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What is behind Egypt-Sudan diplomatic standoff?

The long standing tension in the relations has to do with profound, institutional insecurity linked to the nature of two incompatible regimes

On 4 January, Sudan recalled its ambassador from Egypt for consultations, according to a Sudanese foreign ministry statement, without giving details on why or how long he would stay.

The move took place following negative media exchanges and semi-official accusations between the two countries. The sudden diplomatic flare-up has left many struggling to find answers to the many questions about the real motives and timing.

The ebb and flow in Egypt-Sudan relations has to do with an underlying, deep mistrust amounting to existential threat felt by each side towards the other

The reasons why

For the past few months relations between Cairo and Khartoum have been soured by disputes over a number of issues, including the ownership of the Halayeb Triangle border area and the Great Ethiopian Renaissance Dam. Last year, Sudan accused Egypt of political meddling and banned imports of Egyptian agricultural products.

Additionally, both parties support different groups among Libya's warring factions, although Cairo and Khartoum have no veto power over Libya's future. Egypt also repeatedly accused Sudan of supporting the outlawed Muslim Brotherhood group.

Things further deteriorated over the recent visit by Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan and Sudan's decision allowing Turkey to rehabilitate Sawakin on the Red Sea and use it as a military station. 

President of Turkey Recep Tayyip Erdogan (L) receives the High Order of State of Sudan from President Omar al-Bashir in Khartoum (AFP)

Despite all the controversy that surrounded Erdogan's visit, it is not certain that the Turkish president's visit was the trigger behind the further deterioration of relations between Cairo and Khartoum. It is worth pointing out that Turkey's trade balance with Egypt is estimated at $7.5bn outweighing - by far - that of Sudan's, which sits at $500m. 

However, these reasons do not seem enough to explain the deterioration in an already tense relations between the two countries.

Institutional insecurity

I would argue that the ebb and flow in Egypt-Sudan relations, which is real and a cause for concern, has to do with underlying reasons/factors that go beyond the ones listed above.

It has to do with profound, institutional insecurity linked to the nature of two incompatible regimes; this incompatibility feeds into and enhances worries, to varying degrees, of regime survival in both countries.

In other words, it has to do with an underlying, deep mistrust amounting to existential threat felt by each side towards the other.

With a deteriorating economy and widespread poverty, simmering public anger, and meddling into an uncertain sea of geopolitics, it is difficult to imagine this anti-Egyptian mood to continue for long

For Egypt, the insecurity comes from the fallout of the Arab Spring and the spectre of Islamists. Sudan is seen as a contributing factor. For the first time in its history, since the days of the al-Mahdiyya movement, a religious movement (1881-1889) that ended Turco-Egyptian rule in Sudan, a Sudanese government managed to turn the table against the establishment in Egypt by using the card of the Islamist movement.

When the Islamists took over power in Sudan through a military coup and ruled from 1989 to the late 1990s, it caused shocks and shivers in Egypt's body politic. Egypt, of course, responded by supporting the Sudanese opposition movement and occupying the Halayeb triangle.

To make matters worse, Egypt's Muslim Brotherhood's political and electoral ascendency following the Arab Spring wave, their overthrow in 2013, and marginalisation and persecution have landed the country in internal strife and increased the vulnerabilities of the regime.

The movement of the Muslim Brotherhood posed no serious threat, but its resilience is perceived to come from Egypt's southern neighbour, Sudan. To the establishment in Egypt this is a red line, if not an existential threat and not for compromise.

People gather to welcome Sudanese President Omar al-Bashir during a visit last year to the war-torn Darfur region (Reuters)

For Sudan, the insecurity is embedded in its structure of polity since the June coup of 1989. Conflicts continued unabated. The secession of South Sudan in 2011 took with it oil revenues and the Darfur massacre led to the head of state and top government officials being indicted by the ICC.

These developments have compounded insecurity. In fact, Sudan is more vulnerable than Egypt when it comes to concerns over regime change and survival.

Insecurity in each country is reinforced by a mismatch in the nature of the two regimes. Egypt's regime corresponds to a classical military regime, more or less, institutionalised. Sudan's regime has undergone changes during the past three decades under the Islamists' reign: first military, then one-party and now personalist-autocracy.  

However, with Sudan losing its oil revenues, its elite fragmented, its dependent economy became even more vulnerable to outside volatile economic and financial changes, these developments pose serious political challenges for the regime's survival.

Foreign policy priorities

Sudan's foreign policy seems to be driven by more of a cavalier attitude rather than astute professionals.

Sudan's recent foreign policy moves failed to quell its fears and insecurity. Neither taking side with the Saudi-led coalition in Yemen war nor lifting of US economic sanctions have improved the dire economic situation as evidenced by figures in the 2018 budget.

To attract Turkish business and capital to Sudan and alleviate a growing insecurity, Erdogan's visit may be seen as a further attempt to play the geopolitical card (offering him Sawakin for military purposes). However, it threatens to turn the Red Sea into a security region in its own right competing with Gulf and Middle East and North Africa regions. It also threatens to plunge the region into a fluid state, the outcome of which is difficult to predict.  

With a deteriorating economy and widespread poverty, simmering public anger, and meddling into an uncertain sea of geopolitics, it is difficult to imagine this anti-Egyptian mood continuing for long.

However, much Sudanese diplomacy tries to square the circle of the present conundrum. The secret for improving the economy and international standing is not in relations with the outside world; rather the malaise, as well as the cure, is inside.

Hence the most likely scenario is an alternation of escalations and de-escalation amid hectic moves by neighbouring states to offset a breakdown in a fragile equilibrium in interstate relations whose devastating consequences are hard to imagine.   

- Atta El-Battahani is the chief editor of the Sudan Journal of Economic and Social Studies, published by the University of Khartoum. He is also a political science professor who studied at Khartoum University and Sussex University. From 2003 to 2006 he was head of the department of political science in the faculty of economics at the University of Khartoum. From 2006 to 2009 he was country manager of the International Institute for Democracy and Electoral Assistance (International IDEA). From 2009 to 2011 he was a senior adviser for International IDEA in Sudan. 

The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Eye.

Photo: Sudanese President Omar al-Bashir and Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi in Khartoum in June 2014 (AFP)

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