The next round of Egyptian-Sudanese political and security consultations is a top priority for Cairo, say informed sources.
The Higher Committee for Egyptian-Sudanese Cooperation is scheduled to convene in October, with President Abdel-Fattah Al-Sisi and his Sudanese counterpart Omar Al-Bashir expected to preside over the meetings. In advance of that meeting, consultations will take place between the two states’ ministers of foreign affairs, heads of intelligence services and economic cooperation ministers.
“Increasing and up-scaling meetings signal closer dialogue. It keeps momentum going. It won’t end all disputes but it helps keep problems in check,” said an informed government source.
Cairo is also preparing for a key meeting focused on the crucial Nile water file which will involve high-level officials from Egypt, Sudan and Ethiopia.
“We have been working very hard with both Sudan and Ethiopia. Consultations have been non-stop, if not at a very high level, but there is a flow of talks,” the same source said. He added that the next round of the three-way panel that brings together the ministers of foreign affairs and irrigation along with intelligence chiefs from the three countries “is coming up”.
“We are still considering dates,” he said.
In addition to these meetings, Foreign Minister Sameh Shoukri is also considering visits to a number of East African capitals in the coming months. The meetings were proposed during talks Shoukri had while attending May’s African Union ministerial meetings in Mauritania.
“We want to make sure that the issues surrounding GERD [the Great Ethiopian Renaissance Dam] are well managed and that the region is secure from internal conflicts and any Islamist militant presence,” said the source.
AL-SISI IN KHARTOUM: These were the issues dominating the summit between President Al-Sisi and his Sudanese counterpart Al-Bashir in the Sudanese capital on Thursday. Egyptian and Sudanese sources both say the talks were constructive and thorough.
The meetings also covered other subjects, from Sudan’s border claims over Halayab and Shalateen to Cairo’s attempts to broker an “understanding” on a long-term ceasefire between Khartoum and Juba which could complement the internal South Sudan ceasefire agreed between the president of South Sudan Salva Kiir and his adversary Riek Machar.
“We have quite good relations with South Sudan. They may not necessarily be to the liking of Khartoum but we do have them and we are willing to step in,” the source said.
Al-Bashir was candid in expressing his belief that Cairo has shown “bias” towards South Sudan and has fallen short of Khartoum’s expectations it would cut down contacts “and cooperation” with groups opposed to his regime. He also made clear that he was unwilling to sideline Sudan’s claims over Halayeb and Shalateen.
While nothing conclusive emerged from the talks, both sides announced they were committed to maintaining the dialogue through parallel diplomatic and security channels.
“It is significant that Al-Sisi decided to make Sudan the first overseas trip of his second term in office,” said Osama Shaltout, Egypt’s ambassador to Sudan, in press statements prior to the visit.
Following the meeting Presidential Spokesman Bassam Radi said the two presidents pledged to continue close consultations on all issues, including the sensitive Halayeb and Shalateen file, while pledging the disputed border would not be allowed to hijack discussions of future political and economic cooperation.
Hani Raslan, an analyst on Sudan and East Africa, said there were no guarantees that relations between Egypt and Sudan, characterised by more disagreements than agreements for the best part of the last two decades, will pick up but “there is a serious chance that things could improve and I think this is why Al-Sisi chose to go to Sudan this week rather than wait for the upcoming meeting with his Sudanese counterpart scheduled for autumn.”
According to Amany Al-Taweel, an expert on Egypt-Sudan relations, the timing of the visit is very important with regards to developments on GERD. With Egyptian-Sudanese relations improving, it would be easier to convince Addis Ababa, an ally of Al Bashir’s government, to extend the dam’s filling period from five to seven years and thus limit the harm it might have on Egypt’s available water resources.
Whatever their ideological disagreements, says Raslan, Al-Sisi and Al-Bashir are in a position where they could be of benefit to one another.
Al-Sisi, Raslan argues, is obviously keen to lobby Khartoum over GERD. Sudan has so far been supportive of the Ethiopian position and ambivalent over Egypt’s two key demands — an extended timetable for the filling of the dam’s reservoir, and transparent Ethiopian management of the dam.
According to Raslan, Al-Bashir might be more receptive to Cairo’s position following recent political developments in Ethiopia where a new prime minister is in office with different tribal affiliations to his predecessor who came from a tribe that maintains close political contact with Khartoum.
Cairo may well be more inclined to engage with Sudan on at least some of its demands in return for a more favourable Sudanese position on GERD given the recent rapprochement between Ethiopia and Eritrea, says Raslan.
Egypt had, “at least in theory, counted on a close alliance with Ethiopia’s two-decade long foe Eritrea”.
“This is no longer the case, not only due to the inability of Egypt to secure the required financial backing for the alliance between Cairo and Asmara but also because of the major political transformations the Horn of Africa is undergoing with the political approach of the new Ethiopian prime minister. He has already held a summit with the president of Eritrea to announce the normalisation of relations between the two countries and the resumption of the flights to Asmara.”
“While I am not sure the Asmara bargaining chip was ever that solid now there is a new situation and Egypt is acting promptly in view of the developments,” said Raslan.
Al-Taweel, meanwhile, sees that the developments in the Eritrean-Ethiopian front would positively affect the balance of power in the Red Sea area. Ethiopia plans to rebuild its navy on the back of reconciliation with Eritrea. Landlocked Ethiopia lost its access to the Red Sea in 1991 after Eritrea’s secession, which led Ethiopia to disband its navy. “The presence of an Ethiopian naval base in Eritrea would be in favour of Egypt and Sudan as this will counter the Turkish and Iranian presence in the Red Sea,” she said.
THE GULF FACTOR: Raslan acknowledges that as it seeks to strengthen its political and security presence in East Africa Egypt is coordinating with its Arab Gulf allies, particularly the UAE and Saudi Arabia.
“Most recently, the head of Egyptian Intelligence visited Addis Ababa ahead of a visit by the UAE’s Mohamed bin Zayed to the capital of Ethiopia where he pledged a $3 billion package of aid, including $1 billion deposit in the central bank of Ethiopia,” Raslan said.
Egyptian government sources speak of the positive impact the pledge has had on Ethiopia’s receptiveness to Cairo’s concerns the timetable for filling the GERD reservoir needs to be extended.
Egypt, the same sources say, is also working closely with both the UAE and Saudi Arabia over security in the Red Sea and the Gulf of Aden, an essential security theatre for Cairo that borders Ethiopia, Eritrea, Djibouti, Somalia and Somaliland.
“We have been successful on some points and not on others but we keep working,” said a government official. He added that while the UAE is “sort of losing credibility with some Horn of Africa countries” over what they say are “broken UAE promises” over investment and development schemes, Saudi Arabia is viewed more favourably given its aid is not as transactional as the UAE’s.
Cairo sources agree that Saudi Arabia’s interest in the Horn of Africa is closely related to its war in Yemen. And concern over the strategic Red Sea/Gulf of Aden area is precisely why, the same sources add, Egypt agreed to join the Saudi war to restore the regime in Yemen despite the “many concerns” Cairo has over the rationale and management of this ongoing conflict.
The same sources say Egypt’s on-and-off attempts to broker a political deal in Yemen between pro- and anti-Saudi factions is part of the same strategy that has seen Cairo upgrade its interventions in the Horn of Africa: the goal is to reduce military tensions that threaten the stability of the region in a way that might negatively influence Cairo’s top strategic interests — to ensure the uninterrupted flow of Nile water and control any Islamist militant presence.