Sudan’s Crisis Is Pushing Egypt to the Brink

May 20, 2023 Topic: Egypt Region: Africa Tags: EgyptSudanFailed StateTerrorismRefugees

Sudan’s Crisis Is Pushing Egypt to the Brink

This armed conflict has the potential to spill over and spark other regional conflicts, specifically in impacting Egypt.

On April 15, clashes between the Sudanese Armed Forces (SAF) and the Rapid Support Forces (RSF) broke out in the capital city of Khartoum and in the Darfur region of Sudan. Almost a month later, an estimated 500 people have been killed and thousands of civilians wounded. The war between these two rival military groups comes after months of disputes; the two sides worked together to oust the civilian prime minister in October 2012, but as negotiations over the division of power stalled, it led to increased tensions which escalated into the armed conflict we are seeing today. This fighting has the potential to spill over and spark further chaos abroad. Particularly worth paying attention to is neighboring Egypt to the north.

In the past month, it is estimated that over 90,000 Sudanese refugees have journeyed into Egypt; the real numbers are likely much higher, as thousands are waiting at the border—without shelter, safe drinking water, and reliable food—to cross over. Yet Egypt itself is not the ideal safe haven: it is currently grappling with an economic crisis, severe food shortages, and a devaluation of its currency, the Egyptian pound. Over the past year, Cairo has been borrowing large sums of money from the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank, further increasing its debt. If Egypt cannot rectify its worsening economic situation, the resulting instability may lead to widespread civil unrest, protests, and an exacerbated humanitarian crisis that could ripple throughout the North African region.

The Conflict in Sudan…

International efforts to halt the conflict in Sudan are well underway, with Saudi Arabia hosting conversations between the two rival factions in partnership with the United States. Talks are set to continue throughout the month of May. Meanwhile, though both the SAF and RSF have called for a ceasefire, the fighting continues. Both groups have likewise proposed several truces since the fighting began in April, but none of them have held. Each blames the other for not adhering to the terms of a truce, suggesting that the likelihood of any success at the negotiating table will be negligible.

As such, the conflict in Sudan continues to rage, displacing over 900,000 people internally, along with an estimated 120,000 crossing borders into neighboring countries such as the Central African Republic, Libya, Ethiopia, Chad, and Egypt. This number is expected to grow significantly in the coming weeks, with United Nations Human Rights Council estimating that as many as 800,000 people could cross various borders in the next six months. Given that Sudan was already home to a diverse population of refugees, and housed as many as 1 million displaced people from other various regional conflicts that have taken place over the past decade, the current crisis easily has the potential to ripple across the region.

As refugees scramble to get out of Khartoum and neighboring Sudanese regions, the majority are fleeing to Egypt in particular, as policies toward refugees in other North African countries, such as Libya and Tunisia, are less than desirable. Although Chad is now accepting small numbers of refugees, it had originally closed its borders due to internal stressors, leaving only the Egyptian-Sudanese southwest border into Argeen and Qustul-Ashkit as the only viable option for refugees fleeing the violence.

…Has Consequences for Egypt

This is quite the turnaround, as up until the conflict broke out Sudan was a major Egyptian economic partner, with trade revenues coming close to $1 billion annually. Egypt had also set forth strategic plans for agricultural investment in Sudan, which have since been put on hold due to the conflict, further hindering any plans for its economic recovery.

As the gateway to North Africa for Western countries, Egypt is a key trading and political partner with many states in the region. The United States’ total bilateral trade with Egypt totaled $9.1 billion in 2021, while EU trade exceeded €37 billion in 2022. In addition to Egypt’s economic value to the West, it also serves a strategic role in the Arab League, assisting in providing regional peace and stability. The country is also known for its vast natural resources, including petroleum, natural gas, phosphates, and iron ore; interest in these resources has only heightened since the war in Ukraine called energy supplies into question.

Yet Egypt itself is in a precarious economic situation, facing record-high inflation. In a conversation with a Japanese newspaper, Egyptian president Abdel Fatah al-Sisi expressed concern that the influx of refugees from Sudan would place an increased economic burden on Egypt. Moreover, there are also security concerns: as thousands gather at the southwest border between the two countries, the chances for terrorism, human and drug trafficking, and smuggling activity are at an all-time high.

The border region between the two countries has a history of violence, with extremist groups such as ISIS and Al Qaeda often using the area to carry out illicit activities in the region. Since the border has also been a hub for human trafficking, the substantial increase in refugees increases the odds for extremist group members to cross over into Egypt. In response to this threat, Cairo has dispatched anti-terrorism troops to the border to protect refugees and improve security.

The West Must Act to Prevent Further Instability

Nonetheless, the fighting in Sudan has put the nation at risk of collapse, with Egypt at risk of following suit due to its already fragile economic situation. The potential for increased destabilization and conflict throughout the region must be taken seriously. The international community must assist Egypt in processing and providing for these refugees.

Yet with both sides of the Sudanese conflict having tens of thousands of fighters, foreign backers, and resources, it is difficult to say when this war will end and how many people will continue to be displaced as a result. If peace talks in Saudi Arabia do not go well, this conflict has the potential to mirror other conflicts that have devastated entire regions, such as Lebanon and Syria. Aiding Egypt in its mitigation of the refugee crisis is one step that the West can take to prevent this from happening. The United Nations has pledged $445 million to ease the crisis, which will be sent to countries that are receiving refugees throughout the region. The United States, in partnership with the European Union, should provide direct assistance to Egypt to ensure that both Egyptians and the refugees crossing the border have access to secure food sources. Additional foreign aid should be provided to assist in stabilizing the Egyptian economy, incurring the security of U.S. and EU trading interests through the Suez Canal. These measures could include infrastructure packages and efforts to help stabilize the Egyptian pound.

As the conflict continues, it is imperative that the West take action. Egypt’s economy continues to deteriorate, and external stressors—including and especially the conflict in Sudan—could have monumental destabilizing impacts on the rest of the region, with consequences that could eventually affect both the United States and Europe directly.

As Washington engages both the SAF and the RSF in Saudi Arabia in the coming weeks, it should encourage reconciliation and a more permanent and successful solution. Otherwise, everyone involved will have to confront the consequences of failure: an increasing refugee crisis, additional stress on the Egyptian economy that could push it over the edge, and regional destabilization.

Riley Moeder is a Senior Analyst at New Lines Institute for Strategy and Policy, focusing her research on drivers of fragility in North Africa.

Image: Shutterstock.