x Abu Dhabi, UAEThursday 18 January 2018

Egypt and Sudan on road to repair old relationship

Mohammed Morsi, in his first 100 days as president has drawn attention in ending the Syria crisis, but he has also been quietly building ties closer to home.

Egyptian President Mohamed Morsi, right,  meets with his Sudanese counterpart Omar Al Bashir at the presidential palace in Cairo last month.
Egyptian President Mohamed Morsi, right, meets with his Sudanese counterpart Omar Al Bashir at the presidential palace in Cairo last month.

CAIRO // In his first 100 days in office, Egyptian president Mohammed Morsi has drawn attention for spearheading regional efforts to end the crisis in Syria and for forging new economic ties in the Gulf and with China. But he has also been busy quietly repairing ties with a neglected ally in his own backyard, Sudan.

Egypt, under its new Islamist president, sees much to gain from a renewed partnership with its Nile-sharing neighbour, whose government fell out with ousted president Hosni Mubarak after it allegedly sponsored an assassination attempt against him in the mid-1990s for his hard-line stance against Islamists. Sudan was suspected of hosting those who went underground due to persecution in their own countries - Osama bin Laden, the most prominent.

Speaking at the United Nations General Assembly last month, Mr Morsi took a risky step in voicing support for Sudan, issuing a call for UN member nations to rally behind president Omar Al Bashir, who faces war crimes charges from the International Criminal Court.

"Let me be frank, Sudan has not received the support it deserves," the Egyptian president said. "This country seeks to achieve stability and development," he added, saying that Sudan and the newly independent nation of South Sudan form the "centre of cooperation between the Arab world and African countries."

Tarek Radwan, of the Atlantic Council's Hariri Center in Washington, views Mr Morsi's engagement with Khartoum as one part of the Egyptian leader's efforts to revive the most populous Arab nation's flailing economy and to reorient Egypt's role in the international community.

"Morsi is facing an enormous economic crisis …(and) trying to make Egypt relevant once again on the international stage," said Mr Radwan.

A closer partnership with Sudan than the sometimes chilly one of the Mubarak era could provide Egypt with a common front in future negotiations over Nile River access with the nine sub-Saharan African countries downstream. The uncertain future of Egypt's lifeline is a crucial question for the country, and one that the post-revolution government cannot afford to ignore.

A series of friendly exchanges between Cairo and Khartoum since Mr Morsi took office in late June suggest that the new president is aiming to take more advantage than his predecessor did of Egypt and Sudan's common interests and intertwined history.

Although rebuilding trust between the two countries will take time, initial diplomatic exchanges suggest that Mr Morsi plans a new approach to the partnership.

Mubarak made only three visits to Sudan after Mr Al Bashir came to power in an Islamist coup in 1989.

Although Mr Morsi is yet to visit the Sudanese capital, he hosted Mr Al Bashir for bilateral talks in Cairo last month, then promptly sent his prime minister and a delegation of ministers to Khartoum.

During Mr Al Bashir's visit to Cairo, Egypt's presidential spokesman told reporters that the "position of Khartoum and Cairo regarding the Nile Basin crisis is identical."

While in Khartoum, the prime minister inaugurated the first Sudanese branch of the National Bank of Egypt, a move the bank's chairman called the beginning of "gigantic" investments in agricultural and trade planned by the bank in Sudan.

Despite the recent meetings and lofty words, implementation of the new promises made by Egypt and Sudan is already facing challenges. The opening of the first road linking the new countries, which was scheduled for earlier this month, has been delayed until January. Sudanese officials attributed the delays to administrative issues related to customs and security on the Egyptian side of the border.

Professor Hamid Ali, of the American University in Cairo, questioned whether a renewed relationship with Sudan will actually benefit Egypt.

"There will be short-term gains (for Egypt)," Mr Ali predicted, but argued that large-scale agricultural schemes and other investments currently being discussed by the two nations would be difficult to implement given the fragile economic and political situation in Sudan.

Mr Ali warned that Egypt's partnership with Sudan would further politicise an already contentious relationship between the two countries and the nine nations downstream who seek greater rights to the Nile than are provided to them by the current treaties.

He doubted that the alliance would aid Mr Morsi's effort to promote a positive view of Islamist governance in the region.

"If Morsi is talking about an Islamic project and its revival, I think this message will be endangered by getting involved with Mr Al Bashir, someone who discredits this movement," he added.

In spite of the negative image he projects as a Muslim Brotherhood member, some say Egypt has little choice but to work with Mr Al Bashir.

"Any government in Egypt is going to try to maintain good relations with the government in Sudan because they need to be able to talk to them about water," said Marina Ottaway of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace in Washington. "There is a lot of concern in Egypt about what is happening upstream."

"It's not so much an ideological issue," added Ms Ottaway. "It's more of an equation of Egyptian interests."

Sudan expert Alex de Waal of Tufts University called South Sudan's independence declaration a "big blow" for Egypt, and a "major reversal" to Egypt's long-standing policies of preserving the unity of what was Africa's largest nation.

"Egypt is very keen not to see any further instability or fragmentation affecting Sudan and will therefore support the status quo in Khartoum, in the absence of an immediately preferable alternative," said Mr de Waal.