Another busy week at the Cairo office of humanitarian NGO Caritas, as Sudanese citizens who have fled the fighting at home between the Sudanese Armed Forces (SAF) and the Rapid Support Forces (RSF), arrive to register for financial assistance. In cooperation with the UNHCR, Caritas is facilitating access to funds for Sudanese who have registered for refugee status with UNHCR.
A Caritas worker said most of those coming to the Caritas office arrive “in bad shape, with no place to go and no money to cover essentials”.
Since the conflict started in the capital of Sudan mid-April, half a million Sudanese have arrived in Egypt, the majority via the Argeen border crossing. According to UNHCR, 13,000 Sudanese in Egypt have been registered as refugees eligible to receive financial assistance. UNHCR is one of several international organisations working with Sudan’s neighbours to provide financial assistance both to refugees and to governments that host them.
A UN source said that among Sudan’s neighbours Chad and South Sudan, with easier entry regulations for citizens of Sudan than Egypt, had received the largest number of Sudanese.
Managing the economic responsibilities that come with receiving fleeing Sudanese is a key issue on the agenda of the Sudan Neighbours Meeting that President Abdel-Fattah Al-Sisi is scheduled to inaugurate today in Cairo.
The International Crisis Group predicted this week that Sudan is now facing the prospect of an extended war. An Egyptian government source said that there is no telling how the conflict will develop, and there is a threat that, if it engulfs more of the country, Sudanese already displaced internally will attempt to leave Sudan. An even more worrying possibility is that the conflict, which is already fanning ethnic tensions, particularly in Darfur, could spill over into neighbouring states.
The UN warned this week that the conflict in Sudan threatens to destabilise the entire East Africa region. For Egypt, says the government source, “this is a nightmare scenario” in terms of the possible influx of refugees and regional security.
In a press statement earlier in the week, Presidential Spokesperson Ahmed Fahmi said participants in the Neighbours Conference will explore ways to end the conflict “in a peaceful manner and in coordination with other regional and international tracks”, and contain its impacts on Sudan’s neighbours.
As of Tuesday, Cairo had made no announcement of who would attend the Cairo meeting. “We have extended invitations to all Sudan’s neighbours including Ethiopia,” said the government source. “Whatever our problems with Ethiopia over the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam, the stability of Sudan is crucial to the region.”
During a brief encounter with Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed on the sidelines of a finance conference in Paris last month, the source revealed that Egypt’s President Al-Sisi had pressed the need for cooperation over Sudan.
Cairo and Addis Ababa do not see eye-to-eye over their troubled neighbour. Since the beginning of the conflict, Egypt has argued that the stability of Sudan requires the support of the national armed forces, irrespective of who leads the army. “It is not about [Abdel-Fattah] Al-Borhan, it is about Sudan,” says the government source. “We have issues with Al-Borhan and with the influence of Islamists over Sudan’s armed forces, but we also believe that if the army disintegrates then Sudan itself will fail. It is already a country facing a complex tribal and ethnic situation, and foreign intervention is growing.”
Addis Ababa has lent its backing to RSF leader Mohamed Dagalo. Cairo-based foreign diplomatic sources confirm the direct support that Addis Ababa is giving the RSF, including arms being sent via third countries.
As well as Egypt and Ethiopia, Sudan borders Libya, the Central African Republic, Chad, Eritrea, and South Sudan. As Al-Ahram Weekly went to press on Tuesday, the government source said Cairo was still waiting for confirmations on participation and level of representation at the Neighbours Meeting.”
“If we are to talk about ending the humanitarian crisis and halt the influx of refugees, we must address the endgame of a political settlement,” said the government source. To this end, Cairo will canvass support at the meeting for the US-Saudi diplomatic channel that has been trying to secure a ceasefire. Following the breach of every ceasefire the channel has secured till now, Washington and Riyadh last month opted to suspend the indirect talks that had been held in Jeddah.
The failure of SAF and RSF to agree a formula for integration of the two forces was a key factor in the breakout of the conflict. Mediation by several regional states and bodies, including Ethiopia and the Ethiopian-dominated Intergovernmental Authority on Development (IGAD), have failed to secure a consensual roadmap for integration.
On Monday, the SAF decided not to attend an IGAD-hosted meeting in Addis Ababa after the group refused to accommodate an SAF request that Kenya’s President William Ruto be replaced as the head of the IGAD Committee on Sudan. According to the SAF-aligned Sudanese Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Ruto is not impartial.
In their meeting IGAD member states Djibouti, Eritrea, Ethiopia, Kenya, Somalia, South Sudan, and Uganda called for the deployment of the Eastern Africa Standby Force (EASF) in Sudan to protect civilians. EASF is a 10-member state security body which includes Sudan.
According to the Egyptian government source, the Cairo meeting of Sudan’s neighbours will examine ideas and proposals that have been brought to the table by other initiatives, including IGAD.
IGAD has already proposed a bigger role for the civilian forces that led the Sudanese 2019 Revolution that ousted Omar Al-Bashir and his Islamist regime. This week’s IGAD meeting was attended by some civilians who shared power with the then united SAF and RSF before Al-Borhan introduced emergency military regulations in October 2021.
While no civilian group has been invited to the Cairo conference, the source said Cairo is consulting with political figures in Sudan, including some associated with the Forces of Freedom and Change.
The outcomes of the Cairo meeting on Sudan are expected to be examined in a series of talks which will unfold during the rest of the month. In meetings scheduled with both Ruto and Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, President Al-Sisi is expected to prioritise the need to bring stability to Sudan. While Kenya does not share Cairo’s vision on the best way to bring peace to Sudan, Ankara is closer to the Egyptian position that a unified national armed force is needed to avoid the disintegration of Sudan. Earlier this month Turkey reached out to the SAF, offering drones to balance the RSF’s access to anti-craft missile systems provided by supporting states.
Meanwhile, on 27 and 28 July, Sudan will be high on the agenda of leaders participating in the Russia-Africa summit inaugurated by Russian President Vladmir Putin. Russian involvement in Africa has grown in recent years, not least via the presence of the Wagner group which has supported the RSF. Moscow is in the process of revisiting both the role of Wagner and its options in Sudan. Last month Malik Agar, who replaced Dagalo as vice-president of the Transitional Sovereignty Council of the Republic of Sudan, visited Moscow for talks.
Informed diplomatic sources say that there is only one exit out of the current war in Sudan. Getting there, they argue, requires a collective decision from all players to pressure both Al-Borhan and Dagalo to step down and delegate successors to take over and to start direct talks which include civilian forces.
“It is still too premature to have hopes, but work towards this end is in progress,” said one source.
* Additional reporting by Haitham Nouri
* A version of this article appears in print in the 13 July, 2023 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly