Thursday, April 20, 2023

The Merowe Affair: Hemedti’s gamble with Egypt "Updated"

On Wednesday afternoon, as most Egyptians were breaking their fast, a military plane reportedly landed in Cairo carrying the first batch of Egyptian military personnel who returned from Sudan following clashes between the Sudanese Armed Forces (SAF) and the Sudanese Rapid Support Forces (RSF) on Sunday.

Arab and Egyptian media report that this batch was the first group of Egyptian Military personnel being returned home, with more to follow.

A photo of several men wearing civilian clothes disembarking from the plane went viral on social media in Egypt.

The photo 

However, details surrounding the photo remain unclear, including who took it, when it was taken, and where.

Dubai-based Sky News Arabia was the first news outlet to report on the incident via social media.

According to their report, the soldiers in the photo were all those who had been detained by the RSF in Merowe on Sunday.

The RSF spokespersons, who are primarily advisers to their commander General Mohamed Hamdan Dagalo, claimed that all the detained Egyptian military personnel had been released and returned home.

However, the Sudanese Armed Forces contradicted these claims, stating that the soldiers were still in detention.

The Sudanese Foreign Ministry also issued a statement strongly condemning the continued detention of a number of Egyptian military personnel at Merowe airbase.

The soldiers were participating in a joint exercise with the rebel RSF militia when they were detained.

The Sudanese Foreign Ministry demanded that the RSF ensure their security, safety and well-being until they are safely delivered to their own country through the Red Cross.

This marks for me the first statement from the Sudanese Foreign Ministry since the start of the clashes that have isolated Khartoum from the rest of the world.

In response, the Egyptian Army has issued a small statement saying that they are working with various entities in Sudan to ensure the safe return of all members of the Egyptian armed forces who participated in joint training with the Sudanese armed forces, according to a protocol signed between the two countries.

The Egyptian Armed Forces will be releasing further updates soon.

A couple of hours later or even less and according to Al-Arabiya TV and Daily News Egypt, It was known Cairo has given an ultimatum to RSF commander General Mohamed Hamdan Dagalo, commonly known as Hemedti, to return the soldiers within 72 hours or face the consequences.

On Wednesday morning, the RSF announced that the Egyptian military personnel detained in Merowe had been transferred to Khartoum with the intention of returning them to Egypt as soon as "the circumstances allow". However, I questioned the decision to take them to Khartoum instead of the closer Egyptian-Sudanese border, with the airspace in Khartoum closed indefinitely.

Sudanese citizens are criticizing both Hemedti and Burhan's army for their lack of direct communication, especially since Burhan, the country's de facto ruler, has yet to address them.

As the ongoing crisis in Sudan unfolds, many Egyptians are left confused and unsure of who to trust. Sudanese citizens are criticizing both Hemedti and Burhan's army for their dishonesty in general, especially since Burhan, the country's de facto ruler, has yet to address them

As of Thursday morning, the Sudanese army has announced that 177 Egyptian Air Force technicians have been safely evacuated from Sudan to Egypt via military transport planes that took off Dongola airport.

These technicians were in Sudan as part of a joint training protocol signed in 2018 between the two countries, which involves rotating joint training exercises between their air forces. The exercise "Nile Protectors" was scheduled to take place in May.

The situation highlights the ongoing tragedy in Sudan, and how it has impacted innocent individuals such as the Egyptian military personnel who went to prepare for an annual exercise and found themselves stuck in the middle of a seemingly endless civil war. 

If you are confused about the number of Egyptian military personnel in Sudan or their purpose, it all began on Sunday, when social media played a pivotal role in spreading news of their detention by the Sudanese military.

On Saturday, news broke of clashes between the RSF and SAF, with the RSF announcing full control of Merowe airport, also an airbase.

Despite being one of the newest airports in Sudan, locals claim it has been converted into an army airbase due to the lack of international flights, hosting from time to time joint military exercises between Egypt and Sudan. Some suggest its architecture resembles Egyptian airbases but on a smaller scale.

Videos emerged on Saturday afternoon showing Egyptians in military uniforms reportedly captured at the Merowe airbase in Northern Sudan.

The RSF militia declared their control of the airbase, allegedly ending the occupation of Egyptian forces.

In the video, the fighters stand in front of covered military jets with Egyptian flags on their tails, identified as MiG-29M fighter jets.

Egypt is one of the main operators of this version of the Russian air jet, along with Russia and Algeria. In 2015, Egypt signed a $2 billion contract to acquire 46 multi-role fighters for the Egyptian Air Forces, and reports suggest over 15 aircrafts have been delivered so far.

On Sunday, an Al-Jazeera correspondent in Merowe reported that an Egyptian aircraft caught fire at the Merowe airbase during the clashes between the RSF and the Sudanese army.

Maxar satellite services shared online photos that showed the damage that occurred at the airbase and airport, revealing at least one fighter jet destroyed by fire.

The damage at Merowe's airport or airbase as seen by MAXAR
The damage at Merowe's airport or airbase as seen by MAXAR 

According to the photo, you can those fighter jets are damaged 
they are believed to be Egyptian

Days prior to the recent events in Sudan, tweets circulated discussing the Egyptian forces' occupation of some military bases in Merowe. 

As a journalist covering national security and military news, I know that these are not occupations but rather cooperation agreements between the Egyptian and Sudanese armed forces.

Joint exercises at the Merowe military base, including the recent "Nile Eagles-2" in April 2021, have been conducted in the past couple of years, with Egypt sending several of its MiG-29M fighter jets.

The situation took a turn for the worse with the emergence of a second video showing a group of Sudanese army personnel captured and sitting on the ground. In front of them sat at least ten Egyptian military personnel wearing Egyptian military uniforms, also captured. 

The identity of the captured personnel was confirmed to be members of the Egyptian Armed Forces, with an Egyptian young man wearing civilian clothes identifying himself as an Egyptian army officer responsible for the rest of the captured soldiers.

The event took place in the morning during Ramadan in Sudan's hot weather. The captain who spoke on behalf of the captured soldiers won the admiration of millions of Egyptians. Later, it was revealed that he was a captain in the Air Defense forces from Sharkia governorate.

The RSF's official Twitter account shared the video.

Later, a photo emerged of at least five Egyptian military personnel, wearing special forces uniforms and one civilian, captured with their hands above their heads in one of the buildings in the base. The Egyptian Armed Forces issued a statement urging the safeguarding of the safety of that military personnel in Sudan's Merowe for joint training with their Sudanese counterparts.

After his militiamen claimed to end the Egyptian occupation of the airport, Hemedti told Al-Arabiya TV channel that the RSF is working to repatriate the Egyptian troops back to Egypt as soon as possible. In another statement to Sky News Arabia, the militia leader said that the Egyptian troops in Marawi Airport are safe.

However, a few hours after Hemedti's statement, another video had gone viral showing five Egyptian soldiers being insulted by the RSF, being called “Sons of dogs” and “dogs.”

The soldiers were ordered to lay down and crawl on their stomachs with their hands on their heads. The video gained popularity quickly, particularly among Ethiopian Tweeps who found it an opportunity to gloat.

While speaking about the Geneva Convention is not necessary in this case, given the RSF's track record of war crimes, including genocide in Darfur, it is worrying to think about how they would treat their fellow Sudanese soldiers.

From the released videos and photos, it is estimated that at least 20 Egyptian military personnel were present. The video struck a chord with the already economically struggling Egyptians, leaving them feeling powerless against the growing influence of Gulf nations, both economically and politically.

Adding to the concerns, news emerged that Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates had discussed the future of Sudan with the US and UK, with the Saudi Foreign Minister speaking with both Hemedti and Burhan. Meanwhile, UN Secretary-General António Guterres spoke with Egyptian President Abdel Fattah El-Sisi, and the Egyptian Foreign Minister Sameh Shoukry has been in contact with several Western and Arab counterparts regarding the matter.

To me, it was a mystery why the Egyptian soldiers held in Sudan's Merowe base couldn't return home, especially considering the proximity to the Egyptian border. After three days, it seemed as though Hemedti was using them as leverage to pressure Cairo into supporting him over his rival.

On Wednesday, further details came to light. The soldiers who appeared in RSF's media were actually part of a larger group that Egypt had not publicly declared, presumably for their safety.

Egypt had over 177 military personnel preparing for an upcoming military exercise in Merowe in May. The majority were in Dongola, waiting to be evacuated to Egypt. Unfortunately, 27 men were in the wrong place at the wrong time when the RSF pulled their stunt.

Aside from whether the 27 men have returned home or not, I wonder what Hemedti truly hoped to gain from this move. In addition to creating pressure on Cairo, I believe he wants Egypt to interfere militarily, which is why Sisi's response on Monday was to state that what is happening in Sudan is an internal matter and that Egypt won't interfere.

Since Saturday, the RSF has attacked foreign diplomatic commissions, including ambassadors, in a way that makes you wonder what Hemedti's endgame is. I believe he wants chaos, which will harm Egypt just as much as Sudan. 

Updated at 3:03 PM

The Egyptian Armed Forces issued a statement Thursday morning announcing that the 27 military personnel that were with the RSF were delivered to the International Committee Red Cross in coordination with “relevant Sudanese authorities” and “brotherly countries”. The 27 young men are currently at the Egyptian embassy in Khartoum to return to Cairo as soon as the situation stabilizes, and suitable security conditions are available for their return to their homeland.

At the same time, the Egyptian Foreign Ministry issued another statement stating that Egypt has announced its success in coordinating with the sisterly UAE to ensure the safety of the remaining Egyptian soldiers stationed in the Sudanese Republic under the RSF. It added that the soldiers had been handed over to the Egyptian Embassy in Khartoum. Egypt and UAE expressed their gratitude to the International Committee of the Red Cross for their support in securing the safety of the soldiers.

On Thursday afternoon, the Egyptian Presidency announced that Egypt’s President Abdel Fattah El-Sisi had a telephone call with the President of the UAE MBZ.

In the Emirates, the official Emirati news agency published this news on its service worldwide using the headline: UAE succeeds in securing the safety of Egyptian soldiers in Sudan through mediation. 

There is a lot to be said about this affair and its impact on many things including Egyptians themselves. 

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