For many generations, we Egyptians were taught that Egypt and Sudan are joined by permanent blood ties of brotherhood. Although the relationship between the two countries has often had its ups and downs, both countries managed to maintain the “umbrella of brotherhood”, working to solve their disputes through a series of dialogues. However, the expansion of political Islam in Sudan is a definite “no-no” for the Egyptian State that is clearly threatening the relationship between both countries.
Turkish President Erdogan’s recent trip to Sudan concluded in the signing of a number of agreements between the two states and the handing over of the Sudanese Port of Suakin to Turkey for rebuilding a ruined Ottoman port city on Sudan’s Red Sea coast and constructing a naval dock to maintain civilian and military vessels. This announcement was sharply criticized in the Egyptian media, clearly signaling the Egyptian State’s displeasure with the ties between Sudan and Turkey, especially the Suakin project.
As a leading nation in the region, Egypt should have a clear responsibility for leading and driving the relationship between the two countries. The definition of a leading nation is portrayed in our ability to smoothly influence the decision of other nations in line with our goals while maintaining good relations with them. However, Egypt often wants to shape its bond with Sudan in the form of a north-south relationship whereby the southern country blindly follows the northern one – a proposition that respective Sudanese governments have repeatedly declined.
Certainty, Egypt’s leverage in Africa and the Middle East has been diminishing for decades, probably without our noticing and obviously without our working to regain what we have lost. The Egyptian State often expends efforts to strengthen its ties with northern nations (Europe and the United States) in the belief that a solid partnership with these nations will, consequently, consolidate our relations with southern nations; a theory that was proven wrong a long time ago, because other southern nations have been doing the same with even better results.
The Sudanese government stated that leasing Suakin to the Turkish government is a legitimate agreement that neither violates Sudan’s territorial integrity nor poses a threat to the security of Arab nations. Could Egypt have replaced Turkey in this agreement? Certainly. If the Egyptian State broadened its outlook to consider the political and economic needs of other nations, it could easily have initiated the development of this project or of others, in addition to engaging the support of international institutes in this development project (Egypt has the advantage of long experience with these institutes).
Many Egyptian businessmen have both the will and the capabilities to expand their businesses in African and Arab nations, but they need our government’s support and backup. While Turkey has been supporting its businessmen, Egyptian businessmen lack this support both locally and, obviously, regionally. Before accusing Turkey of expanding its presence in what we tend to define as our “backyard”, we need to assess whether we have done our homework effectively or not.
The continuous empowerment of the Egyptian State at the expense of its citizens, along with the State’s domination of politics and economics, has limited our nation’s capacity to resolve many internal problems and to expand our regional role. The rebuilding of the Port of Suakin by the Turkish government is certainly an unpleasant development for Egypt. Regardless of whether or not this decision is reversible, Egypt should view it as an indication of the need to apply a different policy vis-à-vis the Sudanese government and other nations.
The Egyptian State will not be able to issue a “forbidden list” for other nations to apply unquestioningly. Even the United States, a superpower, is unable to apply such a policy. The Egyptian State needs to make available a number of economic incentives designed to prompt our private sector to expand its investments in the region with a clear backup from our government. Other nations have been applying this strategy successfully and it has helped them to expand their international role – yet we continue to resist even considering it.