As Sudan’s ambassador returns to Cairo today after a two-month absence, the precise reasons for Abdel-Mahmood Abdel-Halim’s dramatic withdrawal remains unexplained. Likewise, there is no available information on the changed circumstances that have made his return possible.
Two months ago, troops from Sudan’s Rapid Response Armed forces sealed the country’s eastern border with Eritrea. Today, those troops are still in position and the border remains closed. At the time, Sudan insisted that Egypt (with UAE assistance) had amassed troops and military equipment within the Eritrean Sawa military base. However, the observed movement were denied by both Cairo and Asmara. Fears of a potential military strike against the Renaissance Dam being built by Ethiopia grew amid accusations that Egypt was stealing Sudan’s quota of the Nile waters.
Today, Sudan has not publically retracted its accusations, nor has it lowered the security threat levels. Furthermore, some political commentators that I spoke to argue that following the 15 February’s resignation of the Ethiopian Prime Minister Hailemariam Desalegn the situation has gotten palpably worse. Despite trilateral talks in Addis Ababa last month, the three countries – Ethiopia, Sudan and Egypt – have yet to conclude mutually agreeable terms over water shares after the dam becomes functional. In effect, the return of Sudan’s ambassador takes place in a tense and uneasy diplomatic atmosphere not dissimilar to the one that caused his recall to Khartoum in the first instance.
Putting aside official diplomatic doublespeak describing Sudan and Egypt as having a ‘special historical tie,’ the relationship between Cairo and Khartoum has been everything, but ‘special’. In fact, diplomacy has swung from accusations that Sudan financed and orchestrated the attempted assassination of Egypt’s former President Hosni Mubarak back in 1995; to an ideological meeting of minds during the brief term of the first democratically elected President Mohammed Morsi (2011-12); to the ongoing diplomatic relations that have failed to bring about tangible progress on any of the major issues of difference. However, today’s return of the ambassador demonstrates, at the very least, Sudan’s willingness to honour that elusive ‘special historical’ relationship while not wanting to appear responsible for initiating a ‘cold war’.
As always, regional geo-political events particularly as it relates to foreign policy have caused the relationship between the two neighbours to ebb and flow. The ouster of Mohammed Morsi sponsored proactively by the Gulf States and tacitly supported by the silence of Western nations is at the root of Egypt’s continuing claim that Sudan is harbouring Egyptian members of the Muslim Brotherhood – a group outlawed by Egypt following the military coup by Egypt’s incumbent President Abdul Fatah Al Sisi.
Just a few days ago, Sudan’s Foreign ministry and the new Intelligence Chief Salah Gosh, requested Cairo to provide a list of Brotherhood members thought to be hiding in Sudan with a promise that Khartoum would investigate the matter.
Sudan’s domestic woes following the devaluation of the dollar may also lie behind Khartoum’s decision to re-establish diplomatic ties because the Sudanese public are in no mood for a diplomatic stand-off with Cairo. The appearance of the two sides back on diplomatic speaking terms means that Sudan hopes it can de-escalate the tensions around bilateral disputes such as Egypt’s support for Sudan’s Darfur rebel opposition, a claim that Cairo emphatically denies, and the never-ending dispute over the Halayeb Triangle.
Reactivating bilateral trade also takes on a new sense of urgency given Sudan’s economic woes and the trade restrictions that Sudan placed on some Egyptian goods. Both sides have made another effort this week to play down their diplomatic differences, repeating the need to avoid negative language in the media and to resume using the stock phrase of how the countries used to be a “single nation” and how important historical ties should be respected.
However, there is no escaping the fact that Egypt and Sudan continue to hold divergent positions such as: over the political crisis in Libya where Sudan continues to support the officially recognised government while Egypt continues to work closely with Khalifa Haftar’s self-styled Libya National Army faction. In addition, the two sides are becoming increasingly at odds over the Gulf dispute between Saudi Arabia and Qatar with Sudan appearing to be more firmly in the Qatar camp while trying to maintain a public stance of neutrality.
Added to all that, despite assurances from Ankara and Khartoum, Egypt remains sceptical about the true purpose of the Sawakin port, which the Turkish government has began to renovate. The door to the strategic location becoming a Turkish military base has been left ajar and to the dismay and displeasure of Egypt and its two Gulf allies, Saudi Arabia and United Arab Emirates, Sudan – a key partner in the war in Yemen – continues to pursue its own unique foreign policy goals in a bid not to place all its proverbial eggs in one basket.
Contrary to their avowed willingness to resume diplomatic relations, there is clearly no immediate desire on the part of Abdul Fatah Al-Sisi or Omer Al-Bashir, for that matter, to have substantive talks on the major issues of contention. Junior foreign office staff continue to hold low level meetings with the promise that the two leaders will one-day meet to resolves the major issues. That day continues to be distant and elusive. Until then, the two sides will have to be content, for the time being, with a return to the usual, uneasy, stalemate diplomacy.