In the wake of continued protests across its southern border, Egypt has opted to prioritize Sudan’s stability, and, “in the Egyptian lexicon, stability means maintaining the presidency [of Omar al-Bashir],” an Egyptian official involved in Egypt’s regional policy tells Mada Masr.
During their meeting in Cairo last week, President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi told French President Emmanuel Macron that Cairo supports Bashir because it fears that, if he was to be removed from power “without the adequate preparations, Sudan could very well turn into another failed state,” the source adds.
“Sudan’s complex ethnic composition and tribal divisions, as well as the hostilities it has with South Sudan, are more reasons [for Egypt] to worry if Bashir suddenly disappears,” the source explains.
In regards to reports Mada Masr has recently received from several Cairo-based diplomats saying that Egypt has provided Bashir with intelligence and is lobbying Western and Arab leaders to keep him in office, the official says, “I am not going to go through the details of what we do — I’ll just say that, yes, we talk to our partners about the need to avoid a sudden power vacuum in Sudan, because that would mean potential chaos in a country that sits on the River Nile and occupies a strategic position on the Red Sea.”
Bashir’s rule has been challenged by nationwide protests that erupted in December 19 in the northeastern city of Atbara against worsening living conditions, and quickly escalated to demand the removal of the president — who has been in power since 1989 — from office. Reports by human rights organizations and local activists say that more than 50 people have been killed during the protests, which have spread to the cities of Port Sudan, Gedaref and Nyala in Darfur.
Bashir, who arrived in Cairo on January 27 for a one-day consultation with Sisi, said in a joint press conference, “Some are trying to replay the Arab Spring in Sudan, but this is not going to work, because the Sudanese people do not want to go through the turmoil suffered by other countries who witnessed the Arab Spring.”
Bashir’s backhanded remarks on the protests that rippled across the Arab world in 2011 have generally been left uncontested by Sisi, who, in a joint press conference with Macron a day later, said that the Arab Spring was “followed by chaos,” in response to questions from French journalists on Egypt’s worsening human rights record.
In the same presser, Sisi added that the Arab Spring was designed to bring about the rise of Islamist rulers all over the Arab world, a sentiment that Bashir — who is associated with political Islam, and whose longtime rivalry with former Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak, as well as Sisi, has often been described in Egyptian media as stemming from their opposition to his Islamist tendencies — could hardly share.
Yet this standoff stopped short of preventing Cairo from supporting the Sudanese president over recent weeks. According to the official, this is partly due to the Egyptian state’s sensitivity toward any form of popular dissent that threatens governmental control.
That Sudan’s protests have been triggered by economic hardships is another source of unease for Egypt, which has been implementing a tough set of austerity measures since it signed a $12 billion loan agreement with the International Monetary Fund in 2016.
“But, of course, we can’t compare the economic situation in Egypt to the economic situation in Sudan,” the official stresses.
The source, however, alludes to the fact that Egypt’s support of Sudan is not unconditional.
“[Egypt is] already stuck with a tricky situation in relation to the [Grand Ethiopian Renaissance] Dam, which is bound to affect its [annual] share of the Nile water. For the longest time, [Egypt] was dismayed at Sudan’s reluctance to help — now, we feel like Sudan would be more willing to cooperate with us in the tripartite talks,” the source says.
Egypt and Sudan, the two downstream nations of the River Nile, have been embroiled in talks with Ethiopia since 2015 to reach an agreement over their annual share of water in light of the construction of the dam, which has a reservoir slated to hold over 70 billion cubic meters of water. Sudan had, so far, sided with the Ethiopian proposal that Egypt’s share should be decided upon annual basis, depending on rainfall estimates. Moreover, it has accused Egypt of appropriating Sudan’s share of Nile water, while Egypt has fought to keep its annual share at the level determined by the 1959 Nile water agreement between the two countries.
The Egyptian official says that, based on Bashir’s visit to Cairo this week, the latter signaled that Khartoum will now support Egypt’s water sharing demands.
Egypt does not mind being on the same page with its regional archenemies, Turkey and Qatar, in regards to supporting Bashir, the source says, arguing that countries, at times, agree with their rivals and disagree with their allies.
However, another Egyptian official says that Egypt is monitoring Bashir’s weakening position with growing trepidation, particularly following Qatar refusal to provide the financial support the Sudanese president requested during his last visit to Doha in January.
For their parts, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates are already exploring options for a safe exit for Bashir, as well as a potential successor, according to the official.
However, the source says, “Cairo doesn’t support these propositions, given that it doesn’t see any trustworthy alternative.”