The Geopolitics of Sudan’s Transition After Bashir

Omar al-Bashir

by Giorgio Cafiero

Omar Hassan al-Bashir’s ouster in a military-led coup on April 11 marked a watershed in Sudan’s history. His departure from power was a major achievement for those across Sudan who had spent months holding large demonstrations calling for an end to Bashir’s three-decade presidency. Yet until or unless Sudan’s military, which currently governs the country through a transitional council, reaches an agreement with protestors who demand a civilian-led and democratically elected government, on moving forward into the post-Bashir period, there will be more questions than answers about Khartoum’s future political landscape.

Sudan’s current de facto head of state, Lieutenant General Abdel Fattah Abdelrahman Burhan, promises to “uproot the regime,” remove censorship in the country’s media, end a night curfew, and release both political prisoners and police officers previously arrested for siding with protestors. Such assurances provide the basis for hope that Sudan’s military, in charge of the country, is listening to the demands of citizens protesting for democratic reforms. Yet it remains to be seen whether the army will make concessions to demonstrators that sufficiently meet their demands and whether the country will maintain its relative stability if such a necessary agreement is not quickly reached.

Sudan’s transition won’t take place without outside players—Khartoum’s Arab allies, Turkey, Western powers—seeking to influence the process on terms favorable to their interests. Although Western governments called on Sudan to democratize and civilianize after Bashir’s ouster, it was unsurprising that Egypt, Saudi Arabia, and the United Arab Emirates (UAE) quickly expressed their support for Sudan’s military, not the democratic aspirations of Sudan’s citizenry.

In Riyadh and Abu Dhabi, officials have been concerned about Khartoum’s growing ties with Turkey and Qatar in recent years. The failure of the so-called Anti-Terror Quartet (ATQ)—Bahrain, Egypt, Saudi Arabia, and the UAE—to bring Sudan into their bloc against Qatar since the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) crisis broke out in mid-2017 illustrated Khartoum’s keenness to maintain warm relations with all Arabian Peninsula sheikdoms, including Qatar. Yet the Saudi/Emirati-led group of counter-revolutionary Arab governments, which fears Arab Spring-style activism and the rise of political Islam in the region, may now increase the pressure on Sudan to distance itself from Doha and Ankara. For instance, the ATQ bloc might exercise its leverage over Sudan’s ruling junta to end Turkey’s use of Suakin Island as a military foothold in the Red Sea.

Riyadh and Abu Dhabi have also counted on Sudan as a key ally in their war in Yemen. Khartoum joined the coalition at the outset of Operation Decisive Storm, deploying thousands of its forces to fight the Houthis on the ground. Hundreds of Sudanese have died in in this conflict since 2015. With the Saudis and Emiratis seeking to limit the number of their own citizens who lose their lives or suffer injuries in the war, neither country wants Sudan to leave the coalition. Yet the unpopularity of Sudan’s participation in this war contributed to the anger that manifested in daily anti-Bashir protests beginning in December.

Riyadh, Abu Dhabi, and Cairo also have grave concerns that events in Sudan could spark a regionwide Arab Spring 2.0, much as Arab Spring revolutions in North Africa triggered widespread unrest in 2011 that led to the fall of Saudi- and Emirati-allied strongmen in Egypt, Tunisia, and Yemen, and major challenges to Bahrain’s Al Khalifa royals. Such a repeat of the Arab Spring is all the more likely given the recent grassroots protests in Algeria, Jordan, Iraq, and Morocco.

Saudi Arabia, the UAE, and Egypt are determined to prevent the transition in Sudan from moving in a direction that would undermine their interests. The ATQ is most interested in supporting figures in the army who have distanced themselves from Islamists in Sudan’s political arena, such as Salah Gosh, Sudan’s intelligence chief who recently resigned his position and who is a former CIA collaborator. The Saudi, Emirati, and Egyptian leaders do so, however, at the risk of blowback. Many Sudanese have embraced the protests as a democratic revolution to empower the country’s citizens after decades of authoritarianism and gross human rights violations. The anger that mobilized anti-regime activists over the past several months could easily turn against foreign governments with counter-revolutionary agendas in Sudan.

Giorgio Cafiero

Giorgio Cafiero is the CEO and founder of Gulf State Analytics, a Washington, DC-based geopolitical risk consultancy. In addition to LobeLog, he also writes for The National Interest, Middle East Institute, and Al Monitor. From 2014-2015, Cafiero was an analyst at Kroll, an investigative due diligence consultancy. He received an M.A. in International Relations from the University of San Diego.