Impacting Elusive Transitions: Egypt’s Policy Toward Sudan and Libya

The recent political developments in Sudan and Libya have generated some optimism for a potential resolution to the protracted political crises that have plagued both countries over the past years. In December of last year, Sudan’s military and civil forces entered into a framework agreement with the aim of putting an end to the ongoing political crisis and facilitating a transition into civilian rule. The agreement marked a significant milestone toward resolving the coup that occurred in 2021, which disrupted the transition process initiated following the ousting of former President Omar al-Bashir in 2019. Similarly, in Libya, there appears to be a glimmer of hope for the long-awaited presidential and parliamentary elections to take place this year. In January, Aguila Saleh, the Speaker of the House of Representatives, and Khaled al-Mishri, the President of the High Council of State, reached a consensus on a roadmap that could potentially pave the way for the elections to be held by the end of 2023.

Although Egypt is not far from these developments in both countries, it does not have equal weight or influence in both cases. Whereas Cairo played a key role in facilitating the agreement between Saleh and al-Mishri in Libya, it has had little impact on the transition process in Sudan. Also, Egypt’s attempt to pursue a policy that can influence the political transitions in both countries has encountered challenges on the ground. Sudan’s civilian forces remain wary of Egypt’s involvement in the transition process, while Libya’s internal divisions and the influence of external actors have complicated the political situation and might result in pushing elections into another uncertain time.

Sudan’s Tortuous Transition

Following the removal of former Sudanese President Omar al-Bashir from power in April 2019, the country has faced significant challenges in transitioning to a civilian government. The initial power-sharing arrangement between the military and civilian government, led by former Prime Minister Abdalla Hamdok, was short-lived, as it abruptly ended in October 2021 due to a coup led by General Abdel Fattah al-Burhan, the head of the so-called “Sovereignty Council.” This interruption halted the political process and plunged the country into a renewed period of chaos and uncertainty. However, for over a year, and as a result of international and regional pressure, particularly from the United Nations, the United States, and the latter’s allies and partners such as the United Kingdom, the United Arab Emirates, and Saudi Arabia, a framework agreement was reached between the military and civilian forces in December of last year. The agreement is expected to result in the military relinquishing power and the establishment of civilian rule within two years of the agreement’s signing. Also, the agreement stipulates that a new prime minister will be chosen by the civilian forces during the transitional period of two years where elections will be held at the end of that period. Additionally, the agreement requires the integration of the Rapid Support Forces into the army, the implementation of the Juba peace agreement, the cessation of economic deterioration in the country, the emphasis on a unified professional national army, and the adoption of a balanced foreign policy that meets the interests of the country. However, there are several issues that still require further negotiation among the military and other political forces, such as security and military reform, transitional justice, the relation with the former regime remnants, and peace in eastern Sudan.

Egypt’s Manipulative Policy

Although Egypt ostensibly welcomed the framework agreement between the military and civilian forces in Sudan and expressed full support for it, it had a limited impact on its outcomes. Not only did Cairo fail to play a key role in facilitating the agreement’s signing by the Sudanese parties, but it also made attempts to undermine its implementation and hinder its achievement. In fact, from the beginning of the political process in Sudan in 2019, Egypt’s regime was keen to prevent a transition into civilian rule. From the perspective of President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi’s regime, having a civilian government on Egypt’s southern borders can be an existential threat. Not surprisingly, Sisi’s regime threw its support behind the Sudanese military and attempted to co-opt some of the civilian forces. Further, acknowledging the potential impact of the framework agreement on Egypt’s interests in Sudan, Sisi’s government endeavored to sow discord among Sudanese political forces, in addition to developing an alternative framework that could better align with Cairo’s interests. Therefore, a month after signing the framework agreement, Egypt’s Intelligence Chief Abbas Kamel visited Khartoum, met with al-Burhan, and held talks with different civilian factions. Moreover, Egypt proposed a political initiative that could bring all factions together and create a dialogue that leads to “a real, lasting and comprehensive settlement.” While some civilian factions welcomed the initiative, it was rejected by the Forces for Freedom and Change (FFC), Sudan’s main pro-democracy force. These forces met in Cairo in early February and signed what was described as a “political consensus agreement,” which should help “the transition to democracy and addressing the situation in East Sudan.”

Egypt’s initiative has been criticized as an attempt to subvert the framework agreement in Sudan.

Egypt’s initiative has been criticized as an attempt to subvert the framework agreement that was agreed upon by the various political factions in Sudan and create an alternative process where it can control and shape the outcomes. Cairo’s significant concern that any political transition in Sudan that does not serve its interests will not be accepted has led to its keenness on maintaining the Sudanese Army generals in power. This is in line with Egypt’s interests in the region and its longstanding relationship with the Sudanese military establishment. Therefore, it is not surprising that Cairo did not condemn al-Burhan’s coup in 2021 and strove to stop any international pressure on the Sudanese junta to relinquish power. Furthermore, Egypt’s fear that a full transition into civilian rule in Sudan might result in a non-friendly government that can create problems in the long term underscores its determination to maintain the status quo. Egypt’s national security interests are at stake, and any shift in the political landscape that does not align with its interests would be considered a threat. Finally, Egypt’s position on the issue of the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam has added another dimension to its interest in Sudan’s political transition. Egypt needs a government that can fully support its position on this issue and pressure Ethiopia to sign a binding agreement. Therefore, any change in government in Sudan that might shift the country’s position on this issue could have serious implications for Egypt’s national security.

Libya’s Chaotic Conflict

Libya has been mired in a protracted civil conflict for the past decade, with numerous failed attempts to resolve the conflict. The inability of warring factions to compromise and agree on a roadmap for peace, coupled with the unwillingness of regional and international actors to exert more concerted efforts to end the conflict, have contributed to the continued instability in the country. While Libya was slated to hold presidential and legislative elections in December 2021, disagreements over the constitutional basis of the elections and the presence of controversial candidates have resulted in their indefinite postponement. However, last January witnessed some positive signs that could lead to a breakthrough to the elections stalemate. The leaders of the Libyan House of Representatives and the State Council, Aguila Saleh and Khaled al-Mishri, agreed to reach a “constitutional base” for a political settlement in Libya. The two leaders agreed that the joint committee between the two councils would refer the constitutional document to the councils for approval in accordance with the rules of each council. Saleh and al-Mishri also expressed their support for establishing a clear roadmap to complete the necessary procedures for the electoral process, including the implementation of relevant laws and regulations and the unification of institutions. The negotiations that led to this agreement took place in Cairo and were facilitated by Egyptian authorities who were committed to its success. More importantly, the House of Representative led by Saleh made several amendments to the constitutional document which includes calling the legislative authority as the “Council of the Nation” and consists of two chambers, a House of Representatives located in the city of Benghazi, and a Senate located in the capital Tripoli, in addition to the executive authority headed by the elected president who will appoint the prime minister.

In spite of the apparent agreement between Saleh and al-Mishri on the majority of the articles within the constitutional document, there remain some important issues that have not yet been resolved. These issues pertain to the nomination process of military personnel and dual nationals, which holds critical importance in advancing the holding of presidential elections, specifically with regards to the potential candidacy of Field Marshal General Khalifa Haftar, who holds dual nationality. However, it is noteworthy that al-Mishri, during a televised statement, confirmed that in the event that the two councils fail to reach an agreement regarding the disputed articles, they will be subjected to a popular referendum. Such a mechanism may serve as a potential means of mitigating the existing disagreement and pave the way for holding the elections.

Egypt’s Repositioning in Libya

Egypt played a crucial role in the agreement between Saleh and al-Mishri. Not only did Cairo serve as the venue for the negotiations between the two leaders, which lasted for months, but it also exerted pressure on them to reconcile their differences and come to an agreement for holding the upcoming elections. Previously, Egypt had supported Khalifa Haftar and his disruptive actions in Libya’s conflict. However, a change in policy toward a more practical and constructive approach allowed for greater political inclusivity, fostering a positive relationship with most Libyan factions and rebuilding its reputation as a trusted mediator. Egypt’s new positioning in Libya has garnered the trust of international actors such as the United Nations, United States, France, the UK, and Italy. Furthermore, the rapprochement between Egypt and Turkey helped to bridge the gap between Libyan factions, and both countries shared a commitment to protecting Libya’s territorial sovereignty and achieving a peaceful resolution to the ongoing armed conflict. It seems that both countries have come to a conclusion that the stability of Libya would bring about economic benefits for both nations. Egypt’s important role in facilitating the agreement between Saleh and al-Mishri highlights the importance of effective diplomacy in resolving conflicts. This change in policy and approach not only allowed for a more inclusive political process, but also helped to mitigate differences between Libyan factions and improve regional and international relationships.

Egypt’s policy toward Libya is driven by the need to safeguard its own security and stability.

In fact, Egypt’s policy toward Libya is driven by a number of factors. Foremost among these is the need to safeguard its own security and stability, given that it shares a lengthy border of around 700 miles with Libya. Since the outbreak of Libya’s civil conflict over a decade ago, Egypt has been keen to prevent the spillover of this conflict onto its own territory, which could pose serious challenges to its security. A second factor motivating Egypt’s engagement with Libya is the potential economic benefits that could accrue from bringing stability to its neighbor. Libya presents a vast market for Egyptian goods and migrant workers and could also help meet Egypt’s increasing needs for oil products. Moreover, the reconstruction and rebuilding needs of Libya offer significant opportunities for Egyptian companies, particularly those run by the military. Third, the conflict in Libya has drawn in various regional and international players who are seeking to advance their own interests. Without an active Egyptian role in mediating the conflict, Cairo risks losing its influence and impact in the longer term. As such, Egypt’s involvement in the negotiations between Saleh and al-Mishri, and its broader efforts to promote a peaceful settlement to the conflict in Libya, can be seen as a key part of its wider strategic interests in the region.

Key Challenges and the Path Forward

Despite the constructive role Egypt has played in the Libyan conflict, a number of challenges loom that could imperil the progress made in recent months. First and foremost, despite the recent agreement between Saleh and al-Mishri, significant differences persist between the two sides regarding the laws and procedures governing upcoming elections, and whether such laws would permit military personnel and dual nationals, including Haftar, to run for the presidency. Al-Mishri has acknowledged that this represents a fundamental point of disagreement. Moreover, a profound mistrust exists between these two leaders and Libyan Prime Minister Abdul Hamid Dbeibah, who has openly opposed any agreement between Saleh and al-Mishri. Al-Mishri, in turn, has accused Dbeibah of being responsible for the failure to hold the elections, and of ruling out his intention to do so. A second obstacle is the strained relationship between Cairo and Dbeibah, which has been further exacerbated by Cairo’s support for the rival government led by former interior minister Fathi Bashagha, which was formed more than a year ago and is based in eastern Libya. Additionally, Egypt is wary of Dbeibah’s relationship with Turkey, which has strengthened in the past two years. Finally, the presence of foreign forces and mercenaries in Libya poses a major concern for Egypt, as well as other regional and international actors. Libya has become a fertile ground for various armed groups and mercenaries from countries such as Chad, Sudan, and Niger in addition to Syrian and Russian mercenaries. Despite repeated attempts and international pressure to remove foreign fighters and mercenaries from Libya, little progress has been made.

It is apparent that Egypt’s approach toward the ongoing conflicts in Sudan and Libya has been influenced by a complex set of factors, including the calculation of its national interests and the nature of its relations with the respective actors. As evidenced by its recent engagement in Libya, Egypt has been able to play a constructive role in contributing to the resolution of the conflict, despite the existence of significant obstacles. In contrast, Egypt’s approach toward the conflict in Sudan was characterized by limitations and obstacles that constrained its ability to play a constructive role. The lack of trust between Egypt and the revolutionary forces in Sudan, which were seeking to overthrow the regime of former President Omar al-Bashir, undermined Egypt’s influence and ability to contribute meaningfully to the conflict resolution process. This was exacerbated by the perception among the revolutionary forces that Egypt was aligned with the former regime, which led to a deterioration of Egypt’s relations with these actors.

In sum, the complexities of the conflicts in Sudan and Libya, as well as the evolving regional and international dynamics, have impacted Egypt’s foreign policy toward these countries. While Egypt’s engagement in Libya has been more successful, its limitations in Sudan highlight the need for a strategic repositioning to enhance its effectiveness in dealing with these conflicts. Such a shift in policy would require a nuanced approach to its relations with the various parties involved in these conflicts, as well as a balancing of its national interests with the imperative of building constructive relationships with its regional neighbors.

The views expressed in this publication are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect the position of Arab Center Washington DC, its staff, or its Board of Directors.

Featured image credit: Spokesman for the Egyptian Presidency