As tensions escalate between Sudan and Ethiopia on the border, a Sudanese delegation headed to Cairo raising questions about Egypt’s role in the conflict.
A delegation from the Sudanese Sovereignty Council, headed by Lt. Gen. Shamseldin al-Kabashi and Director of the General Intelligence Service Jamal Abdul Majeed, visited Cairo Jan. 14, where they met with President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi to discuss the latest developments on the border conflict with Ethiopia and the military operations led by the Sudanese army to liberate the territories from the armed Ethiopian militias.
The visit came as part of Sudan’s regional moves that are expected to include other visits to Arab countries, namely the Gulf, such as Kuwait, Qatar and Saudi Arabia, to request “diplomatic and legal support,” according to a Jan. 14 statement by Sudanese Foreign Minister Omar Qamar al-Din.
However, on Jan. 25, tensions escalated on the Sudanese-Ethiopian border when violent clashes with heavy weapons and artillery broke out in the Jabal Abu al-Toyour border area.
In December 2020, the Sudanese army deployed its soldiers on the border in al-Fashqa region to liberate Sudanese lands from groups affiliated with the Ethiopian militias that have been benefiting from the cultivation of hundreds of acres of fertile land since 1995.
A diplomatic source familiar with Egyptian-Sudanese ties told Al-Monitor on condition of anonymity, “Egypt has been carefully observing the tension on the Sudanese borders since the beginning of the skirmishes because it is concerned with protecting peace and security in the African region, especially in the neighboring countries.”
He said, “Cairo has taken no recent action to support any of the conflicting parties, but Egypt welcomes Sudan’s request for support and assistance in its legal position to regain and liberate its lands.”
The source noted, “Egypt adopts policies that support peaceful solutions through dialogue and negotiation to restore peace and resolve all outstanding issues.”
He explained, “Restoring calm between Khartoum and Addis Ababa would be in Cairo’s interest — unlike what Ethiopia has been promoting in the media by throwing accusations against Egypt.”
Cairo has made no official comment on the border conflict between Khartoum and Addis Ababa since the beginning of the crisis, except in an strongly worded statement from the Egyptian Ministry of Foreign Affairs on Dec. 31, 2020, in response to statements by Ethiopian Foreign Ministry spokesman Dina Mufti. The latter had touched on the Egyptian internal affairs by criticizing the human rights situation in Egypt. Cairo considered the statement a “blatant transgression,” accusing Ethiopia of pursuing “continuous hostile practices against its regional surroundings,” referring to the Ethiopian attacks on Sudanese territory.
Egypt and Sudan are both committed to the Treaty of Joint Defense and Economic Cooperation, under the umbrella of the Arab League, which stipulates in Article 2, “The Contracting States consider any [act of] armed aggression made against any one or more of them or their armed forces, to be directed against them all. Therefore, in accordance with the right of self-defense, individually and collectively, they undertake to go without delay to the aid of the State or States against which such an act of aggression is made, and immediately to take, individually and collectively, all steps available, including the use of armed force, to repel the aggression and restore security and peace.”
Maj. Gen. Khaled Okasha, a security expert and head of the Egyptian Center for Strategic Studies, told Al-Monitor, “Egypt is well aware of the sensitivity of the tripartite relationship between it and Sudan and Ethiopia, and interfering in this conflict will worsen the situation without resolving it.”
He noted, “Sudan is able to recover its lands through all legal, diplomatic and military means, and it does not need Egypt’s support. Egypt realizes that these are all recurring conflicts and are not of a level that threatens Egyptian national security.”
However, Okasha added, “The escalating tension between Sudan and Ethiopia over the lands in al-Fashqa region revealed the true positions of Ethiopia, which has long claimed to be a sister country of Sudan that protects its interests in the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam [GERD] issue.”
In an unprecedented military cooperation between Egypt and Sudan, units from Egypt’s air force and Saiqa (Thunderbolt) commando forces carried out joint air maneuvers with Sudan, dubbed Nile Eagles-1, on Nov. 19, 2020. The maneuvers included a number of offensive and defensive sorties on targets, while the Saiqa forces carried out drills on combat search and rescue work.
Okasha stressed, “The Egyptian military maneuvers with Sudan are not an exceptional situation, but rather a restoration of normal relations between the two countries, which had been tense throughout the period of Islamic rule in Sudan.”
In a Jan. 25 interview with Al-Arabiya channel, Sudanese Minister of Defense Lt. Gen. Yassin Ibrahim Yassin linked the border dispute with Ethiopia to the GERD negotiations, noting that “the common factor in both cases is the Ethiopian delay.”
Speaking about the possibilities of Egyptian intervention to mediate between Sudan and Ethiopia to solve the border crisis, Mona Omar, a former assistant to the Egyptian foreign minister, told Al-Monitor, “I rule out such a possibility, especially with Ethiopia’s intransigent positions with Egypt in the GERD negotiations and its lack of respect for the historical charters and agreements that define mechanisms for dealing with the Nile water.”
She said, “At the present time Egypt can offer to support Sudan by raising the [border] issue in international forums and providing legal support.”
Omar noted, “Egypt’s policy does not consist of working in secret or fueling conflict between two countries, especially since Cairo is well aware that should the Sudanese-Ethiopian tension no longer be limited to mere clashes, it would have negative effects and repercussions on security in the region.”
She added, “Despite the internal calls to resort to a military solution against Ethiopia in the GERD issue — which is a matter of life and death for Egypt — the Egyptian administration committed itself to peaceful dialogue and negotiation as a way to solve the crisis.”
Since the outbreak of the confrontations with Ethiopia on the eastern border of Sudan, Khartoum has taken more hard-line stances on the GERD issue, completely rejecting the Ethiopian positions during the negotiations rounds sponsored by the African Union (AU).
Sudanese government spokesman and Minister of Information Faisal Saleh said in a press statement Jan. 23, “Sudan will not accept the imposition of a fait accompli in the GERD [issue], and we have the means to respond to Ethiopia. AU mediation [in the GERD issue] in its old form is no longer useful.”
Egypt’s moves to support Sudan in its border conflict with Ethiopia come as part of a new era of cooperation and coordination between Cairo and Khartoum to stop any threats affecting the common interests and national security of the two countries, especially in the Nile water file.