Quietly and without an official announcement is how Osama Shaltout, Egypt’s ambassador to Sudan, returned to his post in Khartoum on Tuesday. On the same day, Abdel Mahmoud Abdel Halim, Sudan’s ambassador to Egypt, returned to Cairo two months after he was recalled due to tension between the neighboring countries.
Shaltout spent the better part of two months in Cairo, as the Egyptian government worked to resolve the tension. Egyptian Foreign Ministry spokesperson Ahmed Abu Zeid told Mada Masr on Wednesday morning that the reason for the ambassador’s stay in Cairo had been to “take part in official meetings.” Abu Zeid also stressed that Cairo did not recall Shaltout, either in response to Khartoum’s January decision or at any point since.
Although the return of both ambassadors to their respective posts is an indication of the end of the public escalation of tensions, several Egyptian and Western diplomats as well as observers believe that the matters which originally triggered the crisis earlier this year have yet to be settled, even if the restoration of diplomatic relations is a step in the right direction.
“The kind of escalation we saw in the January [between Sudan and Egypt] was kind of a negotiation being carried out in public, with a ratcheting up of rhetoric that didn’t necessarily match what was happening on the ground,” International Crisis Group’s Horn of Africa Analyst Magnus Taylor tells Mada Masr. “Of course, there are some real structural problems in the relationship on the Renaissance Dam, on the Muslim Brotherhood, the border conflict over Halayeb. But I’ve never really seen any of those issues as escalating into a border war or proxy war.”
Khartoum never officially stated the reason for the sudden recall of its diplomatic envoy. What rationale that was given was slim. In comments to the press last Saturday, the Sudanese ambassador stated that he had been recalled for consultations regarding “concerns of sovereignty, borders, politics and security, and consular and media-related concerns.” Egyptian diplomats following the matter believe that Sudan took advantage of the harsh media campaign that Egyptian state-owned and state-friendly media outlets leveled against Sudanese President Omar al-Bashir for receiving Turkey’s Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan in December. During the visit the latter announced significant Turkish investments in Sudan, including the development of a naval base on the Sudanese island of Suakin that Sudan’s Foreign Minister Ibrahim Ghandour said “could result in any kind of military cooperation” between the countries. At the time, Egyptian newspapers accused Bashir of joining the anti-Egyptian Doha-Ankara axis.
According to several accounts, the Egyptian government opted for a tempered response to the withdrawal of the Sudanese ambassador. Several Egyptian journalists said that they were instructed by government and security officials to halt the media campaign against Khartoum and limit their coverage of the tensions surrounding the recall of Abdel Halim. In January, the editor-in-chief of the privately owned Al-Masry Al-Youm newspaper wrote that “chief officers of newspapers and satellite television channels have been guided by sovereign authorities to not target the Sudanese people or attack Bashir’s regime. It is true that the Sudanese are increasingly using blackmail, but Cairo does not wish to escalate. The blackmail is driven by Bashir’s wish to distract from [ Sudan’s] internal problems, the latest of which have been the bread, fuel and electricity crises which have provoked public demonstrations.”
A well-informed Egyptian government source who spoke to Mada Masr on condition of anonymity says that Egypt reads the recalling of Sudan’s envoy as motivated by the country’s internal concerns, and sees it as an attempt to reinforce the legitimacy of the Sudanese regime against the growing protests over living conditions and mounting political dissent. According to the source, Egypt considered recalling its ambassador to Sudan – who happened to be in Cairo at the time on personal leave for his daughter’s marriage – in response to the January decision. However, after consulting with relevant authorities, Egypt opted to exercise patience while talks were conducted with Saudi Arabia to obtain more information about the reason behind Khartoum’s move.
There has been a growing rapprochement in Sudanese-Saudi relations since 2014, after Sudan abandoned its close relationship with Iran. This has been reflected in Sudan’s military contribution to the war that the Saudi-led coalition has waged against the Houthi militia in Yemen.
The matter of the Sudanese ambassador to Egypt was, indeed, discussed at a meeting between Egypt and Saudi Arabia’s foreign ministers that took place in Jordan on the sidelines of a conference of Arab foreign ministers on the Palestinian cause two days after the recall of the Sudanese ambassador, according to the Egyptian source.
“The developments in the Arab region and the Horn of Africa, as well as the security of the Red Sea as an extension of Arab national security” were discussed in the meeting, according to the Egyptian Foreign Affairs Ministry’s statement that was released following the meeting between Saudi Arabia and Egypt. The meeting also showed “a compatibility in visions on the means to combat all forms of foreign interference in the affairs of Arab states,” read the statement. According to the Egyptian official, Saudi Arabia seemed – in the course of that meeting – willing to mediate between Egypt and Sudan and “requested that Egypt continue to embrace a policy of containment until the crisis has been resolved, and that is what happened.”
The first sign of a resolution to the crisis came during a presidential summit between President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi and his Sudanese counterpart Bashir in Addis Ababa late in January on the sidelines of the regular summit of the African Union. Following the meeting, both presidents expressed a shared desire to restore normal relations and directly address the concerns of both parties by means of an Egyptian initiative to hold a quartet meeting that would include the foreign affairs ministers and heads of intelligence from both countries.
The meeting did take place in Cairo on February 8, and resulted in the issuance of a joint statement. However, the statement made no mention of a resolution to the problem between the two countries. It did emphasize that there was an agreement to “work to realize and promote mutual interests, take the concerns of each country into consideration, respect internal affairs and work together to maintain the national security of both countries.”
The Egyptian government source tells Mada Masr that, following the meeting, it cannot be said that the Sudanese side made concessions to Egypt’s expectations, and that the three main points of contention have not been resolved with any level of clarity, even as there has been a show a show of good faith. “The first point is Sudan’s position on the Ethiopian Renaissance Dam. The second is Sudan’s position on Halayeb and Shalateen. And the third is that Sudan hosts members of the Egyptian opposition,” meaning leaders and members of the Muslim Brotherhood who fled to Sudan following the ouster of former President Mohamed Morsi.
Yet, the source believes that the principal gain has been the meeting itself, as “a realization has been reached that neither party can proceed alone without some level of understanding with the other.” The meeting did produce three outcomes, according to the source. “Egypt and Sudan have expressed direct wishes to pursue better relationships,” the source says. “Both countries have talked openly about the reasons each side is angry with the other, and an understanding has been established on the need to continue high-level talks, as well as communication through different diplomatic and security channels.”
On February 11, just three days after the quartet meeting was held in Cairo, the Sudanese president issued a decision to remove head of the National Intelligence and Security Agency Mohamed Atta from his post and to install the security body’s former head Salah Qosh in his stead. Most analysts saw Atta’s dismissal as related to the clashes between Sudanese security forces and protesters who took part in the public demonstrations that swept the country in January, in response to a hike in the price of bread and food items.
It is unclear whether Egypt played a role in the dismissal of the former security head, but Cairo was likely relieved by the news of the appointment of Qosh, as the Egyptian government source says that Egyptian officials told their Sudanese and Saudi counterparts that Egypt believed that the intelligence chief had been adversely affecting the bilateral relationships between the two countries.
“I actually heard quite a similar thing from Sudanese officials. The suggestion was that the previous Sudanese head of intelligence Mohamed Atta had not been working the Sudan-Egypt relationship particularly effectively, and that there were a lot of complaints from the Egyptians on that front,” says Taylor, who visited Sudan last week. “Salah Qosh, the new guy, is an original regime figure. He was a big player in the 1990s and in the 2000s. And he also had a close relationship with former head of Egypt’s General Intelligence Service Omar Suleiman before he died,” Taylor adds.
The crisis group analyst says that Qosh has managed to maintain a close relationship with the Egyptians since Suleiman’s sudden death in 2012, a strong standing that is similar to his ties with the United States and the Gulf countries. Taylor describes him as “a quite capable, pragmatic figure,” which may allow him to reach resolutions to the difficult issues with Egypt.
Egypt’s proposal to hold the quartet meetings, according to the well-informed Egyptian source, came in response to the discontent that Bashir expressed at the Addis Ababa meeting with Sisi. Sudanese discontent stemmed from what the country sees as Egypt’s interference in its internal affairs. According to the source, Bashir talked about this matter in great detail, and Sisi affirmed that Egypt is not working against the Sudanese government. The Egyptian president asserted that these concerns should be directly addressed through the new mechanism.
This was not the first time Sudan has voiced discontent with what it views as hostile movements by Egypt. Another Egyptian government official says that a high-level Sudanese envoy visited Egypt in the autumn of 2017 to relay to Egyptian authorities “details, backed with photos, dates and names of people whom he said have been arrested in different parts of Sudan, including Darfur, Kordofan and Khartoum” while carrying out tasks aimed – as per the grievance – at undermining the Sudanese regime. A Sudanese diplomat who happened to be in Cairo at that time says Sisi promised the envoy that he would order an investigation into the matter and would put an end to any moves unsettling to Khartoum, which he stressed did not result from “high-level political instructions.”
In a similar incident, Sudan accused Egypt of arming opposition forces fighting under Libyan National Army General Khalifa Haftar in eastern Libya, after they briefly entered west Sudan in May 2017.
But Sisi contested this in a public statement he made at the inauguration of development projects in Sadat City in mid-January. “Egypt will never wage war against its sisterly countries. I say this as a message to our brothers in Sudan. We are not willing to go to war with our brothers or with anyone. Every pound is better spent on our peoples. I say this to our brothers in Sudan and Ethiopia: Egypt does not conspire against you. We neither conspire against nor interfere in the affairs of others. We are very, very keen to have a very good relationship.”
Yet, Egypt has also conveyed to Sudan its discontent with recurrent interference by the Sudanese security apparatus in the Halayeb Triangle and its administrative capital Shalateen, which is currently administered by Egypt. Such interference included the arrest of Egyptians working in official contexts in the region, according to both Egyptian officials, who also say that Sudanese security has released some of these detainees recently.
Indeed, Sudanese Foreign Ministry spokesperson Ambassador Qariballah al-Khidir announced on March 2 that Egyptian and Sudanese security bodies have exchanged detainees at the Qastal-Ashkeet Border Crossing. The three Egyptian detainees who were released had been arrested in the desert of the Sudanese state of Samāliya in July “with some equipment in their possession,” according to the spokesperson. The nature of the equipment has not been mentioned, however. The three Sudanese detainees who were released, on the other hand, “had been arrested by the authorities in Egypt in August after they got lost north of the 22nd parallel north and crossed the border into Egypt in a vehicle,” the spokesperson said.
Sudan has demanded that direct Egyptian-Sudanese negotiations be conducted over the Halayeb Triangle to reach a final demarcation of the borders, or that Egypt accept international mediation regarding sovereignty over the border region. Egypt has rejected both paths, as it believes that the triangle is undoubtedly Egyptian sovereign territory. The Egyptian proposal is that the region be dedicated for joint development projects, provided that it clearly remains within Egypt’s borders.
But the Egyptian government has recently received reports that Sudan has already contracted a prominent Arab law expert to serve as a political adviser to the Sudanese government on the border matter, according to one of the two Egyptian officials Mada Masr spoke to. The adviser is a Jordanian former International Court of Justice judge. Sudan is also in the process of signing a similar contract with a Washington D.C.-based international office that works with international disputes to look into alternative legal courses concerning the Halayeb Triangle, the source says.
“At the moment, we can say that both sides have, at least, agreed that the matter of the Halayeb Triangle should not be the subject of statements to the press in either country,” the source says.
In addition to the border issue, the Egyptians still find Sudan’s support of Ethiopia’s position on the technical negotiations over the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam excessive, and believe is fails to take into account Egypt’s concerns regarding the potential water shortage which may result from the imminent filling of the water reservoir.
According to the two Egyptians officials, Sudan has yet to concede to any of Egypt’s demands with respect to accepting World Bank mediation in negotiations, adopting the Egyptian proposal for the number of years to fill the reservoir, supporting Egypt’s demand for tripartite management of the dam after it has been filled or the joint water and electricity projects which Egypt has submitted to Sudan for consideration. The Egyptian state realizes that Ethiopia is the main party to the dam crisis and that Sudan’s role is secondary and driven by development needs rather a political endeavor. However, Egyptian officials are receiving recurrent reports of water and agriculture projects for which Sudan is currently considering seeking funding from international bodies or friendly states, such as China, Saudi Arabia and Qatar.
Meanwhile, a former Egyptian government official who is still closely connected to decision-making entities says that Egypt has officially requested that Sudan provide information on the news that Egypt received plans for larger scale water and agriculture projects currently under consideration by the Sudanese government.
“The issue with the water projects Sudan is considering is not only the retention of water for several years to generate electricity, as is the case with the Renaissance Dam,” says a European diplomat based in Cairo. “They may also include an expansion of the use of Nile water in agriculture by Sudan, which would pose an additional challenge for Egypt, especially during low flood seasons.”
For both Egyptian officials, Cairo’s current position on the relationship with Khartoum is “let’s wait and see.” Egypt is anticipating that the coming weeks will reveal the ways in which Sudan’s expressed good intentions will play out. Cairo is well aware, according to the sources, that the severe economic crisis in Sudan will be a key determinant of the behavior of Bashir’s regime toward foreign affairs.
“The economy is an absolute mess,” says International Crisis Group analyst Taylor. “So what they really need is a bailout from one of the Gulf States, either Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates or Qatar, or a combination of the three.”
According to a recent February report released by the International Crisis Group, the Sudanese economy “has hit rock bottom [and] remains crippled by the loss of millions [of dollars] in annual oil revenue since South Sudan seceded in 2011. After a new budget was announced in early January 2018, which included the devaluation of the Sudanese pound against the dollar, inflation spiraled upward. Bread prices also more than doubled after cuts to subsidies on wheat imports.”
Under the strain of this crisis, Egypt expects – or perhaps hopes – that Sudan will continue to bet on good relationships with all foreign parties that can provide support, including the Saudi Arabia-UAE-Egypt axis, the Turkey-Qatar axis and other neighboring countries such as Ethiopia and Eritrea, while also pursuing better relationships with the US and the European Union on one side, and Russia – which Bashir has embarked on a rapprochement with – on the other.
With this in mind, Taylor says he expects that “while the Sudanese want to show their independence from Egypt on the diplomatic front, right now they can’t afford to have a more powerful enemy, such as Egypt, that can potentially affect their relationship with the Gulf states and cause trouble in a time in which they are pretty weak and need some friends.”