“Finally, Israelis will be able to seek political asylum in Sudan,” ran the joke last Friday after the announcement of an agreement to normalize relations between the two countries. In a more serious vein, there was already talk in Israel of the anticipated benefits of finally being able to deport Sudanese refugees and asylum seekers back to their country.
As expected, the “routine” of signing normalization agreements with Arab states automatically opened diplomatic and military Excel sheets, replete with columns showing losses and gains made by both sides, as if peace with another Arab state in the Middle East is no more than a business transaction.
The advantages for both sides are clearly obvious. Sudan will be removed from the list of countries supporting terror and will be able to start receiving crucial loans from international financing agencies, mainly the International Monetary Fund. Multinational corporations will be able to invest there and create thousands of jobs, allowing one of the world’s poorest countries to perhaps start rebuilding itself after decades of being led by a murderous leader, Omar al-Bashir.
With this agreement, Israel will complete the creation of a safety cordon in the Red Sea, which includes Egypt, Jordan, South Sudan and Saudi Arabia. The transfer of weapons from the Sinai Peninsula to Gaza, which relies on smuggling routes passing through Sudan, may be further curtailed. But the main asset from Israel’s perspective is the stabilization of the normalization process with other Arab countries, and its acceptance as part of a strategy that serves the interests of those countries.
The normalization of relations with Sudan, the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain and perhaps down the line Saudi Arabia, Qatar and others, is not causing the Israeli-Palestinian conflict to evaporate, but it does negate Israel’s traditional claim that a peace agreement with the Palestinians is contingent on ending its conflict with the Arab world. As the Arab-Israeli conflict continues to dissolve, the Palestinian question will remain an Israeli problem regardless of the number of Israeli tourists who visit the fancy skyscrapers in the Emirates or of the number of travelers going directly from Tel Aviv to Khartoum.
The agreement with Sudan, just like the preceding ones with the Gulf states, is the result of diplomatic and economic negotiations that wove it together in tight coordination with Saudi Arabia, which will probably finance the $335 million compensation Sudan committed to paying victims of the terror attacks which had placed it on the blacklist.
Relations between the Saudis and Sudan grew tighter at the end of Bashir’s tenure, when Sudan joined an Arab coalition created by King Salman, which launched a war in Yemen in 2015. Sudan later removed all Iranian presence from its soil, sending troops to the battlefield in Yemen to assist in fighting the Houthis. When Bashir was deposed in April 2019 following massive demonstrations in which dozens of people were killed, Saudi Arabia and the Emirates rushed to give the military council that seized power $3 billion in financial aid, thereby becoming the patrons of Sudan’s new leaders.
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Sudan’s leadership has two arms. One is the temporary Sovereignty Council of five military men and five civilians, led by General Abdel Fattah Burhan. Under it is a government headed by Abdallah Hamdok. According to the constitution that was drafted in 2019, this structure is to remain in place until November 2022, when elections are scheduled to take place. In the interim, there is no functioning parliament, since it was disbanded when al-Bashir was toppled.
This structure is fragile, subject to public criticism by the street, which is constantly in a state of ferment. Only last Wednesday, there were demonstrations in several of Sudan’s cities, protesting against the dire economic situation, the meteoric spike in prices and the shortage in fuel which creates long lines at gas stations every day. Demonstrators were also protesting the government’s plan to cut fuel subsidies.
These demonstrations are not connected to the normalization agreement, but they attest to the mistrust and fury directed at the transitional government. This tension is also being mobilized for political purposes, fed by the claim that the agreement is illegitimate since it was signed by a transitional government without the approval of parliament. In order to calm things down, Sudan’s foreign minister Omar Qamar al-Din announced that the agreement would only take effect after it was ratified by parliament, namely in at least two more years.
However, the Sovereignty Council does not intend to wait that long, and the implementation of the agreement has already begun, with the opening of Sudan’s skies to Israeli aircraft and the launching of talks about economic agreements in agriculture and health.
However, the political power struggles have only begun. Sadiq al-Mahdi, the leader of the Islamist National Umma Party which is part of the ruling coalition, threatened that his party would leave the government if the agreement were signed. This is a significant threat since al-Mahdi, an opposition figure who objects to the rule of the Sovereignty Council even though he is part of the coalition, represents not only his own party but many other Islamist streams in Sudan. His withdrawal along with others could topple the government and lead to a new outbreak of demonstrations with violent confrontations between the army and police and the country’s citizens, precisely at a time when Sudan needs some quiet and stability.
Sudan is not the Emirates or Bahrain, in which power is held by royal families which do not allow democratic moves to replace a government. Sudan is a federal state in which local tribes have power and clout and in which civil protests have managed to remove a long-standing tyrannical government. A constitutional document requires the holding of elections and making amendments in a manner that will allow widespread political activity by opposition parties. There is therefore no guarantee that the government will be able to withstand internal pressures and not postpone the implementation of this agreement, just as there is no assurance that a newly elected government will not violate the agreement. Against this backdrop, one can understand Prime Minister Hamdok’s announcement that in the first phase there will be no exchange of ambassadors or a mutual establishment of embassies.
This caution also obliges Israel. Public announcements and bombastic displays regarding agreements and opportunities will play into the hands of those opposing the agreement. Opposition parties will now make efforts to harm its implementation. The proof of the pudding will lie in the immediate economic benefits the government can show its citizens.
Sudan is bogged down with debts of $60 billion, its budget is meager and in deficit. It lost 75 percent of its oil resources when South Sudan was established in 2011. Inflation soared to more than 212 percent in September, with the Sudanese pound plummeting in the black market to 250 pounds to the dollar, in contrast to the official rate of 52 pounds to the dollar. Sudan’s leaders cannot make do with loans from international funds or with a restructuring of debt.
Sudan will need a direct flow of funds for development projects and these could come, theoretically, from Saudi Arabia and the Gulf states. The question is who will win in the competition between donor states and internal protests. This will determine the fate of the normalization agreement with Israel.