Sudan crisis: Egypt’s dilemma over the fighting
April 23, 2023 -BBC News -Sudan’s powerful neighbour to the north is watching what is going there with trepidation, but Egypt seems paralysed, unable to take a clear position.
In fact, it finds itself in a dilemma even though it is likely to bear the brunt of a prolonged conflict.
Egypt is close to one of the two sides in the fighting – Sudan’s army. Meanwhile, the other side, the Rapid Support Forces under Mohamed Hamdan “Hemedti” Dagalo, is believed to be backed by the United Arab Emirates, which is a major financial supporter of Egypt.
Egypt already hosts an estimated five million Sudanese, who are fleeing either poverty or fighting. The two countries have a free movement agreement, which provides for their peoples to move in both directions to live and work.
In recent years, it has been hard not to notice the palpable increase in the number of Sudanese migrants in the Egyptian capital.
You encounter them everywhere in Cairo – as workers in supermarkets or small grocery shops, as housemaids or as staff in restaurants.
The increase is so marked that in just oneyear, two ad hoc bus terminals sprung up in central Cairo. Egyptians refer to these jokingly as “the Sudanese airport”.
A young Sudanese man tells me it takes three days to get to Khartoum in a journey costing 800 Egyptian pounds ($26; £21). There are an estimated 25 daily bus trips between Khartoum and Cairo, amounting to around 37,000 trips each month.
These numbers could easily swell if the fighting doesn’t end soon.
But that is not the only reason peace and stability in Sudan matter for Egypt.
A weak regime in Khartoum, or the emergence of an alternative political order that is hostile to Cairo, could have serious repercussions further north.
Egypt has long regarded Sudan as an indispensable ally in its long-running dispute with Ethiopia over the controversial Renaissance Dam. Egypt has described the giant hydroelectric project on the Blue Nile in northern Ethiopia as an existential threat because of its potential to control the flow of the river that is vital to life in the country.
Despite the enormous importance of Sudan to Egypt’s strategic interests, the government of President Abdul Fattah al-Sisi appears to have struggled to come out with a credible response to the chaos in Khartoum.
It was only after it emerged that some of its soldiers had been captured by the Rapid Support Forces that the army issued a terse statement. Two days later President Sisi said Egypt would not take sides in the conflict and offered to mediate.
But few believed the sincerity behind this neutral stance.
It has been obvious for a while that Egypt was coordinating closely with the Sudanese army – the soldiers who had been captured were in the country as part of a joint exercise. They have since been evacuated back home.
But you can understand why it is hard for Egypt to publicly announce its preferences. This is partly due to the complexity of the political landscape in Sudan and the stark similarity of recent developments in the two countries.
Both Egypt and Sudan have had their own revolutions.
Hosni Mubarak in Egypt in 2011, and President Omar al-Bashir in Sudan in 2019. In both cases the military played a decisive role in removing the head of state.
In Egypt, the military have thwarted the transition to democracy. That is why there is justifiable fear among the Sudanese political elite that the Egyptian military would encourage the Sudanese army to do the same.
Publicly, the Sudanese military continues to say that its soldiers would not stop the transition, but the protest movement that spearheaded the revolution in 2019, the Forces for Freedom and Change, do not believe them and are fearful of Egyptian meddling.