For about three months now, one of Africa’s biggest countries, Sudan has been in turmoil with regular protests organized by opposition groups demanding political changes after the three-decade rule of Omar Hassan Ahmed al-Bashir. First were overwhelming mass protests in the streets of Khartoum, the country’s capital and other towns which ended the reign of one of Africa’s longest serving leaders in April 2019 following a military takeover. Unsatisfied with the military takeover, protest leaders called for more mass action demanding the military to transfer power to a civilian-led administration. This became a bone of contention with members of the Transitional Military Council (TMC) showing a semblance of democratic reforms, yet still clinging to power which they had enjoyed under the reign of al-Bashir since 1989 with the backing of Gulf Empires.
The Building Of Ententes
As the situation on the ground worsened and the military became more unpopular within the Sudanese people, a game of entente was unleashed between the TMC and the members of the Forces for Freedom and Change (FFC), a coalition of opposition parties spearheading the mass protest. Both sides in the Sudanese politicking were gunning for the much needed international support to spin changes to their direction. With close ties to Arab nations, the TMC fostered collaboration with the Gulf States while the FFC went in for more Western and African support. The biggest support to the FFC and blow to the TMC came from the African Union (AU) which suspended the membership of Sudan demanding a return to civilian rule. Meanwhile, al-Bashir’s former friends: the Gulf States of Egypt, Saudi Arabia, and United Arab Emirates (U.A.E.) quickly used oil money to embrace the TMC, declaring their support for them. In the meantime, there was also pressure from Ethiopia’s young Prime Minister, Abiy Ahmed who is considered as an incarnation of a New Generational politicking in a tumultuous Africa.
TMC: Sandwiched Between Oil Money And Democracy
Before the fall of Bashir in April, Reuters reported that the Arab strongman had already fallen apart with his former backers in the Gulf Empire who were pressing for a new Sudan without him. However, U.A.E. and Saudi Arabia were readily available to support any congregation or authority that would offer them an alternative to Bashir which would include waging a war against the Islamists harboured by Bashir.
Immediately after the fall of Bashir on April 11, U.A.E. and Saudi Arabia threw their support behind the TMC promising to support the battered Sudanese economy with $3 billion – funds which had been denied Bashir during his last days. This support for the TMC quickly alienated the FFC which publicly challenged U.A.E. and Saudi Arabia to stay clear of Sudanese politics. This explains why some of the placards on the streets in Khartoum read, “We don’t want to be like Egypt,” “United Arab Emirates and Saudi Arabia stop interfering in Sudan.”
Feeling threatened back home and with pressure from Western and African countries, the head of TMC, General Abdel-Fatah Burhan paid strategic visits to Saudi Arabia, U.A.E., and Egypt where he received overwhelming support. In turn, the embattled leader promised to back the Saudi led coalition, fighting a proxy war against Iran and allies in Yemen.
It became clear shortly after the visit that the TMC was hardened by the Gulf empires and the military regime of Egypt. As shortly after his return to Sudan, there was a military crackdown on peaceful protesters. According to Sudanese medics, over 40 100 people were killed and tens of people wounded went the military opened fire on armless protesters. Government sources reduced the figures to less than 60.
Seeing the situation degenerating into chaos, the young, dynamic, Ethiopian Prime Minister, Abiy Ahmed—who is credited for vast democratic reforms since taking over in 2018—, offered a hand of friendship to Sudanese leaders and opposition. He immediately visited the country on June 7 and championed the course for a peace deal between the conflicting factions which would enable a return to democratic governance under a civilian rule.
The visit and proposed democratic plan by PM Abiy was in contrast with the military governance as sustained by TMC. Immediately after his visit, some opposition leaders who talked with PM Abiy were arrested. This instead brought unbearable criticisms and pressure on TMC members and with the world and AU distancing itself from the prescription of the Gulf States. The TMC leaders including the most feared General Hamadan Dagalo, Commander of the dreaded Rapid Support Forces (RSF) bowed to pressure and opened negotiations. On July 5, Ethiopian and AU mediators announced the signing of a peace deal between the TMC and FFC for a three-year power-sharing transitional scheme which would ensure that the TCM rules for the first 18 months and later on the FFC. However, both parties continue to work under pressure from proxies.
Understanding The Sudanese Game
Immediately after the deal was announced, there was wide jubilation in the streets of major cities in Sudan with protesters saying the military would finally give way to civilian rule. However, there were still some scepticisms among the protesters. Lena al-Sheikh, a Sudanese protestor told the BBC that they wanted much more than such a deal. However, both members of the TMC and FFC have saluted the outcome, arguing that it would usher in a new era for Sudan. “We hope that this is the beginning of a new era,” Omar al-Degair, head of the FFC said. According to General Hamadan Dagalo, the “agreement would be comprehensive and will not exclude anyone.”
However, the deal was concluded without a positional representation of the Gulf States which are certainly not harbingers of democratic mutations. Saudi Arabia and U.A.E. are oil monarchies with little or no democratic institutions. Moreover, the Egyptian example cannot be a good omen for Sudan as barely one year after a democratic government was elected in 2012, it was toppled by the military under the banner of General Abdel Fatah al-Sisi. These countries have been the backers of Bashir and immediately they turned their backs against him he came crumbling.
Bashir came to power in 1989 on an Islamist agenda wherein Sharia was imposed on the entire Sudan. Moreover, with military and financial support, Bashir continued with the 22-year civil war with Southerners which only ended in 2005 with the signing of the Comprehensive Peace Agreement, giving the South much autonomy and later on independence in 2011. Before coming to power, Bashir was already very close to the Egyptian system after fighting for the Egyptian army in the Arab-Israeli conflict of 1973.
Sudan under Bashir has also been on severe U.S. sanctions especially following the passage of Osama Bin Laden in the country between 1991 and 1996. The U.S. assumes that it is during these years that the global Islamic extremism network was developed. Bashir was however sustained during the sanctions by the Gulf States. But when Islamists became a threat to the monarchical lordship of the Gulf States, Bashir’s backers wanted him to use his strong ties to oust the Islamist who are believed to be in Sudan. Egypt had done same with the overthrow of Muhammed Morsi and the Gulf states wanted Bashir to follow suit, a decision too hard for him to implement as he would be fighting against his own internal backers and supporters.
In the later years of his reign, Bashir was no longer serving the interest of his external backers even though he still wanted to enjoy from their oil wealth. Seeing that, home opposition was already growing, U.A.E. and allies engineered the military which was already losing the taste of the protracted stay of one man in power which was economically becoming unbearable. Bashir’s spy chief, General Gosh carefully masterminded the plan and dragged in General Dagalo which is why the military watched over protestors as they challenge the reign of Bashir.
The military leaders, some of whom have been indicted with war crimes including General Dagalo because of their alleged human rights abuses committed in Darfur wanted to maintain their supreme position under a system backed by their major funders in the Gulf empires. Therefore, on the one hand, while they were promising reforms at home, so as to win home support, they were courting the Arabian oil empires for financial stability. Moreover, the TMC is clinging to power because it wants a guarantee of their safety and security, unlike Bashir who has been jailed in the same Khartoum Kobar jail where he jailed opponents to his rule.
Despite the attractiveness of the deal between the opposition and the military, the international community and especially AU needs to constantly put pressure on the Sudanese military which has an upper hand so that it respects the tenets of the July 5th deal. There should be guarantors to ensure that even in tempting and challenging times, the deal is faithfully respected. The efforts of AU and PM Abiy should also be backed by other institutions like the EU and UN and these partners including the U.S. should also offer a better option for the embattled Sudanese economy which if not assisted can tempt the leaders to divert from the original plan. Moreover, an Islamist or religious theocratic agenda should be abhorred and a Sudanese agenda be backed so that the country gets a new start loathing the exclusion of any segment of the Sudanese populace.
Sudan’s case should be sustained and be used as a lesson to other states which are facing similar situations and even to countries which would be in a similar political equation.