by Abdulaziz Kilani
Last month, the interim leader of Sudan, General Abdel Fattah al-Burhan, visited Egypt and the United Arab Emirates. At the same time that he was in Abu Dhabi, his deputy, Mohamed Hamdan “Hemedti” Dagalo, was in Jeddah meeting Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman. This happened before al-Burhan headed to Mecca to attend the double-summits that Riyadh was organizing.
As soon as these interim leaders returned from their visits, the military council adopted a new approach toward protesters. “The UAE and Saudi Arabia are not interested in seeing a successful democratic transition anywhere in the Middle East, including Sudan,” Daniel Serwer, director of the Conflict Management Program at the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies, told me. “They would much prefer the military stay in charge and follow the Saudi/Emirati lead to autocracy.”
The death toll of pro-democracy protesters has topped 100 in a few days. The African Union suspended Sudan over its military’s brutal crackdown and the United Nations called for an investigation.
The force used against protesters suggests that a remake of al-Bashir’s regime is in progress, which dashes the people’s hopes for democracy. The man complicit in the crimes in Darfur in 2003, Hemedti, is now one of the country’s main leaders. Did the military council start a coup against Omar al-Bashir, pushed by the protesters, for the sake of Sudan or for the sake of saving themselves?
The protesters have insisted on the removal of the entire military council for fear that the repression they witnessed under al-Bashir may not be gone completely. They want the whole system changed not just a few individuals. The TMC, which has abandoned negotiations in favor of violence, has now become the main obstacle to the transformation of governance in Sudan to a civil state.
Perhaps the TMC wanted the protesters to take a step back. But the protesters realize that doing so would waste months of efforts and jeopardize their dream of freedom and democracy. It would also make the chance of establishing a civilian state unlikely—if not impossible—for the TMC might get the impression that the use of force is a better way for them to retain power.
Abu Dhabi and Riyadh sent $500 million to Sudan after the military council toppled al-Bashir as part of a planned $3 billion overall package. The purpose of the aid is less about aiding the Sudanese and reviving the country’s economy and more about maintaining Gulf influence in Sudan. In fact, when al-Burhan and Hemedti visited the Gulf countries, they may have gotten the green light to start the slaughter they committed on their return.
Imad Harb, director of research at Arab Center Washington DC, told me:
What is ironic is that the TMC’s main supporters in Sudanese society are Islamist forces that are demanding to continue with the imposition of sharia laws. Elsewhere in the Arab world, Saudi Arabia and the UAE have spearheaded a campaign against Islamists, but in Sudan they don’t seem to mind supporting the TMC whose main constituency are the Islamists. I believe that their stance on Islamists is demagogic and what they are interested in is only suppressing calls for political change, whoever makes them.
Saudi Arabia and the UAE do not want a revolution in any country where they have influence. The developing scenario in Sudan resembles how Libya’s strongman, Khalifa Haftar, after visiting Saudi Arabia, launched a military assault on Tripoli that has sent the country spinning into a civil war.
The State Department has reported conversations about the Sudan crackdown between Under Secretary of State for Political Affairs David Hale and both Saudi Deputy Defense Minister Khalid bin Salman and the UAE’s Minister of State for Foreign Affairs, Anwar Gargash. According to the State Department, Hale “noted the importance of a transition to a civilian-led government in accordance with the wishes of the Sudanese people.” This indicates that Washington seems concerned about the role played in Sudan by the two Gulf countries.
This concern appears to have had an effect on the two Gulf countries. The Saudi Press Agency reported a day after the State Department’s press release that the government of Saudi Arabia has followed with “great concern” the developments in Sudan. It pointed out that the kingdom “affirms the importance of resuming the dialogue between the various parties in Sudan to fulfil the aspirations of the brotherly Sudanese people.” Gargash, too, has expressed his country’s concern about the “massacre” in Sudan and supported calls for an investigation.
Given that both Riyadh and Abu Dhabi acted rapidly after the State Department’s reports, the United States is obliged to put maximum pressure on its allies. The recent nomination of David Booth as a special envoy for Sudan may turn out to be a meaningful U.S. action that President Trump hopes to get credit for. After widespread criticism of his support for Mohammed bin Salman, particularly after the murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi, Trump might be looking for a way to boost his public image.
On Tuesday, the protesters called off a general strike and agreed to resume talks. “The opposition’s announcement that it is suspending the civil disobedience campaign and returning to negotiations can be seen as a sign that the military is willing to compromise,” Harb added. “This may make the Saudis and Emiratis nervous. If they don’t like what they see in the next few days, they may pressure its people on the TMC (specifically Mohammad Hamdan [Hemedti] and his Rapid Support Forces) to stage what can be seen as a ‘corrective’ coup. The situation is still very fluid in Sudan.”
But for a true transformation of Sudanese governance to take place, the TMC must change the way it deals with the protesters and stop countries like Saudi Arabia and UAE from interfering in Sudan’s affairs. Talks can only succeed if the Sudanese are fully in control of the process.
Abdulaziz Kilani is the editor-in-chief of Sharq Wa Gharb Arabic electronic newspaper. He tweets as: @az_kilani