Egyptian security authorities at the Cairo airport denied re-entry to Sadiq al-Mahdi, the head of the Sudanese National Umma Party and a major opponent of the Sudanese regime, upon his return July 1. Mahdi has been living in self-imposed exile in Egypt since 2014. He left Cairo to attend a meeting of the Sudanese opposition group Nidaa Sudan in Berlin on June 29.
The National Umma Party said in a statement, “Mahdi was denied entry to Egypt because he rejected a request from the Egyptian government not to attend the Berlin meetings.”
The statement denounced the move, saying it “disregards the status and symbolism of Mahdi and goes against Egyptian traditions and values.” It further noted that arrangements were made to ensure Mahdi’s residence “in a friendly country.”
The Egyptian administration seems to be adopting a policy of rapprochement with Sudan. The Egyptian and Sudanese foreign ministers and intelligence heads met Feb. 8 to discuss mutual security concerns.
Sudan and Egypt are in a political crisis over the disputed ownership of Halayeb and Shalateen triangle and Sudan’s support for Ethiopia’s Renaissance Dam plans. The crisis had sparked a media battle between the two countries, who exchanged accusations of supporting terrorism.
A Sudanese diplomatic source well acquainted with relations with Egypt at the Sudanese Foreign Ministry explained, “Since the meeting, and under security arrangements between the two countries after the meeting, Sudan handed to Egypt a list of members opposed to the Sudanese regime and residing in Egypt, especially members of the Darfur and the Revolutionary Front rebel groups.”
The source told Al-Monitor on condition of anonymity, “Cairo’s decision to refuse entry to Mahdi is a natural one. His name was included on the Sudanese list of members carrying out hostile activities against Sudan in Egypt after he became head of the Nidaa Sudan alliance in March. Sudan asked all Egyptians affiliated with movements opposing the Egyptian regime, such as the Muslim Brotherhood, to leave Sudanese territory. Khartoum extradited some Egyptian opposition members wanted by the Egyptian security authorities. Also, several joint security measures have been enforced to reassure the Egyptian side that there will be no acts of hostility toward Egypt from Sudanese territory.”
Mahdi is one of the most prominent dissidents threatening the regime of President Omar al-Bashir. He was arrested by Sudanese security authorities in May 2014, for having allegedly undermined the constitution and incited hatred against the state. He faced sentences of life imprisonment and execution. He was released on June 15 of the same year in the name of the public interest and in line with the spirit of national reconciliation in the country.
Mahdi’s Nidaa Sudan alliance includes most Sudanese peaceful and armed opposition groups, such as the Darfur and the Revolutionary Front rebel groups, classified by the Sudanese regime as terrorists. The alliance’s recent meeting, held June 29 under the sponsorship of the German government in Berlin, aimed to find a peaceful solution to end wars in Sudan and achieve comprehensive peace and democratic transition.
An Egyptian diplomatic official told Al-Monitor, “Cairo is in an awkward position. It had always offered refuge to any Sudanese or Arab. But now, after the Cairo meeting, it has commitments to keep to the Sudanese regime to deny residence in Cairo to any members plotting or carrying out hostile or anti-Sudanese acts.”
The official explained, “To avoid embarrassment we asked Mahdi not to travel to Berlin to attend the conference of Nidaa Sudan, but he insisted on traveling.”
A member of the Sudanese Revolutionary Front spoke to Al-Monitor in Cairo on condition of anonymity, “We received letters from the Egyptian security authorities to refrain from criticizing the Sudanese government or the regime from Cairo, whether in conferences, meetings or even posts on social media.” He went on, “We are present in Cairo as Sudanese citizens and not as official representatives of any opposition or revolutionary movement in Sudan. We will return home when peace is achieved and an agreement is reached guaranteeing the return of dissidents without facing punishment.”
A number of observers of Egyptian-Sudanese relations voiced their rejection of Egypt’s decision to ban Mahdi from entering its territory. Mahdi had adopted positions in support of the Egyptian regime and against the Muslim Brotherhood regime even though he is an imam of the Ansar, a Sufi order. It should be noted that many Sudanese respect Mahdi.
Hani Raslan, head of the Sudan and Nile Basin Countries Studies Program at Egypt’s Al-Ahram Center for Political and Strategic Studies, told Al-Monitor, “Mahdi is a political symbol for Sudan. He chose Egypt as a refuge for several reasons, especially Egyptian traditions. Egypt opens its doors to those who advocate a good cause as long as they refrain from armed activity from Egypt.”
He said the Egyptian measure against Mahdi may not be interpreted as an act of antipathy toward the Sudanese people, with the intention of pleasing the Bashir regime. “The ban may not be described as an exchange of favors or an act based on the principle of reciprocity,” he said. “The Bashir regime does not have anything to offer Egypt, even at the level of the Renaissance Dam. The Sudanese position does not affect the dam’s water storage or operation.”
Othman al-Marghani, a Sudanese writer and editor of the Sudanese Al-Tayar newspaper, believes banning Mahdi stirred fears of the Sudanese street. “Egypt’s execution of the Sudanese government’s demands means that Egypt is no longer a safe haven for the Sudanese opposition,” he told Al-Monitor. “Despite Mahdi’s political conflict with the Sudanese regime, he has always promoted peaceful means of opposition. Egypt ought to host Mahdi, along with the rest of the opposition, as Cairo is best suited to control any activity hostile to Sudan as it can impose security supervision.”
Cairo’s entry ban is the first official implementation by Egypt of its commitments to stop any hostile activity toward Sudan from its territories.