Alwaght- The Egyptian President Abdel Fatah el-Sisi concluded onFriday a two-day visit to Sudan amid strained ties between the two African nations.
In May last year, Sudan’s President Omar al-Bashir accused Egypt of providing support to the armed rebels fighting his government, that the Egyptian leaders strongly rejected.
The two neighbors also have a set of disputes mainly over two border regions, Hala’ib Triangle and Shalateen, both currently under the control of Egypt. Every year, Khartoum renews a filed suit to the United Nations Security Council calling for help to retake the claimed territories from Egypt through dialogue or the International Court of Arbitration.
The two countries, both home to the Nile River, have a conflict of interests over an under-construction Ethiopian dam, dubbed the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam. While Sudan finds the project useful and backs it, Egypt is in stark contrast with the massive structure arguing that it will cut its water share from the Nile, which is now 55.5 billion square meters.
Prior to the el-Sisi’s trip, the Egyptian ambassador to Khartoum Osama Shallot commented on the visit’s goals saying that it was taking place to discuss bilateral matters, including the political and trade ties and also the regional crises including conflicts in South Sudan and Libya.
Egypt’s efforts to de-escalate with Sudan comes under influence of Cairo’s rivalry with other players that seek to get a toehold in the Red Sea. Sudan is one of the most significant way through which other actors can cultivate influence in the region. The point is that the struggle by the West Asian powers to fill the gaps of the balance of power is increasingly growing. As a result, the regions facilitating these actors’ plans development, including Sudan, come to the center of attention.
Turkey and Egypt compete in Sudan
In late December 2017, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan visited Sudan and signed a deal with Khartoum to rent Sudan’s Red Sea island of Suakin under a 99-year contract. Ankara says the island will undergo construction operations under an investment program. Suakin is located in eastern Sudan waters and is home to historical attractions mainly dating back to the period the country was under the rule of the Ottoman Empire, from the ashes of which modern Turkey rose. The island also has a port from which goods and travelers come from and go to Saudi Arabia on the other side of the Red Sea.
The contract very well marks the rise of the Red Sea as a new encounter point among the regional and international players. This is not a good news for Egypt as the renting deal will provide a boost to the Turkish strategy to stretch its hands to Africa, mainly the northeast of the region.
Denied accession to the European Union, Turkey has turned its head to Africa. The contract with Sudan is seen as part of pressuring attempt directed against Egypt and specifically el-Sisi who destroyed Ankara’s dreams to see Muslim Brotherhood ruling Egypt and other Arab nations. El-Sisi rose to power in 2013 after ousting the Muslim Brotherhood-affiliated President Mohamad Morsi. Omar al-Bashir, on the other side, assumed the power in 1989, the year he led a military coup as an army brigadier. At the time, he allied with Hassan Al-Turabi, the leader of Sudan’s offshoot of the Muslim Brotherhood. The alliance remains standing to date.
In addition to Egypt, Saudi Arabia and the Israeli regime are vehemently opposed to the expansion of Muslim Brotherhood ideology regionally. So, the Sudan-Turkey deal is a message to these actors, and particularly to Cairo and Riyadh. Ibrahim Ghandour, Sudan’s foreign minister, in December 2017 said Turkey will construct a wharf on the island’s coast. The platform, he added, will serve the purpose of maintaining and repairing commercial and military ships. He noted that the agreement will allow the two sides to boost military cooperation. The Turkish move will build pressure on Saudi Arabia which saw Ankara deploy 5,000 troops to Qatar after the Arab state came last year under a blockade by Saudi Arabia in cooperation with the UAE, Egypt, and Bahrain.
The Turkish media say that the cooperation is part of a massive deal worth of $650 million, a sum many believe is provided by Qatar. In addition to the military base, the Turkish government intends to build a new airport in the capital Khartoum, beside plans to invest on Sudan’s electricity and cotton industries. They agreed to a plan to raise their trade to $10 billion annually.
Turkish presence and Hala’ib dispute
Analysts maintain that Turkey’s foothold in the African state can leave influences on the mounting dispute over the Hala’ib Triangle region on the Red Sea coast. After Sudan’s independence from Britain in 1956, Cairo and Khartoum raised claims over owning the territory. Egypt stationed its military forces in the region in the 1990s.
The territorial dispute was renewed in 2016 when Cairo transferred two Red Sea islands of Sanafir and Tiran to Saudi Arabia. The agreement recognized Egypt’s control over Hala’ib, provoking Sudan to write a letter to the UN condemning the deal. It ushered in a period of diplomatic rift, followed by military muscle flexing. Egypt sent thousands of troops to an Eritrea-based UAE military base on the border with Sudan. Sudan, in response, closed border with Eritrea and deployed thousands of forces to border with its neighbor.
Al-Nahdha (Renaissance) Dam
Ethiopia’s Al-Nahdha dam which is under construction on the Nile is another sticking point between Cairo and Khartoum. The dam, home to the world’s largest hydroelectric power plant, is beneficial to Sudan because Ethiopia will export electricity to its northern neighbor. The project is also of agricultural benefits to Sudan. The crisis dragged the Persian Gulf states into the row.
Like Sudan, Ethiopia moved closer to Qatar as it accused Egypt of supporting separatist movements in the country.
Seeing Sudan allied with Cairo’s rivals Turkey and Qatar with a drive to re-vitalize its troubled economy, Egypt is now heading to mend the relations with its neighbor via an investment program. On July 4, Cairo announced that its investment in Sudan touched $2.7 billion. Saudi Arabia’s ambassador to Khartoum recently said that the kingdom will build new ports and bolster trade with Sudan. All these developments signal mounting attention to Sudan’s position in a regional competition.