Activists fear Egypt and Sudan's leaders are collaborating to quash dissent after opposition figurehead Sadiq al-Mahdi barred from Egypt
KHARTOUM - Sudanese activists in exile in Egypt say they are facing repression and the threat of deportation after Egyptian authorities refused to allow Sadiq al-Mahdi, the veteran Sudanese opposition leader, to return to Cairo from a peace conference in Germany.
Mahdi, Sudan’s last elected prime minister before President Omar al-Bashir seized power in a bloodless military coup in 1989, was denied entry to Egypt, where he has mostly lived since 2014, after flying into Cairo airport on 1 July.
Egyptian authorities have not offered any explanation as to why the 82-year-old, who is currently in London, was turned away.
But members of Mahdi’s National Ummah Party (NUP) told Middle East Eye that Egyptian officials had warned him not to attend the conference in Germany, where diplomats are seeking to facilitate stalled peace talks between the Sudanese government and rebel groups in Darfur.
And with Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi beginning a two-day visit to Khartoum on Thursday, they fear that the Egyptian and Sudanese governments have reached an agreement to work together to quash political dissent.
Mariam al-Sadiq al-Mahdi, Sadiq al-Mahdi’s daughter and the the NUP’s deputy chair, told Middle East Eye that her father had long enjoyed a friendly relationship with Egyptian authorities, but also rejected any Egyptian interference in Sudanese affairs.
“Mahdi is open to consulting with the Egyptian authorities and leadership in a friendly way on the political future of Sudan in general, but the approach of giving orders and intervening in domestic decision-making is totally rejected,” she said.
“Mahdi’s trip was related to the effort of achieving peace, stability and democracy in Sudan. These are issues that go to the heart of Sudan’s sovereignty, so any decision related to these issues should be taken in an independent way without any foreign intervention or pressure.”
Party leader for 50 years
Mahdi, who has led the NUP for 50 years and was prime minister between 1966 and 1967, and then again from 1986 until his coalition government was toppled by Bashir three years later, remains an influential but controversial figure in Sudan.
He continues to be widely supported by followers of the Ansar movement, a Sufi sect, and currently chairs the Sudan Call opposition alliance.
Sudan Call is backed by the main rebel factions in Darfur, as well as the Sudan People's Liberation Movement - North (SPLM-N), which is fighting the Sudanese government in South Kordofan and Blue Nile states, and the National Consensus Forces (NSF), a coalition of political parties opposed to Bashir’s National Congress Party.
Mahdi has lived in Egypt since spending three months in prison in 2014 for criticising the government’s Rapid Support Forces (RSF) militia units over allegations of human rights violations and war crimes in Darfur and other restive regions.
He returned to Sudan briefly in January 2017, and was greeted by thousands of supporters at a rally in Omdurman - where he was born on Christmas Day in 1935 - but faces the prospect of further imprisonment if he returns permanently to Sudan, where Bashir has threatened to punish any political leaders who align themselves with anti-government rebels.
Sadiq al-Mahdi returned to Sudan briefly in January 2017, attending a rally in Omdurman (AFP)
But some in the opposition say there is little to separate him ideologically from the Sudanese Islamic movement that has controlled the country for the past 30 years.
It is also argued that it was Mahdi’s failures in government, including his inability to stop the civil war with rebels in now-independent South Sudan, that created the conditions in which Bashir and the army were able to seize control.
Alhaj Warrag, a Sudanese journalist, disagrees, saying Mahdi is a moderate religious leader committed to democracy.
“Mahdi is a wise politician who can lead the country at this crossroads moment,” Warrag said.
“He is aiming to achieve a negotiated solution with the current regime in Sudan, but that is because he is keen to avoid chaos in the country and because of his own political beliefs.”
Cairo has long been a hub for members of Sudan’s opposition, who have traditionally enjoyed good ties with Egyptian governments under presidents Hosni Mubarak and Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, largely because Bashir was seen as sympathetic towards the outlawed Muslim Brotherhood.
Egypt also accused Khartoum of hosting Brotherhood members who fled to Sudan after President Mohamed Morsi was ousted by Sisi in a 2013 coup.
Hundreds of alleged Brotherhood supporters have been arrested and sentenced to death in Egypt in a crackdown on dissent described by Human Rights Watch as “the worst human rights crisis in the country in decades”.
Other sources of friction between Khartoum and Cairo include an ongoing borders dispute over the minerals-rich Halaib Triangle region on the Red Sea coast, and Egyptian concerns over the construction in Ethiopia of the Grand Renaissance Dam, which Sudan supports but Egypt fears will threaten its water supply.
But Sudanese activists told MEE that Bashir and Sisi appear to have agreed to put their differences aside because of a mutual interest in suppressing any political opposition to their rule.
One activist living in Egypt, who asked not to be named because of concerns for his safety, told MEE that he and others were looking to move to other countries and said that Egyptian authorities had already started to disrupt their political activities.
“There are many negative indications that the Egyptian authorities are going to prohibit and may deport opposition activists. Our activities have been banned for many months now and many more restrictions have been put on our residency permits,” he said.
Egypt is very keen to stop the activities of the Muslim Brotherhood on its southern border
- Abas Alamin, Sudanese security analyst
While the Sudanese government has not commented on Mahdi’s case, a diplomat told MEE that Sudanese and Egyptian officials had previously agreed to a mutual crackdown on their respective oppositions-in-exile as part of moves to “normalise” relations between the countries.
Sudan was last year reported to have expelled dozens of Egyptians accused of links to the Brotherhood, with some travelling to Turkey and others to Malaysia, according to al-Hayat newspaper.
The issue had been discussed between Bashir and Sisi at presidential summits, the diplomat said, speaking on condition of anonymity because he is not authorised to talk to the media.
“The issue of the presence of the Sudanese opposition leaders was one of the obstacles to establishing normal relations between our two countries. The Egyptian authorities have only now committed to stopping the opposition’s activities,” he said.
Bashir and Sisi last met in March this year at the presidential palace in Cairo, days before Sisi was re-elected in elections in which he stood unopposed.
“We have timed our visit to reaffirm our support for stability in Egypt and for President Sisi,” Bashir told a news conference.
Sisi said the men had discussed "ways to achieve and promote our common interests, in light of our full respect for [each country's] internal affairs and joint efforts to maintain the national security of both countries".
Bashir (L) visited Sisi in Cairo in March this year (AFP)
Abas Alamin, a Sudanese security analyst, told MEE that the governments in both Cairo and Khartoum had adopted similarly repressive security-led agendas in the face of similar political problems.
“Security concerns are now driving the normalisation of ties between the two sides,” said Alamin. “The security apparatuses of both countries are consistently looking to quash, or deport or expel, any kind of opposition. And Egypt is very keen to stop the activities of the Muslim Brotherhood on its southern borders.”
Credibility and influence
Analysts also believe that the regional dispute between Saudi Arabia and Qatar, in which Egypt has sided with Riyadh while Sudan has sought to maintain relations with both sides, has forced the countries to find common cause.
Political analyst Ahmed El-Imam told MEE that Sudan had been pressured by Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates to normalise its ties with Egypt, while the recent reconciliation between Ethiopia and Eritrea after years of hostility may also have encouraged the governments of both countries to adopt a more conciliatory approach.
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“The Gulf dispute has put both countries under pressure, and they were already suffering from similar security and economic crises,” said El-Imam.
“The regimes of the two countries found themselves under pressure from different sides in the Middle East and as well as the African region to step back from a confrontation."
But Hassan Berkia, a political analyst, told MEE that Egypt’s new policy could come with a cost.
“The decision of the Egyptian authorities to prevent Mahdi from entering has put an end to the long-standing policy that differentiated between the Sudanese people and the Islamic government in Khartoum,” said Berkia.
“This has made it clear that Egypt stands with the Sudanese regime against its people. That could cost Egypt a lot of its credibility and influence in Sudan in the future.”