Gulf states like Saudi Arabia and the UAE see the decline of Islamist groups in North Africa as a win for regional stability and cooperation; but even if Islamist parties may be slowly fading from the picture, this by no means suggests they are disappearing.
Since a violent clampdown on protesters June 3, Sudan’s transition is at risk of slipping back into authoritarian rule or even a full-fledged civil war. The African Union issued a statement on June 6 announcing the suspension of Sudan until the “effective establishment of a Civilian-led Transitional Authority,” indicating that this would be the only way for “Sudan to exit from the current crisis.” The statement was clear that only negotiations, not a violent crackdown, will be an acceptable solution to the current stalemate. Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed visited Sudan June 7 holding separate meetings with military and protest leaders in a bid to broker talks. The transition began with the ouster of President Omar al-Bashir by a military coup on April 12. Since then, civilian and military negotiators have agreed on a three-year transition, a mainly civilian Parliament, and a Transitional Military Council, in which all parts of the security apparatus, the army, the intelligence, and militias would be combined. However, the outstanding issue was the composition and leadership of a Sovereign Council, the executive organ that is tasked with leading Sudan’s transition to civilian rule.
Following the coup in April, there was initial unity in the security organs – army, intelligence, and the Rapid Support Forces. This was in contrast to the last days before the ouster of Bashir, when members of the various forces were shooting at each other: The National Intelligence sided with Bashir while lower ranks of the army and the head of the Rapid Support Forces, Mohammed Hamdan Dagalo (known as Hemedti), sided with the protesters. Lt. Gen. Abdel Fattah al-Burhan from the Sudanese army is presiding over the Transitional Military Council and Hemedti is vice president. This switch of allegiance away from Bashir is surprising given his special relationship with the Rapid Support Forces, which was under his direct command. Unlike other former confidants, this guaranteed Hemedti a role in the Transitional Military Council and even trust from the protesters. However, the National Intelligence, once a powerful tool for Bashir, was sidelined, with its head, Salah Gosh, lacking any visible political power.
Now, the old fault lines have opened again. After Hemedti announced that he would not tolerate any further protests, blaming the negotiations for ongoing instability in Sudan, he strategically positioned the Rapid Support Forces in Khartoum. On June 3 the Rapid Support Forces of Hemedti and the riot police of the National Intelligence raided the protest camps, allegedly killing more than a hundred people, and they continue to conduct house-by-house searches. Meanwhile, Burhan announced June 5 that the Transitional Military Council wants to go back to the negotiating table.
On the civilian side, the Forces for the Declaration of Freedom and Change is composed of the Sudanese Professionals Association, members of the opposition platform Sudan Call, opposition parties in the National Consensus Forces, students, and other civil society activists. Others, such as the influential Islamic Movement, feel sidelined. Members of the armed opposition stayed away from the protests but started to come back to Sudan to secure a position in the transition. The rebel leader Yasir Arman, vice president of the Sudan People’s Liberation Movement – North, returned to Khartoum from exile May 26 to play a role in the negotiations; he was arrested, among many others, June 3. Additionally, representatives of several opposition groups, including those from Darfur, have traveled to Abu Dhabi for consultations with the government of the United Arab Emirates on Sudan’s peace negotiations and how to be included in the military-led government.
The UAE’s involvement reflects a shift in the relationships between different Gulf Arab states and the leadership in Sudan. Whereas under Bashir, Qatar as well as the UAE and Saudi Arabia tended to see eye-to-eye, the new leadership has clearly sided with the UAE and Saudi Arabia to the detriment of Qatar. This shift is largely due to relationships between the countries’ leaders. The president and vice president of the Transitional Military Council are strongly involved in the Saudi-Emirati alliance in the conflict in Yemen. Moreover, Egypt, the UAE, and Saudi Arabia moved faster and offered more to aid and shape the transition in Sudan than did the Qataris.
Egypt and the Gulf Arab states closely watched the dynamics in Sudan before the coup and supported the coup as well as the takeover by the military. Egypt expressed its support publicly on April 12, and a day later the UAE and Saudi Arabia followed suit. The two Gulf states also welcomed the change in leadership in the Transitional Military Council from Defense Minister Awad Ibn Auf (who took control with Bashir’s ouster but stepped down the next day) to Burhan – who has been coordinating the Sudanese troops sent to fight in Yemen.
The risk on all sides is fragmentation. Among the members of the Transitional Military Council, fragmentation could lead to a power struggle by violent means, including another civil war. Among the civilian actors, it could lead to a prolongation of negotiations blocking the functioning of a transitional government. A split in the Forces for the Declaration of Freedom and Change could weaken the civilian forces especially if more align themselves with the Transitional Military Council. Since the violent clampdown on protesters, the risk of a relapse into an authoritarian state, where the military council claims full power ensured by repressive means, is an increasingly likely and dangerous outcome.
With the current situation, there are two avenues for Sudan’s transition, each pushed by a different camp in Sudan. The first emphasizes the stability secured by the Transitional Military Council. This is promoted by neighboring Egypt and resonates with the position of the UAE. However, if Hemedti takes an authoritarian turn, this scenario could force these countries to support military rule with limited or no civilian role.
The other avenue, which is promoted by the protesters, is a fundamental transformation of the system to be led by civilians. This would require a firm common understanding and unified direction on the part of all civilian actors. Currently, however, the interests of the Islamist clerics, left wing students, and traditional opposition parties (such as Sadiq al Mahdi’s National Umma Party) are too far apart to be a strong voice for fundamental change.
Four factors, which are highly contested among the negotiators in Khartoum, in the region, and in the international community at large, will determine the future of Sudan. Stability, the nature of the state and its relationship to its citizens, the economy, and the role of political Islam are foundational to the current discussions, inside and outside of Sudan.
Stability is an issue in several respects, including the question of the role of the army versus the intelligence and Rapid Support Forces, as well as the armed groups in the periphery. Among the protesters, the notion of stability is informed by the need for economic reform and political opening. Neighboring countries in the Horn of Africa, as well as those across the Red Sea, fear instability and its implications for the region but have different levels of tolerance regarding the Transitional Military Council. For the AU, the unconstitutional change of government violates its charter, so a handover to civilian-led rule was made a condition, as stipulated in the June 6 statement of the AU chairperson. This would also resonate with the pragmatists in the West. The UAE, Saudi Arabia, and Egypt may be more prepared to accept a government run by the military council, mainly because their priority is to avoid the disintegration of the army and an influx of the Muslim Brotherhood. However, a violent clampdown and repressive military rule would not resonate well with the call for a balanced solution including the aspirations of the people of Sudan, as voiced by the UAE. As the situation stands, it will be very difficult to get all parties back to the negotiating table. This could make the possibility of violent confrontations greater than the resumption of talks.
State and Citizenship Formula
Every power-sharing model will be under scrutiny and critique by the different fronts in the country, the region, and beyond. Whereas in the scenario of a military-led government the potential actors are already known, because they would be recruited from the old guard, the balance and mix of executive power during the transition would be less clear. The civilian-led scenario would need to combine forces as divergent as the disgruntled political Islamists and the more secular urban middle-class youth. This might lead to more tension in the beginning; the long-term result, however, would be a much stronger society and political landscape able to agree upon a new social contract, including the younger generation, the peripheries, women and professionals, and urban and rural Sudanese.
After the National Islamic Front came to power in 1989, Sudan’s leadership, Bashir as well as the intellectual brain behind that coup, Hassan al-Turabi, saw political Islam as their distinctive feature and their ticket into the fold of the Arab world. During the 1990s, Sudan’s support for extremist groups, such as al-Qaeda, and the attempt to transform the country into a strict and conservative Islamic society, became an obsession and alienated the majority of Sudanese society, not only in the predominantly Christian south, but even more in the Sufi-leaning rural north. After the 2013 coup against Egypt’s President Mohamed Morsi, Sudan hosted a large number of Muslim Brotherhood members and kept strong relations with Qatar. Its earlier connection to a jihadist ideology brought sanctions and economic misery. The weakening of the Islamic Movement in Bashir’s National Congress Party, however, also led to the radicalization of a number of Sudan’s youth. Sudanese joined al-Qaeda, al-Shabab, the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant, and Boko Haram in strong numbers. Much of the general public in Sudan is either Sufi or inclined to support the Muslim Brotherhood. Currently, the biggest adversaries of the Muslim Brotherhood – the UAE and Egypt – are strengthening their relationships with the Transitional Military Council to prevent the Muslim Brotherhood from gaining ground in the transition.
There is a shared understanding that the economy will be the straw that could break the camel’s back. For the Sudanese transition to succeed, an economic plan and support for economic change is essential. This will require the unity of the Sudanese people broadly, including opposing political forces, to mobilize their capacity and brain power to develop a viable economic strategy. This requires the realization of the historic opportunity Sudan’s transition provides, by both external actors and those in the Transitional Military Council whose decision to resort to violence disrupted the negotiations, since long-term economic development will not be possible if Sudan becomes even more isolated.
So far, there has only been limited financial support of $3 billion committed by the UAE and Saudi Arabia. To stabilize and diversify the economy, debt relief and access to international financial institutions are fundamental for Sudan. This needs a combined effort by the United States as well as the European countries, who are the main creditors for Sudan’s debt. This package should be prepared now, in sync with the short-term support the UAE and others are providing. The package should, however, be conditioned on a negotiated transition and serious changes in the political and economic system in Sudan.
The future of Sudan is clearly with the young generation who aspire to participate in shaping their own future. If this hope is broken now, it will take a long time to regain their trust and persuade them to engage in the development of the country.
is a senior associate in the Middle East and Africa Research Division of the German Institute for International and Security Studies in Berlin.
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