*Originally published in ForeignPolicy here*
The conflict in Sudan has entered its sixth week with no diplomatic breakthrough in sight. The power struggle between the country’s army, known as the Sudan Armed Forces (SAF), and its paramilitary rival, the Rapid Support Forces (RSF), now threatens to cascade into a full-blown civil war. So far, approximately 1,000 people have died, and more than 300,000 people have fled the country, with at least 120,000 of them crossing the border into Egypt, where 4 million other Sudanese nationals already reside.
As Sudan’s neighbor, Egypt will arguably be the foreign country most directly affected by the continued conflict—particularly those effects created by the impending economic and refugee crises. Though it has thus far avoided backing either military and has not been involved in ongoing cease-fire talks, Egypt now finds itself in a bind: It does not have the resources or the desire to fight a war, yet it cannot afford to ignore the situation any longer.
Unfortunately, its strategic response options are rather limited. But among many undesirable options, there’s one outcome that could at least end the conflict and restore civilian rule while giving both sides something that they want—if leaders in Cairo have the courage and wisdom to pursue it.
Option #1: Militarily back the SAF.
Egypt’s attitude toward the SAF is complicated: It is wary of the Islamist tendencies of SAF leadership, yet, given the SAF’s own issues with Ethiopia, Egypt sees it as a crucial political ally in its dispute over the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam in the Nile River, which threatens to disrupt Egypt’s strategic water interests and delicate agricultural sector. Though Egypt politically backs the SAF as the recognized representatives of the Sudanese state, its official military support for it has thus far been limited to training troops.
However, even if Egypt wanted to go all in supporting the SAF, it cannot realistically afford to do so. Furthermore, Egypt’s conventional army has a poor track record against tribal militias fighting on their own turf and likely wouldn’t fare any better against a well-armed and well-financed tribal militia trained in guerilla and urban warfare—such as the RSF. Direct military involvement could expose the Egyptian military’s subpar fighting condition and become a humiliating quagmire for state and army leadership.
Additionally, militarily backing the SAF would put Egypt directly in conflict with the RSF—the favored militia of the United Arab Emirates. Without Saudi Arabia’s and Qatar’s promised investments, the UAE is Egypt’s last financial backer in the Gulf. Despite their otherwise fraught relationship, Egypt needs UAE support if it wants to survive financially.
Option #2: Militarily back the RSF.
Theoretically, an Egypt-RSF alliance would be a nightmare for the SAF, which would suddenly find itself sandwiched between military attacks from both the north and south. In practice, however, such an alliance would have very little upside for Egypt, which learned in Libya that it can’t compete for influence with the UAE in a militia they both back.
Crucially, however, the end and defeat of the SAF would signal the final collapse of the Sudanese state with no one capable of rebuilding it in the short to medium term; that enormous undertaking would fall on the unqualified shoulders of the RSF. Such a collapse would mean a complete breakdown in every level of Sudanese security—including an equal and immediate collapse of the country’s economy.
Option #3: (Continue to) do nothing.
Given the complexity of the situation and the opaqueness of its options, Egypt has thus far opted for a “wait and see” strategy. While seemingly a wise approach right now, its long-term wisdom is completely dependent on two unknown variables: the duration of the conflict and who wins. For Egypt’s purposes, the SAF winning is the better option, but only if it manages to end the conflict quickly (and not start a new one), since every extra day of fighting adds pressure on Egypt in terms of refugee influx and economic stability.
On the other hand, an RSF victory is unacceptable to Egypt for several reasons. Egypt would find itself surrounded by UAE-allied militias on its eastern, western, and southern borders. If the Emirates-backed RSF controlled Sudan, Egypt’s Nile water security interests would fall further under the influence of the UAE, which already has agricultural investments in Ethiopia and has repeatedly refused to side with Egypt over its concerns. Further, if the fighting leads to stalemate and the conflict drags on, it will further exacerbate the humanitarian and economic problems that Egypt is already suffering from.
Option #4: Support a cease-fire between the two parties. (No one wins).
In this scenario, rather than restoring democratic civilian rule, Egypt would join the chorus of voices pushing to simply end the military conflict by calling for and supporting peace negotiations between the SAF and RSF, as with the U.S.-Saudi cease-fire initiative. However, given the lack of trust between the two parties to this conflict, coexisting and sharing power in the same government would be a hard sell. Any cease-fire agreement would probably lead to a more fragmented and autocratic Sudan, with the RSF controlling the gold-rich West and its other bases of power, while the SAF controls Khartoum and the remaining regions.
Even if Egypt were to prioritize this approach, it is unlikely to succeed where Saudi Arabia and the United States are failing. The RSF cannot trust Egypt as an honest broker given its political support of its rival, and the SAF—knowing Egypt needs it—won’t be motivated to respond to any pressure from Egyptian mediators. Even if mediation efforts are somehow successful in ending the conflict, a mere cease-fire would do nothing to address the looming refugee crisis.
Option #5: Take the side of the civilian parties.
This leaves Egypt only one other option: It would have to become the unlikely champion of Sudan’s civilian and democratic parties and demand a presence for them in all future negotiations. This marriage of political convenience would allow Egypt to avoid explicitly picking sides while creating more room for political maneuvering in both the talks and the broader geopolitical context.
For the Sudanese democratic parties, an alliance with Egypt is not ideal, but it’s the only one they are likely to be offered by any regional power, whose backing they badly need. On its own, Egypt has minimal leverage over the combatants, but it can use its geopolitical weight and robust regional media influence to generate leverage for the Sudanese people on the international stage.
The case for civilian inclusion here isn’t merely moral—it’s essential for any modicum of stability in Sudan’s future. Sudan is home to many local tribes and militias that are not only armed but trained in combat. Those tribes will not accept another military dictatorship ruling them from Khartoum, whether run by the SAF or the RSF, nor will they accept any agreement that divides their country between the two. Sudan needs public buy-in for any agreement to hold, which neither side currently has nor can guarantee in the future without civilian inclusion. Though it may sound like cliché, the only way forward for the Sudanese people to have a future is together, but that will require some hard and uncomfortable compromises.
An example of such compromises would look something like this: A new agreement would push for an 18-month “national unity” civilian transitional government that would have to include both the parties that signed the defunct framework agreement and those that didn’t, as well as members of the deposed former ruling party, the Islamist National Congress Party (NCP). For this to work, both SAF and RSF leadership would need to be granted immunity from prosecution and protection for their economic interests in exchange for leaving their posts and public life indefinitely. Both military powers would agree to laying down their arms and returning to their barracks.
The RSF would be given 10 years to integrate with the military, as it originally wanted, but would have to pledge a significant percentage—say, 25 percent— of its yearly gold revenue for 12 years to a fund that the civilian government will use to rebuild destroyed infrastructure and provide compensation for the families affected by the conflict.
For its part, the SAF would agree to civilian oversight of the military’s official budget by the next elected government. It would also have to support the reforming and rebuilding of the police and judiciary by the civilian state, which will have ultimate control over both state institutions.
To prevent a future conflict, the African Union would provide peacekeeping forces during the negotiations and until elections are held and the new Sudan police force is able to take over internal security. When that day comes, Western countries and institutions would finally release all the financial and diplomatic aid they promised Sudan to the civilian government, but never actually provided, to support rebuilding the devastated country.
Such a framework is not perfect. It would be highly controversial for the civilian democratic parties, not only because it allows criminal and genocidal generals to walk away with immunity and most of their ill-gotten gains, but also for the inclusion of the deposed NCP. However, if the NCP is kept at arm’s length, it will leverage the instability of the transitional phase to its political advantage and could realistically retake the government in the following elections—that is, if it did not start another conflict over its exclusion. Keeping the NCP as part of the national conversation is the best way to contain it; as we have seen with the SAF and the RSF, when the talking stops, the fighting starts.
Such an agreement would kick the RSF-and-SAF can of worms 10 years down the road instead of resolving it, but given that it is not currently resolvable without a significantly high death toll, this is at least a feasible outcome. The 10-year RSF integration period would give the civilian government the time to build and strengthen its institutions and internal security apparatus separately from the SAF and RSF, creating a state deterrent against future hostilities. For its part, the Islamist military would be counterbalanced by other forces and contained in one state institution, instead of its current omnipresence across the state. The end of fighting and the start of the rebuilding under peacekeepers’ supervision would hopefully lead to the return of refugees.
For Egypt, this outcome would mean that the RSF doesn’t control its borders, Sudan’s state institutions would survive, and Egypt would avoid antagonizing the UAE further politically or committing any troops to combat. The fact that this option aligns with what is arguably in the Sudanese public’s best interest, at this moment and in the near future, is nothing short of political providence.