Gulf tension: Are Egypt and Sudan about to go to war?
KHARTOUM - Tension between Egypt and Sudan has increased this week amid military build-ups on their borders and fears that the crisis in the Gulf has now spread to eastern Africa.
That same day, Sudan recalled its ambassador from Cairo, then two days later declared a state of emergency in Kassala state, which neighbours Eritrea, and shut the border without explanation. Eyewitnesses in Kassala have since said that large numbers of troops have passed through, heading towards the border area.
During the past year Sudan and Egypt, which have a long-standing emnity, have increasingly allied themselves with opposing Middle Eastern power blocs
Ahmed Abu Zeid, Egyptian foreign ministry spokesman, said Cairo was "comprehensively assessing the situation with a view to making the appropriate response".
The increase in tension comes just weeks after Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan arrived in Khartoum, the first visit by a Turkish leader since the Ottoman Empire withdrew from Sudan in 1885. Sudan and Turkey signed 13 agreements during the December visit, including military accords.
Cairo didn't officially comment on Erdogan’s visit, but pro-government media have accused it as being a conspiracy against Egyptian national security. Khartoum in turn has denied the Egyptian accusations and says that Cairo has no right to interfere in Sudanese issues.
During the past year Sudan and Egypt, which have a long-standing emnity, have increasingly allied themselves with opposing Middle Eastern power blocs. Egypt has the backing of Saudi Arabia and UAE, the key advocates of a months-long blockade against Qatar. Sudan meanwhile has allied itself with Qatar and Turkey, which has a military base in the Gulf kingdom.
This is not the first time the two countries have fallen out.
Reason 1: Disputed borders
Aside from Eritrea, two other territorial disputes have strained Sudanese-Egyptian relations during the past half century.
The province of Darfur, in western Sudan, has been riddled by war for the past two decades, with up to 300,000 dead and at least 2.7 million displaced.
In May last year, President Omar al-Bashir said: "The Sudanese army has captured several Egyptian armoured vehicles in recent fighting in Darfur.” He has also previously accused Egyptian intelligence services of supporting opposition figures fighting his troops in the conflict zones of Blue Nile and South Kordofan.
However, Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi dismissed the accusations and said Cairo was not playing a role in Darfur. Rebel leaders have also rejected Bashir's comments.
Then there is the Halaib Triangle to the north of Sudan, run in effect by Egypt for the past two decades and which Cairo says is Egyptian territory. The region, rich in minerals and oil, has been disputed by Egypt and Sudan since the latter became independent in 1956.
Cairo has increased its military presence in the area since 1996, despite Khartoum's repeated complaints to the UN Security Council and calls for the dispute to be solved through arbitration.
In January 2016, Sudan put its forces on standby on the border with Egypt, the first time it has done so in 60 years, saying that Egypt's military was "provoking" the Sudanese army in the disputed area.
Reason 2: Deals with Turkey
Khartoum has been diplomatically and economically impoverished during the past decade. The country is still subject to international sanctions as a result of the conflict in Darfur, while Bashir is still wanted by the International Criminal Court for crimes of genocide. South Sudan took three-quarters of the country's oil revenue when it became independent in 2011.
Small wonder then that Sudan has sought international alliances where it can. During his visit, Erdogan said that the two countries aimed to boost two-way trade from $500mn a year to $1bn in an initial stage and then to $10bn.
Turkey, meanwhile, wants to boost its influence in the region, not least near international trade routes that pass through the Suez Canal to the north and the Gulf to the east.
Ankara has been active militarily in Somalia since 2009, when it joined the multinational counter-piracy task force off the Somali coast.
In September 2017, Turkey opened its largest overseas military base in the Somali capital, Mogadishu. It reportedly cost $50mn and will train 10,000 Somali troops, according to Turkish and Somali officials.
Ahmet Kavas, a former Turkish ambassador to the republic of Chad and an adviser to the prime minister on African affairs, told Middle East Eye that Turkey's presence in Africa made more sense than that of any other country.
"If you were to think of any one country that should be present in Africa, that country would be Turkey," said Kavas. "The anomaly was the 20th century, when we were largely absent from the continent and the western Europeans stepped in."
Two of the deals signed during Erdogan's visit drew particular drew sharp attention from Cairo.
The first leases Sudan's Red Sea island of Suakin to Turkey for 99 years. Over the centuries the island has been a commercial crossroads between Africa, Europe and the Gulf, as well as a gateway heading to the Arabian peninsula for Hajj. Historically, it is home to several ancient sites, dating back to when the Ottoman Empire colonised Sudan in the 18th century.
Turkey has said that parts of the island will be restored by the Turkish Cooperation and Coordination Agency and the ministry of culture and tourism.
But Asma Al-Hussieni, editor in chief of the Egyptian daily state newspaper Al-Ahram Egyptian, said in early January that Khartoum and Turkey have secretly agreed to establish a military base on the island, threatening the shipping lanes of the Red Sea.
The second deal allows Turkey to have an enhanced presence in Sudan's territorial waters across police, security, military and defence ministries, ostensibly to protect Sudanese naval ships as well as to fight terrorism.
Sudanese security expert and retired general Alabas Alamin said that Turkey's increased presence in the Red Sea is a "breakthrough for Turkish ambitions, which worries the Arab countries aligned with Saudi Arabia, especially Egypt".
There have been complaints about the deals from within Sudan. Abdallah Musa is a leading member of the Beja congress party, which represented a former rebel movement in eastern Sudan that signed a peace deal with the government in 2006.
He said the move is "a violation of the Sudanese sovereignty that will put Sudan in a critical situation amid regional conflicts" and that Egypt and Gulf states could be blackmailed if the waters were closed, disrupting oil routes to international markets.
However, the Turkish ambassador to Sudan, Irfan Neziroglu, denied Turkey would become involved in international affairs on Sudanese territories. "Turkey and Sudan have nothing to hide over the Red Sea or Suakin island," he told MEE. "What we announced openly is what will happen in the Red Sea."
Reason 3: Gulf alliances
The Gulf crisis which began in summer 2017 saw the Middle East divided between a power bloc opposed to Qatar which included Saudi, Bahrain, UAE and Egypt, and supporters of Doha, which include Turkey and Iran.
Emad Hussien, editor in chief of Sudan's Alshorooq newspaper, said: "Khartoum is clearly pragmatic and opportunistic as it jumps from one camp to another without any strategic goals other than to break the isolation of the regime."
Alhaj Warag, a political analyst and editor-in-chief of Turkey's Hurriyat online, said on Egyptian TV that Turkish ambitions have pushed Khartoum to build its current partnership with Ankara - but that this could put Sudan in a difficult position.
Sudan, Warag observed, had shifted from alliances with Iran to the Saudi-led coalition in Yemen to Turkey and Qatar. "Playing the regional axis to draw some benefits will end up having a serious effect on Sudan."
Musa warned that Sudan risked becoming the next Yemen. There, three years of war between sides backed by rivals Saudi Arabia and Iran have ripped the country asunder.
"To solve its economic crisis, Khartoum is putting the entire country in the middle of the regional polarisation," Musa said, "but that will lead to serious consequences."
Reason 4: Africa's biggest dam
Egypt is deeply worried about the impact on its water supply of the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam, now being built near the border between Ethiopia and Sudan and set to be the largest on the continent.
Addis Ababa hopes the $5bn project will lift a large segment of its more than 80 million people out of poverty as well as allow it to sell on the energy produced and boost the economy.
But in Egypt, where around 90 percent of the population live on or near the banks of the Nile, there are fears that there will be less water for irrigating crops. Cairo is also concerned that Sudan, through which the Nile flows, will side with Ethiopia in talks over the dam.
In December, Ethiopian media reported that Egypt wanted to exclude Sudan from the talks and invite the World Bank to arbitrate.
The Egyptian foreign ministry has denied the suggestion, stressing that Sudan is part of the talks that can't be excluded.
But a Sudanese diplomat, who asked not to be identified because he is not authorised to the talk to the media, told MEE the report was correct, adding: "The Egyptian stance regarding the dam is regrettable. Such moves from Egypt are unacceptable as they will only lead to more complications during the talks over the dam rather than solving the disputes."
Reason 5: The Muslim Brotherhood
Egyptian President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi came to power after he drove his predecessor, Mohamed Morsi, from office in July 2013. Morsi was a member of the Muslim Brotherhood, which is now banned in Egypt and whose members have been subject to unfair trials and torture, according to human rights groups.
In contrast, Sudan's Bashir rose to power in 1989 amid a military coup backed by the brotherhood and its leader, Hassan Alturabi, whom the current president later ousted when the organisation split in 1999.
Egyptian pro-government media have repeatedly accused Sudan of harbouring Egyptian members of the brotherhood, an accusation which has been denied by the Sudanese authorities.
Under the title of "Al-Bashir and the political suicide" Emad Adib, a columnist for Al-Watan, daily Egyptian newspaper wrote that "Sudan is conspiring with Turkey and Qatar against Egypt".
Turkey has been supportive of the brotherhood: in February 2017, Erdogan said he did not consider it "an armed group, but is in actual fact an ideological organisation" and that if they had been associated with terrorism then they would have been driven from Turkey.
Hassan Ali, a political science professor at Alazhari University, believes the tension over the brotherhood is a sign of the ideological divide between Khartoum's Islamist government and the leadership in Egypt, which is increasingly having to deal with militant attacks in Sinai.
"These ideological differences are the main cause of tension between the two sides. The remaining issues including Halaib, the Ethiopian dam, and others are pending issues that been used as cards by the two sides to put pressure on each other."
So will there be war?
Yet despite the disagreements over dams and brotherhoods, islands and power blocs, experts believe it is in neither country's interest to engage in war.
Abdul Moniem Abu Idriss, a Sudanese political analyst, believes that the current tension is unlikely to descend from diplomatic and media spats into open military conflict.
Both countries, he said, are suffering deep economic crises, which will curtail their ability to fight or engage in escalation.
"Since 2011, these two neighbours have been suffering economic deterioration. Sudan has lost has the majority of its oil revenues since the separation of South Sudan in that year.
The two dictatorships in these two countries actually want to draw the attention of the people away from their domestic crises
- Alhaj Hamad, Sudanese Centre for Social and Human Development
"Meanwhile Egypt's tourism, which is a vital sector for the Egyptian economy, has been hit by the continuous terror attacks."
Egypt also goes to the polls in March – and a wave of nationalist fervour, sparked by relations with Sudan, might strengthen the hand of Sisi with his previous background as defence minister, commander-in-chief of the armed forces and director of military intelligence.
Idriss also believes that each side is "attempting to create an imaginary enemy to draw the attention of the two nations from their realistic and daily life needs that they failed to provide".
"Even the Egyptian military presence in Sudan, especially in Halaib, is old and dates back to 1996, so I don't think that there is something new in this regard," he added.
And despite Turkey's pledges to back Khartoum in any Egyptian attack on the Red Sea coast, both sides are too fatigued for war.
Alhaj Hamad, director of the Sudanese Centre for Social and Human Development, said: "The two dictatorships in these two countries actually want to draw the attention of the people away from their domestic crises."
He said that neither side could afford even the pretence of engaging in open war. "I don't think that they will go further. This current situation is best called the balance of weaknesses."
This article is available in French on Middle East Eye French edition.