The surprise meeting between Benjamin Netanyahu and Sudanese Sovereignty Council head Gen. Abdel-Fattah al-Burhan on February 3 caused a storm in Sudan - and not just because of the conflict with the Palestinians.
“I informed the prime minister 48 hours before,” insisted Burhan; “There was no prior notification of the prime minister concerning Burhan’s trip to Uganda or his meeting with the prime minister of Israel,” government spokesman Faisal Mohamed Salih retorted. Members of the transitional government are furious that Burhan overstepped his authority as head of the Sovereignty Council, violated the fundamentals of the transitional constitution and acted without consulting and receiving permission from the government.
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Political forces are locking horns in their efforts to build the new democracy in Sudan, shape and define budding institutions, limit the power of the army and its representatives in both the Sovereignty Council and the government, and imbue with content the civilian representation in each of the two bodies.
Now, Israel has become a test case in this political struggle, and it might not be to its advantage. Sadik al Mahdi, head of the moderate Islamic National Umma Party, is calling relations with Israel a “red line” that must not be crossed, while the head of the Sovereignty Council is presenting the advantages of the normalization of relations with Israel.
In his explanations, delivered to military leaders before (and to prime minister Abdalla Hamdok, after) his trip, he noted that the practical benefits would outweigh the inevitable portrayal of Sudan as a traitor to the Palestinian cause, especially as “the Palestinians themselves do after all recognize Israel.”
The advantages seem to be mostly about money, and primarily about Sudan's ability to access capital. Since the deposition of long-time dictator Omar al-Bashir last April, a lot of hope has been pinned on the ability of transitional institutions to obtain international legitimization and bring into the country, one of the poorest in the world, the funds needed for its rehabilitation.
Sudan needs to pay its immediate debts of more than $2 billion, manage its national debt, which amounts to about $60 billion, overcome inflation that is soaring to 60 percent, and reduce its tremendous unemployment rate.
The World Bank has already expressed willingness to help Sudan to build a proper financial infrastructure. Among other things, Khartoum needs to pass banking legislation; re-establish a central bank; and balance the need to help its poverty-stricken population while rehauling its subsidies policy, currently digging a whole of more than 9 percent relative to the GDP.
But all of this is impossible without money. And Khartoum is currently unable to receive financial aid from international funding organizations like the International Monetary Fund, loans from private banks or support from the American administration - because it is still on the U.S.’s list of countries that support terror.
The United States lifted most of the restrictions on trade with Sudan in 2017 but is in no hurry to grant the transitional government the key to the international piggy bank. Washington wants to see lasting, solid change, and the establishment of a stable, democratic and pro-Western regime, one that will walk the anti-Iranian path. According to Sudanese commentators in the country’s very controlled media, establishing relations with Israel would be convincing regarding the last two factors at least.
But pro-West, anti-Iran does not mean democratic and stable. Netanyahu talks about normalization with Sudan, but what is Sudan currently? The civil revolt that led to Bashir’s ouster has not yet entirely subsided. The massive demonstrations that rocked the first half of 2019 and brought down Bashir ended in bloodshed, leading to a fragile power-sharing agreement between the army and the protesters, represented by a loose coalition called the “Forces of Freedom and Change”. They agreed on an 11-member Transitional Sovereignty Council, consisting of five military officers, including Burhan, and five civilians, with another civilian appointed in consensus.
The council named Hamdook and his government, which is supposed to serve for 39 months. For 21 months, the council will be headed by Burhan, and a civilian will take over for the subsequent 18 months. Free elections should follow, in which members of the council will not be allowed to run.
Ostensibly, this structure ensures a period of calm and stability until 2022, enabling the state to move forward, implement economic reforms and design a permanent constitution. But the key word here is “ostensibly.” The army does not intend to relinquish its political power; and there is no certainty that the handover of power will indeed take place.
The term “army” itself is misleading. Bashir saw the army command as a subversive element, and feared a military coup. In order to neutralize its power, he made sure the Rapid Support Forces, entirely loyal to him, were better trained, more effective and better armed than the regular army, able to suppress subversive forces and conduct special operations.
Heading the RSF was Mohamed Hamdan Dagalo, known by his sobriquet Hemetti, a commander who had no education and began his career as a camel trader and head of a gang that provided security to traders’ caravans. Hemetti rose rapidly through the ranks of the RSF, taking control of the country’s gold mines and smuggling routes. Seen as the power behind the military council in the early days following the fall of Bashir, he resigned from the Transitional Sovereignty Council because he was not appointed to head it. He now leads a force of about 30,000 fighters that is threatening the council’s legitimacy.
The army is also fighting local militias in regions where inhabitants feel disenfranchised by the current power sharing agreement. Attempts to reach an deal with them have thus far failed. The four provinces demand an equal share of the budget and representation in the government. They see the Sovereignty Council as rule by urban elites alienated from the impoverished rural periphery.
The civilian opposition is facing its own challenges and divisions. The Sudanese Professionals’ Association, which led the protests, also conducted the negotiations with the army. Formed in 2014, it brings together political activists, academics and civil society leaders - but it has lately suffered from internal splits, leading to the withdrawal of a number of organizations, who elected to form a coalition with the National Umma Party.
Across the aisle sits the National Congress Party led by Hassan al-Turabi, which many of the country’s religious organizations, most notably the Muslim Brotherhood, have joined. Even though Omar al-Bashir, himself a leading member of Congress before he quarrelled with Turabi, shunted and suppressed the party, it has large, independent sources of funding and a broad recruitment network that is likely to serve it well when elections are held. More than anything, it has its own aspirations.
A Congress Party victory would immediately imperil the pro-Western criterion the American administration is positing as a condition for removing the country from the list of states that support terror. And the $12 billion aid package promised by Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates won’t suffice.
The Gulf allies see the army as a barrier both to Iranian influence in the region and to the increasing strength of fundamentalist Islam. They already hastened to grant the military government financial aid totaling $ 3 billion and, prior to that, a grant of $2.2 billion for Sudan’s part in the war in Yemen. For them, as well as the Egyptians, the Muslim Brotherhood is a terror organization. They cannot be expected to support a government in which the Congress Party is a key partner, and would prefer the army and Burhan to retain control. Burhan was commander of the Sudanese forces in Yemen before he was appointed Inspector General of the army.
Benjamin Netanyahu likes to preen over his ability to form relationships with previously hostile Arab leaders. But boasting of normalization with Sudan is breaking the glass before lifting the veil. Formally, Sudan is still a state sponsor of terrorism, like Iran or North Korea. The lack of certainty concerning the country’s permanent leadership is liable to thrust Israel into the eye of a political storm, even if it manages to convince Washington to strike Sudan off the list.
Sudan looks like a state with potential for rehabilitation, joining a list of countries that, disengaged from Iran and supported by Saudi Arabia and the UAE, can afford to stop seeing Israel as an enemy. Its geographical location on the shore of the Red Sea affords it tremendous strategic importance, and its economic dependence on the West could ensure Israel’s interests. Hence, the delicate web of relations should be advanced with the utmost caution. Practical normalization with Sudan is a very valuable asset, which is liable to crash if it becomes an electioneering slogan.