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Chronicle of the Middle East and North Africa

Sudanese Crisis: Foreign Interests and Agendas

Sudanese Crisis
A Sudanese boy laughs as he sits for face-painting during a rally in Khartoum Bahri, on December 6, 2021, to protest a deal that saw the Prime Minister reinstated after his ouster in a military coup in October. AFP

During a closed consultative meeting held last week on the situation in Sudan, the 15 members of the UN Security Council affirmed support for the efforts made by the UN Mission in Sudan to conduct indirect negotiations between the civilian and military components in the country embroiled in a severe political crisis since the military coup by Lieutenant-General Abdel Fattah al-Burhan on the 25th of last October.

Perthes’ Initiative

Volker Perthes, the Special Representative of the UN Secretary-General and Head of the UN Integrated Transition Assistance Mission Sudan (UNITAMS), had announced an initiative aimed at starting consultations on the political transition in Sudan to get out of the current political crisis and reach an agreement on a sustainable path to progress towards democracy and peace.

In a press conference at UNITAMS headquarters in Khartoum last week, Perthes said that the UN presents a process, not a draft nor project for a solution in Sudan. According to him, the UN mission’s role is limited only to facilitating dialogue and getting the Sudanese people with its various components out of this crisis. He said that he would first listen to “stakeholders” separately, and he expected the initiative to build confidence between the Sudanese parties and decrease violence.

Reactions to the international initiative in Khartoum ranged between direct acceptance and welcome, as did the Sovereign Council headed by Lieutenant-General Abdel Fattah al-Burhan and some parties such as the National Umma Party.

Other political forces showed apathy and reservations about the invitation. In an interview with AFP, Jaafar Hassan, the main faction’s spokesman in the Forces of Freedom and Change coalition, said: “We are ready to participate in the dialogues, given that the objective is to resume the democratic transition and dissolve the coup regime. Nevertheless, we are against this initiative if it aims to legitimise the coup regime.”

Being excluded from political participation, the Sudanese Communist Party and the Islamic movement (the Muslim Brotherhood) announced their explicit rejection of Perthes’ initiative. On the other hand, the resistance committees leading the demonstrations in the street took an ambiguous stance.

Some Sudanese remember Perthes’ role in Syria. Perthes was an assistant to the international envoy, Staffan de Mistura, who came with the reconciliation initiative that ended with the Geneva Accord in 2012. That initiative led to Bashar al-Assad remaining in power till now.

In contrast to these varying Sudanese stances, most regional and international reactions strongly supported the UN initiative in Sudan. These stances conceal divergent interests, fears, and agendas that are different and even contradictory in many cases in the consequences of the raging conflict between civilians looking for a democratic transformation and the military clinging on to power in Khartoum.

KSA and UAE: The Reaching Hands

Sudanese Crisis
A picture taken during a tour organised by Yemeni loyalist forces backed by Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates on June 2, 2018 shows Sudanese fighters battling alongside Yemen’s Saudi-backed pro-government forces against Huthi rebels in the province of Hodeida, some 60 kilometres from the frontline near the city of Hodeida which the Iran-backed Huthi insurgents seized in 2014. Saleh Al-OBEIDI / AFP

The most important of these regional powers influencing Sudan in the current situation is the Saudi-Emirati alliance. This alliance tends to favour the military and preserve their influence in Sudan. The apparent reason is the keenness of the two oil-rich countries to continue the participation of the Sudanese army and the Rapid Support Forces of the Vice-President of the Sovereign Council of Sudan, Mohamed Hamdan Dagalo, in the Decisive Storm war against the Houthis and Iran in Yemen.

Saudi Arabia and the UAE have a historical distaste for the democratic civilian elites in the region. Based on that, they fear that any civilian government, free from military influence, will reconsider Sudan’s participation in the Yemeni war in which hundreds of Sudanese soldiers have died since 2015. Such a decision would cause a significant setback for their war effort in that poor and torn country similar to Sudan.

Burhan and Dagalo resist the idea of ​​withdrawing the Sudanese forces, estimated at 8,000 soldiers in Yemen. It is not a subject of discussion in the first place because it provides them with a significant source of foreign currency that the country desperately needs, in addition to the valued Saudi-Emirati political support.

Saudi Arabia and the UAE, especially the latter, use their Sudanese relations to advance their regional ambitions, interests and adventures. For instance, the UAE pushed Sudanese mercenary soldiers in the Libyan civil war to fight for Major General Khalifa Haftar. The list includes the Darfurian Sudan Liberation Movement forces led by Arcua Minni Minawi, who is currently allied with Lieutenant-General al-Burhan in Khartoum.

The alliance of Bin Salman and Bin Zayed fears that any democratic civil development in Sudan will lead to the return of the influence of Islamist groups for which they harbour so much loathe, despite the forced understandings they maintained with the regime of ousted President Omar al-Bashir.

The two countries use their substantial financial resources and their extensive international relations to influence the political decision in Khartoum and subject it to their interests, in addition to a history of direct and indirect bribery to political and military leaders. Khartoum newspapers were buzzing last week with a report about offering dozens of university scholarships to the sons and daughters of armed forces officers of the Lieutenant-General, Brigadier General, and Brigadier ranks only.

Egypt: Favouring the Military

Sudanese Crisis
Sudan’s top general Abdel Fattah al-Burhan speaks as he attends the conclusion of a military exercise in the Maaqil area in the northern Nile River State, on December 8, 2021. Ebrahim HAMID / AFP

Egypt’s official statements regarding Sudan’s issues are highly cautious, sensitive and concerned. Nevertheless, after the Burhan coup, the army’s monopoly of power met with relief in Cairo.

Egypt and Sudan have political, economic, historical, friendship and countless sensitivities, but Egypt’s first strategic concern remains in the Nile, two-thirds of which flow into Sudan. The Egyptian government has not always been content with the stances of the Abdalla Hamdok government towards the negotiations of the Ethiopian Renaissance Dam, which have stalled for years. It sees the independent Sudanese stance, which is neutral towards the Egyptian and Ethiopian interests alike, as a betrayal of the supposed solidarity between the two brotherly countries. Egypt was suspicious of the resigned Sudanese Prime Minister Abdalla Hamdok and his Minister of Irrigation and Financial Resources, Professor Yasser Abbas, who worked together for years in the Ethiopian capital, Addis Ababa, in African regional organisations.

At the same time, Egypt strengthened its understanding with the military component in Sudan with military aid provided to the Sudanese army during the border conflict between Sudan and Ethiopia last year. In addition to conducting joint military manoeuvres and signing a military cooperation agreement between the two countries, which was considered a message directed to Ethiopia during the Renaissance Dam crisis.

Several Sudanese and foreign press sources, such as Wall Street Journal, reported that the Director of the Egyptian Intelligence Service, Major General Abbas Kamel, visited Khartoum frequently before and after Burhan’s coup.

Then, there is a near-unanimous conviction in Sudan that Egypt prefers and works for Sudan to be governed by a military regime for the ease of cooperation and understanding with a military component, unlike civil and democratic governments that often represent divergent views.

In any case, the Egyptian Foreign Ministry announced its support for the international movement aiming to achieve stability in Sudan by activating the dialogue between the parties to get over the current crisis and prevent any potential chaos. The Egyptian Foreign Ministry called on “all parties to work on choosing a new transitional and consensual prime minister, and form a government as soon as possible.”

USA: Decisively Opposing the Coup

Sudanese Crisis
Sudanese-Americans protest against last month’s military coup in Sudan in front of the White House in Washington, DC, on November 13, 2021. The UN has criticised the military’s latest “unilateral” step, while Western countries said it “complicates efforts to put Sudan’s democratic transition back on track”. Burhan insists the military’s move on October 25 “was not a coup” but a push to “rectify the course of the transition”. Nicholas Kamm / AFP

Major players deal with an exhausted and torn Sudan according to their strategic interests. The USA shows a clear interest in the situation in Sudan. US President Joe Biden’s administration is gradually abandoning the isolationist policies of Donald Trump. The former US president had unleashed his powerful regional allies, especially Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, and left them to take care of Sudan and the Horn of Africa to a large extent.

The United States has appointed a new envoy for the Horn of Africa, David M. Satterfield, Washington’s outgoing ambassador to Turkey, to address the crisis in Sudan and Ethiopia. While working to support the UN initiative led by Volker Perthes in Sudan, Washington strongly and firmly condemned the Khartoum government’s continued killing of peaceful demonstrators, as more than 70 demonstrators were shot dead by security forces in Khartoum since the Burhan’s coup up until mid-January.

The US suspended economic aid worth $700 million that was scheduled to be received by Sudan last November, immediately after Burhan’s coup, and the World Bank and the IMF suspended essential economic aid to Khartoum for the same reason.

A high-level US delegation, including Assistant Secretary of State for African Affairs, Molly Phee, and the new Special Envoy for the Horn of Africa, David Satterfield, intends to visit Khartoum this week, given the political deadlock and the escalation of protests in the Sudanese street.

The European Union is taking a similar position to the US with an even harsher tone and is moving towards freezing a project to cancel some of Sudan’s debts it reached last year. However, the Europeans have their concerns about moving forward with taking measures against the coup, a source and transit point for thousands of African immigrants who head from there to troubled Libya and then take the sea to Europe.

Since Bashir’s reign, the EU had signed an agreement with the Sudanese authorities to cooperate against illegal immigration. The EU was subjected to bitter criticism over allegations that the Rapid Support Forces, led by Dagalo, benefited from funds that Europe paid to the Sudanese government to combat African immigration into Europe.

Russia: For the Sake of Diminishing Western Influence

Russia refused to take any unified international stance against the coup in Sudan and stressed that what is happening in Sudan is an internal affair that should not be interfered with during the deliberations of the UN Security Council.

In addition to its geostrategic interests, Russia has direct gains in Sudan, as many Russian companies are actively prospecting for gold. The Russian Wagner Security Group, which is accused of aiding the notorious Rapid Support Forces militias, is also very active in Sudan.

Russia also signed an agreement with the government of former President Omar al-Bashir to establish a military base in Port Sudan on the Red Sea. Lieutenant-General Burhan has been reluctant to implement it, fearing foreign pressures, but he is hinting at it simultaneously to raise the fears of the West. But Russia, however, believes that the military rule in Sudan weakens Western influence in it and allows it to play a role.

Amid these waves of pressures and foreign interests near and far, the Sudanese aspire to end the military rule and establish a civil authority that will free the country from its poverty and wars and guarantee stability.

 

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