Monday,20 May, 2019
Current issue | Issue 1389, (12 - 18 April 2018)
Monday,20 May, 2019
Issue 1389, (12 - 18 April 2018)

Ahram Weekly

Egyptian-Sudanese relations: Ties of tension

Increased awareness of potential losses is the key to a better future for Egyptian-Sudanese relations, writes Amani El-Taweel

The future of Egyptian-Sudanese relations – chronically rocky from the period of the Anglo-Egyptian condominium in Sudan through the post-independence period after 1956 and up to the present day – is laden with mines and pitfalls.

The greatest source of tension, today as in the past, resides in conflicting interests managed by governments with diverse outlooks and orientations. Other sources of tension are connected with the international competition over Africa and the related outlooks of a declining Arab regional order. Another set of tension is cultural and relates to mutual perceptions, both historical and political/ideological. Lastly, there is the dimension of internal differences between Sudanese forces on the subject of Egypt and the repercussions of political developments in Egypt on Sudan. 


WATER: Among the conflicting interests between Egypt and Sudan, the question of the Nile and water resources dominates. The crisis over the Great Ethiopian Renaissance Dam (GERD) is not the first crisis of its kind. The two countries confronted an equally complicated problem that lasted from the early 1950s up to the Nile Waters agreement in 1959. That period has had a lasting negative impact on the Sudanese mentality and may, in part, explain Khartoum’s attitude towards Egypt today. The Sudanese Umma Party began to campaign for the partition of Nile waters with Egypt in early 1952. The party’s main base of support, the Ansar movement, consisted largely of farmers. Formal talks over the partition of Nile waters began in 1955 when the High Dam project was conceived. Britain, which had colonised both Sudan and Egypt, actively incited Khartoum against Cairo, as has been documented in recently released British archives from that period. Addis Ababa is playing a similar agitating role today in connection with the GERD crisis. Both then and now, Sudan largely ignored its own interests and the need to sustain regional equilibrium in order to ensure for itself an effective presence in the Nile Basin regional order. 


CONFLICT OVER SPHERES OF INFLUENCE: The realm of conflicting Egyptian-Sudanese interests offered great scope for play to the parties involved in the international competition over Africa. In this context, Addis Ababa’s assumption at the helm of the fight against terrorism in east Africa two decades ago combined, on the one hand, with Western interests intertwined with that fight and, by extension, with Ethiopia and, on the other hand, with Egypt’s declining interplay with Africa, are among the reasons why Sudan has disengaged from its strategic alliance with Egypt. Khartoum was also lured by Ethiopian promises of rewards, especially in terms of energy resources and bilateral agreements over regulating the Nile flooding. In exchange, it ignored the human safety requirements of the Sudanese people connected with the technical specifications of GERD and the ongoing lack of a reliable set of criteria to reassure Sudan and Egypt that the dam is up to international safety standards. 

The decline in the Arab order has also had an impact on Egyptian-Sudanese relations. Khartoum has twice made common cause with non-Arab regional powers that seek to expand their regional influence and power at the expense of the Arabs. These are Iran in the 1990s and Turkey today. The deteriorating state of Sudanese economies due to the partition of the country and armed conflict, widespread corruption in its economic establishments, and declining resources are among the major reasons why Sudan’s regional political positioning is perpetually erratic. 


CULTURAL FACTORS: With respect to Egypt, the decline in the Egyptian educational system, the cultural dissociation from Africa, the failure of the Egyptian media to disseminate sufficient knowledge on Sudan and an overwhelming tendency of the private media to cater to commercial demands have contributed to generating Egyptian practices that hamper awareness of Sudan and its socio-political complexities and entrench negative and simplified images, often shaped by ongoing internal armed conflicts in Sudan.  

The poor and generally negative Egyptian awareness of Sudan, in turn, has worked to revive negative memories in the Sudanese collective consciousness stemming from periods of tension involving intersecting water interests and border disputes. It has also fed a Sudanese tendency to read Egyptian stances through an “anti-colonialist” lens and an insistence on raking up all the crises that have plagued Egyptian-Sudanese relations since the mid-19th century. This, in turn, has hampered the Sudanese ability to adequately address internal problems which reside in the heavy centralisation of the state on the one hand, and sharp social divisions that remain unresolved and that continue to obstruct national integration and fuel armed conflict and strife in Sudan.

The interplay among the above-mentioned sources of tension have affected political forces in Sudan and led them to play on some of them for political and economic ends. In the 1950s and 1960s, the Umma Party stood out in this regard. It tailored its actions and rhetoric with regard to Egypt to bolster its pro-independence image even if, beneath the surface, it was effectively collaborating with the British colonial power in the pursuit of economic interests. Today, the Popular Congress and the support bases of the National Congress are playing the same anti-Egyptian role because of their Muslim Brotherhood affiliation and the repercussions of the ouster of the Muslim Brotherhood from power in Egypt in 2013. The Islamist government there was naturally disturbed by Egypt’s people’s rejection of the Muslim Brotherhood, its bid to monopolise power and insert their members into key positions in all government agencies and institutions, its threat to essential components of Egyptian society such as women and Christians, and its attempts to politicise government bureaucracy which runs counter to the general Egyptian desire for a government that serves all members of society without discrimination. 


PROBLEM SOLVING MECHANISMS: In light of such a complex historic and political backdrop, what can be done to rescue Egyptian-Sudanese relations from total collapse? What mechanisms can be brought to bear to prevent chronically conflicting interests and minimise the influence of the negative heritage which causes even the simplest and most anticipatable differences to flare out of proportion?

Perhaps the greatest burden, here, falls on Egypt which needs to overhaul its mechanisms for dealing with Sudan in a manner conducive to the creation of mutual interests and sustaining constructive interplay even when relations are strained. One necessary step is to increase Egyptian involvement in all sectors of the Sudanese economy thereby generating Sudanese interests keen to influence decision-making processes in Sudan in favour of Egypt, in general. In tandem with these efforts, there should be continuous interaction between the Egyptian and Sudanese parliaments, even in times of crisis, and Egyptian political parties should be encouraged to engage with their Sudanese counterparts.

At the diplomatic and security levels, considerable efforts are already in progress to promote Egyptian relations with Sudan and South Sudan. At this particular time, we should revive public discussion on Egyptian water security and its connection with Sudan in the framework of formulating preemptive policies that take into account the energy needs of Sudan and all other countries of the Nile Basin and that encourage the development of renewable energy resources as alternatives to hydraulically generated energy. Such ideas, moreover, need to be framed in the context of viable visions for comprehensive development. 

At the level of security relations, the tripartite counterterrorism efforts between Egypt, Sudan and Chad should be expanded to include Somalia and Nigeria, in spite of the international overlaps here, especially with respect to the French role in the Sahara and Sahel regions.  

There are a number of foreign policy avenues that remain unexplored or untried. One is to invite Sudanese youth from various educational or occupational fields to take part in training activities in Egypt or youth conventions such as those that are held in Sharm El-Sheikh. Egypt should also fund educational grants in various disciplines within a framework of ongoing contact between Egyptian and Sudanese student bodies. 

But there are also outdated policies that should be abandoned, such as barring Sudanese journalists critical of Egypt from entering the country. The losses due to campaigns to mobilise Sudanese public opinion against Egypt in the wake of such bans far outstrip the anticipated gains from this policy. The decline in the interest in funding academies and think tanks that work with Sudan have also had a negative impact on the intelligentsias in both countries. 

With respect to the problems of misperceptions and negative imagery, much more effort is needed to develop Egyptian awareness of Sudan, South Sudan and Sub-Saharan Africa in general. The subjects should be included or expanded in educational curricula in order to increase Egyptian students’ knowledge of their roots and the areas of their country’s strategic interests. In tandem, the media should work to increase public awareness of the nature of Egyptian-Sudanese relations and its complexities while the Television and Broadcast Institute should offer ongoing training on political, economic and social developments in Sudan and Africa in general. 

It is important to appreciate the impact of social networking platforms and technologies on Egyptian-Sudanese relations and to work towards enhancing the positive aspects of this impact. Perhaps civil society organisations could be called into play on both sides. Certainly, Egyptian civil society organisations should be encouraged to resume their activities in conflict zones and needy areas. Egyptian aid should be delivered by Egyptian hands. 

Lastly, it should be borne in mind that Egyptian efforts could encounter some resistance in Sudan, especially given that an entire Sudanese generation has been raised and nurtured on anti-Egyptian sentiments under the National Islamic Front. This means that we need to double our efforts in order support large segments of the Sudanese people who realise more than ever that hostility towards Egypt will rebound negatively for Sudan. Indeed, perhaps increased awareness of potential losses is the key to a better future for Egyptian-Sudanese relations.

add comment

  • follow us on