The crisis in Sudan, which has now entered its second month, has serious implications for neighboring states. This is particularly the case for economically-challenged Egypt, which is watching a humanitarian crisis unfold on its side of the border as tens of thousands of Sudanese refugees flee the conflict.
Since the fighting erupted in mid-April, at least 259,000 people have crossed over from Sudan into neighboring countries—namely Egypt, Chad, Eritrea, and the Central Africa Republic—according to the International Organization for Migration (IOM). But Egypt—which shares its southern border with Sudan—is the worst affected.
A primary destination for people fleeing the violence, Egypt has received more than fifty thousand people from across the border. Hundreds of thousands more are expected to cross into the country in the coming months if the fighting continues. The mass influx not only threatens to aggravate the humanitarian crisis on Egypt’s side of the border, but it also threatens to overstretch the country’s resources at a time when it faces a deepening economic crisis, which risks further disgruntling its disaffected population.
But the Egyptian government has a lot more to worry about than rising public discontent caused by the immense economic pressure. The possible infiltration of extremist groups into Egypt is currently a prime concern for authorities. It’s a case of once bitten, twice shy.
Over the past decade, the Egyptian army and police have been the target of multiple terrorist attacks by Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham (ISIS)-affiliated jihadists that crossed into Egypt from the shared eastern border with the Gaza Strip. Meanwhile, troops have been deployed along Egypt’s Western border with Libya to curb terrorist infiltration and a repeat of similar attacks. The recent release of pro-Muslim Brotherhood figures from a prison in Sudan has heightened Cairo’s fears of the opening of a new front in Egypt’s war on terrorism.
Another major concern for Egypt is the Rapid Support Forces’ (RSF) strong ties with Ethiopia. Egypt has sought the backing of Sudan in its ongoing dispute with Ethiopia over the downstream country’s share of Nile waters. This, following the construction and filling of the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam (GERD), considered by Egypt to be an “existential threat.” Should Egypt decide to use the military option against Ethiopia at any time in the future, it may have to do so unilaterally, as it would no longer have Sudan on its side.
President Abdel Fattah El-Sisi has ruled out any intervention in Sudan, arguing that the Sudanese crisis was an “internal” matter. He has also pledged that Egypt would not take sides in the conflict and has offered to mediate between Sudan’s rival factions. However, skeptics suggest that Egypt is already deeply involved in Khartoum. They affirm that the Egyptian military backs the Sudanese army with which it forged strong ties following the overthrow of the Islamist-leaning former Sudanese President Omar al-Bashir in 2019.
Some analysts argue that the stakes are too high for Cairo to stand idly by and watch as the situation deteriorates.
It is no secret that Cairo has long backed the Sudanese army with the conviction that it is the sole institution that can restore stability in Sudan. Egypt cemented its ties with the Sudanese army by conducting joint military exercises with Sudan after Bashir was deposed by the military in the wake of mass protests in Sudan. Egyptian authorities are looking to Abdel Fattah El-Burhan, Sudan’s de facto military leader, to quash the nascent pro-democracy movement that emerged during Sudan’s 2019 mass uprising and to restore security and stability in Sudan—moves that Cairo perceives as serving its interests.
The capture of two hundred Egyptian soldiers—the majority of whom were air force personnel—at a military base in the northern Sudanese town of Meroe by the RSF in mid-April, as well as a leaked video showing the soldiers in a state of defeat, were perceived as an act of provocation by Cairo. The humiliating episode also provoked an outcry on social media platforms.
The RSF believed Egyptian soldiers were siding with the Sudanese Armed Forces (SAF) but later apologized for releasing the video. Meanwhile, in an apparent attempt to save face, Sisi insisted that the Egyptian troops were in Sudan “for training purposes” and gave the RSF a seventy-two-hour ultimatum to return the soldiers home safely. The troops were indeed sent back to Egypt on April 19, but some analysts believe that the incident has not been forgotten and are guessing Cairo may be waiting for the right moment to retaliate.
There have been unconfirmed reports that Egypt has provided the SAF with military intelligence and tactical support. Sources have also cited unconfirmed bombings of RSF positions by Egyptian fighter jets and say Egypt is contemplating invading Sudan to fight the powerful paramilitary forces (RSF) led by Mohamed Hamdan Daglo, known as Hemetti.
If the reports are accurate, this will this pit Egypt against the United Arab Emirates (UAE)—Egypt’s longtime ally and principal financial backer—which has thrown its weight behind the RSF. It would also pit Egypt against Libyan warlord General Khalifa Haftar, another RSF supporter, whose forces control much of eastern Libya and who was backed by Egypt and the RSF during his failed onslaught on Tripoli in 2019.
All of this puts Egypt in a dilemma. On the one hand, it would like to see stability and security restored in Sudan for fear of violence spilling over into its territory. On the other, Sudan’s northern neighbor does not wish to risk ruffling the feathers of the UAE by overtly taking an opposing side in the conflict. Cash-strapped Egypt has been selling government-owned assets to the wealthy Gulf nation to shore up its troubled economy. Agitating the UAE’ may cause it to halt its investments in Egypt, denying the North African country the cash it badly needs to plug a financing gap of $17 billion over the next four years.
It is safer for Egypt to continue to support the SAF covertly or indirectly without publicly announcing its anti-RSF position. Still, with the evacuation of foreigners from Sudan nearly complete, expectations are rife that a full-scale Egyptian military invasion of Sudan is imminent—assuming the conflict drags on. According to some analysts, invading Sudan would give Egypt an opportunity to reassert its leadership role in the region.
By brokering a truce between rival factions in Sudan, Egypt also stands to win favor with global powers—the United States in particular—which had been pinning their hopes on a handover of power to a civilian government. A return to civilian rule had been a bone of contention between Burhan and the RSF, with the latter accusing Sudan’s military leaders of clinging to power.
Helping end the conflict in Sudan would also allow Egypt to align its foreign policy and interests with the United States, reversing a previous trend of having conflicting viewpoints on regional issues. This would pave the way for greater cooperation between the US and its longtime Middle Eastern ally, and would undoubtedly help in defusing tensions over opposing stances on several issues, including Egypt’s backing of Haftar during the civil war in Libya and recently leaked reports of Egypt’s secret plans to supply rockets to Russia.
Egypt’s strategic relations with Russia have irked the United States the most. It may now be the time for Cairo to show the Biden administration that Egypt’s cooperation with Russia—which has included arms deals and a contract for a civilian nuclear facility—is not an attempt to turn its back on US support, but rather, diversify its sources of support.
Thus, while there are many complex factors that might dissuade Egypt from intervening overtly in Sudan, the possibility of an invasion cannot be ruled out. The chance to smooth over ties with the US is a juicy incentive, as are the benefits that would arise from bringing stability and security to the surrounding region.
Shahira Amin is a nonresident senior fellow at the Atlantic Council’s Scowcroft Middle East Security Initiative and an independent journalist based in Cairo. A former contributor to CNN’s Inside Africa, Amin has been covering the development in post-revolution Egypt for several outlets including Index on Censorship and Al-Monitor. Follow her on Twitter @sherryamin13.