With the recall of Sudan’s Ambassador from Egypt, the closure of the Eritrean Border and a recent visit by Turkey’s President in which a Turkish takeover of a strategic island port fuelled uncertainty, it is safe to say that Sudan has moved closer than ever before to direct military conflict with its neighbours. The country now finds itself preparing its strategy to deal with major geopolitical issues facing the region.
The relative calm was arguably first disturbed by the Sudanese President’s visit to Sochi on 23 November last year, where he met his Russian counterpart Vladimir Putin. Omar Al-Bashir’s brief encounter set off a chain of reactions adding disquiet to the already tense atmosphere between his country and Egypt, and served to worry Sudan’s neighbours across the Red Sea in Saudi Arabia.
Many commentators were astonished by Al-Bashir’s outburst in which he blamed the US for Sudan’s problems and for partitioning a once united country. His request to the Russians for protection “from the interventionist aggression of the United States” was viewed as a rather clumsy attempt to alter the dynamics of the geopolitical balance in the Nile Basin region.
Equally, the possibility of Russian naval vessels plying up and down the Red Sea also became a worry. Fortunately for the US and Egypt, Russia’s announcement that it was not in need of a military base in Sudan allowed opposing voices to heave huge sighs of relief.
However, the visit by President Recep Tayyip Erdogan and the decision to grant Turkey a 99-year lease on the former Ottoman port of Suakin Island — once a haven for Muslim pilgrims heading to Makkah — brought back memories of “foreign” occupation of the Nile Basin.
Even before Erdogan’s two-day visit was over, the Egyptian media launched a scathing attack on Sudan. In Emad Adeeb’s stinging opinion piece headlined “Omar Bashir’s political suicide” the writer sensed a conspiracy and summarised Egypt’s concern: “Sudan is violating the rules of history and geography and is conspiring against Egypt under the shadow of Turkish madness, Iranian conspiracy, an Ethiopian scheme to starve Egypt of water and Qatar’s financing of efforts to undermine Egypt.”
Iran and Qatar have not commented on all of this, but on the third day of Egypt’s media frenzy Khartoum and Ankara issued separate statements firmly denying that Turkey was about to set up a military base on Suakin. The late denials only help to fuel the firmly held theory surrounding Turkey’s high profile stance in the Muslim world, which claims that Erdogan is trying to re-establish the Ottoman Empire. An article published in the Huffington Post titled “Erdogan: The Sultan of an illusionary Ottoman Empire” claimed that the Turkish President is hell-bent on using Islam as a tool to “indoctrinate the public in a subliminal way to his perspective of the glorious Ottoman period.”
To add fuel to the fire, media reports — described as “fake news” by Cairo, unsurprisingly — suggested that Egypt had attempted to cut Sudan out of the Nile water agreement by calling on Ethiopia to have direct talks. Ethiopia’s decision to build the Grand Renaissance Dam on the Nile has rattled Cairo. Despite trilateral meetings and the signing of accords guaranteeing Egypt’s water share, Cairo has sought to obtain firmer pledges from Ethiopia in the form of binding written agreements.
A few days ago, Egypt and the United Arab Emirates moved troops and heavy artillery into the Eritrean base of Sawa. The move has not only troubled Sudan but Ethiopia is also reported to have deployed military reinforcements on the border triangle with Eritrea. Over the weekend, Sudan first denied that thousands of its troops were amassing on the Eritrean border, but then the Governor of Kassala in east Sudan announced a complete shutdown of the border, with neither goods nor people being allowed to enter or leave the country.
It appears that Sudan, Ethiopia and opposition groups in both countries are preparing for the worst-case scenario of an Egyptian air strike on the Renaissance Dam. Such a move would be a disaster for the region, bringing chaos and retaliatory strikes, the first of which, according to sources in Sudan, would be an attack on Egypt’s Aswan High Dam.
However, whilst the withdrawal of Sudan’s Ambassador from Egypt was a sign of Sudan’s displeasure, observers say that Khartoum is holding out for a de-escalation of tension, leaving room for the issues to be resolved through diplomatic means. The strongest illustration of that hope will be if Ambassador Abdel Mahmoud Abdel-Haleem gets on a flight to Cairo and normal diplomatic relations between the neighbouring states are restored.