Egyptian-Sudanese Relations on the Mend, but Tensions Remain

Egyptian-Sudanese relations are currently improving although the nature of their ties over the years remains prone to rapid change. Part of their problems are bilateral such as the Nile River flows, the land dispute over the Halaib triangle on the Red Sea, and infiltration by extremists across the porous border, and part are regional and multilateral, with Egypt aligning closer to the Saudi-Emirati bloc while Sudan becoming friendly with Qatar and Turkey. Both camps are vying for influence in the region and that has contributed to making bilateral Egyptian-Sudanese relations extremely tense over the past year.

Egypt’s and Sudan’s checkered history often works as an unpleasant backdrop of a number of current disputes.

Despite occasional saber rattling, however, neither Egypt nor Sudan wants a war, as each country has enough domestic troubles at this point. A recent, tentative agreement between Egypt, Sudan, and Ethiopia over the Nile River waters may spell a genuine rapprochement at this stage between Cairo and Khartoum. But given the volatility of the region and the outstanding issues between Egypt and Sudan, it is unclear how long this recent easing of tensions will last.

Long and Checkered History

Current problems between Egypt and Sudan have a long and complicated history. Egypt periodically laid claim to its southern neighbor, and during the British colonial era Sudan was officially described as being under an “Anglo-Egyptian Condominium.” Both British and Egyptian civil servants administered the country, though the British were clearly the ones in charge. When Egypt in 1951 unilaterally abrogated its 1936 treaty with Britain, one of its chief demands was the unification of Egypt and Sudan under Cairo’s leadership.

As Britain was preparing Sudan for independence in the mid-1950s, Egypt’s new nationalist leader, Gamal Abdel Nasser, initially believed that Sudan should be joined with Egypt, but had to relent since that was going to complicate his overriding objective of compelling the British to withdraw their troops from Egypt. Despite Nasser’s support for Sudanese independence, many Sudanese political figures still suspected Egypt’s intentions. Indeed, even to this day, many Sudanese feel that Egypt has long acted as a patronizing big sister to its southern neighbor. From Cairo’s perspective, Sudan, as a much poorer country, has acted as an ungrateful neighbor, not wishing to take its advice based on its long diplomatic experience in the region. This checkered history often works as an unpleasant backdrop of a number of current disputes.

The Land Dispute

One of the major disputes that came with independence was the unresolved disposition of the Halaib triangle, a large piece of land (more than 20,000 square kilometers) in southeastern Egypt and northeastern Sudan that abuts the Red Sea. In 1899, British colonial authorities set a political boundary between Egypt and Sudan along the 22nd parallel; but in 1902 they created an administrative boundary in the corner north of the 22nd parallel and placed it under the jurisdiction of the Anglo-Egyptian Condominium. After independence, both Egypt and Sudan claimed the territory, and both sent administrators there who lived in a kind of uneasy co-existence.

Things came to a head in the early 1990s when Sudan granted a Canadian oil company the right to explore for oil off of Halaib’s coast. Two years after Egypt strongly objected to the scheme, the Canadian firm pulled out until the sovereignty question was resolved. In 1995, Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak ordered Egyptian troops into Halaib after partially blaming Sudan for an assassination attempt on his life in Ethiopia the same year (Cairo accused Khartoum of harboring the perpetrators). In reality, however, occupying the area was done for economic reasons since it is rich in minerals and has great potential for oil exploration off its coast.

Egypt is also concerned that the Bashir government is not diligent enough in preventing extremists from moving through Sudan into Egypt.

Deposed President Mohammed Morsi is rumored to have promised to return the area to its pre-1995 status, but the Egyptian military rejected any move in that direction. Still, however, Sudan never accepted Egypt’s de facto control of the area, and in December 2017, Sudanese leader Omar al-Bashir raised the issue again by sending a letter to the United Nations condemning a Saudi-Egyptian agreement that officially recognized Halaib as Egyptian territory. This episode led to a war of words between Egypt and Sudan with both countries recalling their ambassadors in early January 2018 for consultations.

Egypt and Turkey’s New Role in Sudan and the Red Sea

Contributing to the renewal of the Halaib controversy was the visit by Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoǧan to Sudan in December of 2017. He not only signed a number of agreements with Bashir to boost economic ties between the two countries but won the right to “rebuild” the sparsely populated island of Suakin off Sudan’s Red Sea coast, ostensibly for tourism purposes. However, rumors soon circulated that Turkey’s real intention was to establish a naval base on the island that would both make it a contender for power in the Red Sea and further its regional ambitions since it recently established bases in Qatar and Somalia. Egypt reacted by condemning Erdoǧan’s moves––its state-owned press characterized the move as a Turkey-Iran-Qatar axis at work to undermine the moderate Sunni Muslim Egypt-Saudi Arabia-United Arab Emirates bloc––and by reportedly sending troops to a UAE base in Eritrea as a counterweight to the Turkish moves.

Egypt under President Abdel Fatah el-Sisi is highly suspicious of Turkey because of its stance regarding his 2013 ouster of Muslim Brotherhood President Mohammad Morsi, which it considered an illegitimate coup. Turkey also gave sanctuary to exiled Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood activists and even allowed them to establish media outlets that sharply criticize the Egyptian government. Moreover, Erdoǧan is making serious strategic moves in the area. He is boosting relations with Sudan (which Egypt believes is still too tolerant of the Brotherhood despite Bashir’s break long ago with Hassan al-Turabi, its leader in Sudan), possibly establishing a military presence in Egypt’s backyard, and positioning Turkey along the Red Sea’s shipping lanes toward the Suez Canal, all prompting Egypt to feel dangerously encircled.

The Problem with Extremists

Egypt is also concerned that the Bashir government is not diligent enough in preventing extremists from moving through Sudan into Egypt. Cairo has been engaged in a bloody battle against the terrorist group, Wilayat Sinai (Sinai Province), an affiliate of the so-called Islamic State (IS), which has conducted a number of large-scale attacks in the North Sinai region. In addition, Egypt faces terrorist attacks from other groups in the Egyptian mainland (along the Nile River) and in its western desert region. The Egyptian government believes that extremists from both Libya and Sudan have been able to cross its porous borders to send arms, ammunition, and fighters to bolster the capabilities of those within Egypt’s own borders, complicating the government’s campaign to stamp out this scourge.

Given the tensions between Egypt and Sudan, Cairo probably suspects that Khartoum may be purposely turning a blind eye to dangerous elements transiting Sudan on their way to Egypt to pressure the Egyptian regime. Whether this is true or not, so long as Egypt faces a terrorism problem, it will see its southern and western neighbors–– namely, Sudan and Libya––as partially complicit in terrorism. For its part, Sudan has accused Egypt of supporting anti-Khartoum rebels in the Darfur region.

Some Recent Hope on the Nile

Despite these complications, the most daunting problem facing Egypt is the fate of the waters it receives from the Nile River, its lifeline that irrigates its agricultural fields and remains the chief source of water for its burgeoning population of over 95 million. Agriculture accounts for one-fourth of Egypt’s labor force and one-seventh of its GDP. Egypt’s particular focus in recent years has been on Ethiopia’s building of the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam (GERD)––which is now close to completion––on the Blue Nile which feeds into northern Sudan and from there into Egypt. Ethiopia hopes this dam will not only produce enough hydroelectric power for its own large population but will also earn it about $1 billion a year in exported energy. But from Egypt’s perspective the dam could result in a devastating 25 percent drop in its water supply, thus adversely affecting both its agricultural output and its own hydroelectric power output from the Aswan Dam in southern Egypt.

Sudan’s policy on the GERD has fluctuated. It initially sided with Egypt against Ethiopia, fearing that efforts by upstream countries like Ethiopia to build dams would impede the flow of water into its own territory. Sudan joined Egypt, for example, in not signing the Cooperative Framework Agreement in 2010 with upstream countries for this very reason. But more recently, Sudan has sided with Ethiopia, believing it could benefit from purchasing electricity from the GERD and, with investment help from Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, could increase its agricultural output.

Egypt will regard any government that harbors Muslim Brotherhood activists and has good relations with Turkey and Qatar with suspicion.

Possible association with Saud Arabia and the UAE now highlights a dilemma Sudan may have in the ongoing GCC crisis. On the one hand, back in 2015 it sided with Saudi Arabia when it led the effort to combat the Yemeni Houthis who had taken control of large parts of the country, including the capital city of Sanaa. That calculation by Sudan then was likely driven in large part by economic reasons. But on the other, Sudan tried to maintain a neutral position when the GCC crisis erupted in 2017 because of its good relations with Qatar. This situation proved untenable when Khartoum refused to cut ties with Doha for it found itself in trouble with the Saudi-Emirati-Egyptian camp. Whatever hope Khartoum may have had concerning Saudi and Emirati investments in its agricultural sector then dried up.

As is sometimes expected in diplomacy, Sudan then shifted to a more neutral position on the Nile River issue, helped by the fact that after a two month hiatus, both Cairo and Khartoum returned their ambassadors to their respective posts. Egypt also toned down the anti-Sudan diatribes in its state-owned media outlets. In early April 2018, Khartoum hosted talks between Ethiopian and Egyptian officials, which included not only agriculture ministers but also foreign ministers and intelligence chiefs. To the surprise of many observers, a tentative understanding was reached. Ethiopia agreed to make only 2 of its 16 turbines on the GERD operational in the near future so as not to cause any major disruptions in water flows into the Nile, and Egypt agreed to raise the water level of Lake Nasser behind the Aswan Dam to hedge against lower water flows. From its side, Sudan got Egypt’s and Ethiopia’s support in its agricultural projects along the Nile to help its troubled economy, which, like Egypt’s, has been going through an austerity program.

Implications for the United States

Press reports indicate that US diplomats played a role in the Khartoum meeting. Since late March, a U.S. delegation has been touring the area to help ensure stability in the Horn of Africa and to identify the positions of Egypt, Sudan and Ethiopia on the GERD so that it can offer “necessary assistance, to create common ground in order to reach an understanding and solutions that satisfy all parties.” If these press reports are accurate, then Washington should continue these efforts, as they have the potential to make the tentative agreement on GERD reached in Khartoum a long-lasting one, though that would take a lot of heavy diplomatic lifting. Ethiopia would presumably want to become an energy exporter at some point and that would involve making many more of the GERD’s turbines operational.

But aside from this positive meeting in Khartoum, Egyptian-Sudanese relations are far from being reconciled. As long as Egypt feels threatened by terrorism, it will regard any government in Khartoum that harbors Muslim Brotherhood activists and has good relations with Turkey and Qatar with suspicion. Additionally, being part of the Saudi-Emirati camp––with the Emiratis in particular holding strong anti-Muslim Brotherhood attitudes––Egypt might feel constrained to reach a true rapprochement with Sudan even if it thought such a development is in its own national interest.

By extension, this points to the salience of the US role in the GCC crisis. Despite the faults of former Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, he tried to act as a mediator because of his belief that divisions there hurt US national security interests. It is not clear if his nominated replacement, Mike Pompeo, will take it upon himself to play a mediatory role or if he sees this divide as serious like Tillerson. If Pompeo does not, that would indeed be unfortunate, as the chances then to help resolve bilateral disputes in the region, like that between Egypt and Sudan, become a much more difficult task to achieve.

Gregory Aftandilian is a Non-resident Fellow at Arab Center Washington DC