Ongoing tensions in the Red Sea region came to the fore in late December, when Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan visited Sudan as part of his Africa tour. During the visit, Erdogan and his Sudanese counterpart, Omar al-Bashir, signed more than a dozen agreements to boost the economic partnership between the two nations.
Among these agreements was a deal to temporarily hand over the Red Sea island of Suakin to Turkey. Ankara and Khartoum said Turkish investors would rebuild the ruined, sparsely populated island to increase tourism and create a transit point for Muslim pilgrims crossing the Red Sea to reach the holy city of Mecca in Saudi Arabia.
The agreement over Suakin has triggered a heated debate in the region, as many saw Erdogan’s move as an attempt to establish a third military base – after the ones in Qatar and Somalia – outside Turkey’s borders.
Egyptian and Saudi media have harshly criticised the agreement, categorising Erdogan’s move as yet another attempt by what they call the “Turkey-Iran-Qatar axis” to undermine the stability and security of the so-called “Sunni moderate alliance”, which includes Saudi Arabia, Egypt and the UAE.
In a joint press conference with his Sudanese counterpart in Khartoum, Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu strongly denied the existence of such an “axis”, but he was unable to ease the tensions and convince the Egyptian leadership that the agreement over Suakin does not pose a threat for Cairo.
But Erdogan’s visit to Sudan was in no way the beginning of the dispute between Sudan and Egypt. Relations between Cairo and Khartoum have long been strained, with ongoing disagreements over issues such as the Hala’ib Triangle border dispute and the Renaissance Dam project in Ethiopia.
The Hala’ib Triangle is an area of land of just under 20,500 square kilometres on the Egyptian-Sudanese border, which both countries have claim over since Sudan gained independence from Britain in 1956. In the 1990s, Egypt deployed its military in the territory, but, in the following two decades, the dispute was somewhat frozen.
In 2016, it flared up again. That year, Cairo signed a controversial agreement with Riyadh to hand over two strategically important Red Sea islands – Tiran and Sanafir – to Saudi Arabia. The agreement, which redrew the maritime border between the two countries, also unilaterally recognised Egypt’s sovereignty over the Hala’ib Triangle.
In December last year, Sudan sent a letter to the UN declaring its total rejection of the deal. Egyptian officials swiftly condemned the letter and reiterated that the triangle is “Egyptian territory”.
In response, Sudan recalled its ambassador from Cairo for consultations on January 4.
Meanwhile, in what may have been a response to Sudan’s renewed claims over the Hala’ib Triangle, as well as fears that Turkey is expanding its influence in the region, Egypt sent hundreds of its troops to a UAE base in Eritrea, on the border with Sudan.
Egypt denied any military presence in Eritrea, but the damage was done. Days later, Sudan shut its border with Eritrea and deployed thousands of troops there.
There are indications that Khartoum is actually trying to escalate the ongoing confrontation with Egypt, in order to exploit the nationalist sentiments of the Sudanese people and divert attention from the country’s grave internal problems – particularly the current protests over the new austerity budget and the increase of the price of bread and other basic goods. However, Egypt may be inclined to de-escalate until after its presidential elections later this year.
Another reason behind the current tensions between Egypt and Sudan is the ongoing construction of the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam (GERD). The dam, which will be the seventh-largest hydroelectric power plant in the world when completed, is located in the Benishangul-Gumuz Region of Ethiopia, only 40km east of the country’s border with Sudan.
Cairo fears the dam may affect its access to water from the Nile River basin. The Egyptian government believes Sudan to be on Ethiopia’s side regarding the future of the dam, and recently proposed excluding it from contentious negotiations over the future of the project, angering the Sudanese government.
Sudan argues that its responsibility is to protect its own interests in the dispute, and not Egypt’s. Khartoum wants to stay part of the negotiations on an issue which will undoubtedly affect the lives of the Sudanese people, and the future of the country.
Sudan stands to benefit a lot from the project. Ethiopia will be selling electricity to its northern neighbour; a planned transmission line will connect the Ethiopian electrical grid to Khartoum.
The dam project will also limit flooding of the Blue Nile in Sudan, allowing farmers to have to crop cycles per year.
But even the disputes over the Hala’ib Triangle and the Renaissance Dam project cannot be seen as the root causes of the current confrontation between Egypt and Sudan. The conflict between the two countries is deeper and more complicated, with historical, political and, most importantly, ideological dimensions.
Cairo accuses Khartoum of supporting Muslim Brotherhood plans to overthrow the regime of Egyptian President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi. Sudan views Sisi and his government as “putschists”, who illegally overthrew Egypt’s first democratically elected president, Mohamed Morsi of the Muslim Brotherhood.
Bashir himself came to power in a military coup in 1989; he allied himself with Hassan al-Turabi, the leader of a Sudanese offshoot of the Muslim Brotherhood. About a decade later, the two fell out and al-Turabi was subsequently imprisoned.
When the GCC crisis erupted in June 2017, Sudan was in an uncomfortable situation. For the previous few years, it had tried to stay neutral during intra-GCC disputes, maintaining a close relationship with Qatar, but also sending troops to back the UAE and Saudi war effort in Yemen.
Last year, Khartoum refused to cut relations with Doha and was pushed out of the UAE-Saudi camp. Bashir’s overarching objective out of this game of alliances is to survive in power and secure his chance to run in the 2020 elections.
He realised that even though the US removed sanctions against Sudan, it is not interested in pushing for the International Criminal Court to drop the charges against him, nor does it support him to run in the 2020 elections. Hence, Bashir shifted towards Russia and Turkey.
Sudan’s neighbours, Eritrea and Ethiopia, have also become party to the GCC crisis.
Ethiopia, just like Sudan, has become closer to Qatar in its struggle to navigate the ongoing tensions in the Gulf. The Ethiopian government, which previously accused Egypt of supporting separatist movements on Ethiopian territory, understandably chose to place itself against Egypt in this conflict.
Meanwhile, Eritrea, which is in the midst of a long-standing conflict with Ethiopia, has taken the side of Saudi Arabia, Egypt and UAE, the latter having a military base on Eritrean territory.
If Turkey actually establishes a military base on Sudan’s Suakin Island in the near future, it is reasonable to expect Eritrea to play a pivotal role on behalf of Egypt, Saudi Arabia and the UAE in counter-balancing Turkish military presence in the region. President Isaias Afwerki may exploit Egypt, Saudi Arabia and the UAE’s dependence on Eritrea on this issue to carry out hostile actions against both Ethiopia and Sudan.
Whatever happens between Egypt and Sudan in the coming days, it is evident that the GCC crisis has already spread to the Nile basin and the Horn of Africa. Consequently, the region may be pushed into new proxy conflicts in the near future. Regional and sub-regional organisations such as the African Union and Intergovernmental Authority on Development (IGAD) should intervene to de-escalate these tensions and negative developments.
Editor’s note: A previous version of this article incorrectly stated that Sudan gained independence from Egypt in 1956. Sudan became independent from Britain that year.
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial policy.