Minnawi, whom the Egyptians will be proposing to the Quad as suitable candidates for leadership roles in the country, according to Krieg.
However, el-Sisi’s government has been somewhat sidelined by the Quad with Riyadh, Abu Dhabi, London, and Washington not necessarily seeing Cairo as a key broker in Sudan, Krieg said, adding, however, that this does not negate the fact that Egypt has “spoiling power”.
It remains to be seen what tomorrow’s summit can achieve. Up until this point, Egypt supporting Saudi-hosted talks in Jeddah seemed to have been Cairo’s best option.
Krieg explained that the Egyptians have recently been hopeful that Saudi Arabia, which appears to be leaning toward a slightly more pro-SAF (rather than pro-RSF) stance, and Qatar will be more on Egypt’s side in terms of backing al-Burhan in contrast to the UAE which has been backing Hemedti.
“Egypt’s ability to influence events in Sudan and mitigate these threats of instability depends on the capacity of the Egyptian government to maintain and strengthen its regional role,” Melcangi told Al Jazeera.
However, if Cairo’s diplomatic initiatives and attempts at collaborating with various regional and international powers vis-à-vis Sudan fail, “Egypt may be left with no alternative but to counter national security threats by intervening militarily or providing full support and backup to SAF [Sudan’s armed forces], which carries the risk of a potential escalation of the conflict.”
Other experts have made similar assessments. “If this war was to intensify or prolong for an indefinite period of time with more migrants coming across the border, Egypt would have to step up its game,” Krieg said.
“One way of doing this would be, at first, to more indirectly support the SAF with material weapons – arms and munitions – but also potentially sending Egyptian special forces or defence intelligence over the border to do more planning, direction, training programmes to fight the RSF.”