Democracy or military rule? You can just imagine the teeth-gritting and nail-biting by analysts and intelligence heads in Washington, Moscow, China, Saudi Arabia, Egypt and Israel since the start of the week. They’re all quite familiar with the Sudanese military elite. Many, apparently including Mossad head Yossi Cohen, have met with General Salah Gosh, head of Sudanese intelligence, and also with Defense Minister Awad Ibn Aouf. Some of them have also clocked some time with President Omar al-Bashir, who has been forced to step down after three decades of dictatorship and placed under arrest by the man who was named defense minister.
Bashir and the military and intelligence elites were a strong foundation through which these countries managed their security interests in eastern Africa. U.S. ties with Khartoum were like a roller coaster. The military coup Bashir engineered in 1989 against the democratically elected President Sadiq al-Mahdi was correctly regarded as the start of a threatening era. An Islamist alliance that Bashir and his officers forged with the head of the National Islamic Front and Muslim Brotherhood figure Hassan Torabi linked Sudan with Osama Bin Laden, who lived in Sudan from 1990 to 1996 until he was expelled under U.S. pressure.
Religious law became the basis for the country’s constitution, and local councils throughout Sudan sent representatives to the parliament, more or less along the lines of the model built by the Libyan leader Muammar Gadhafi. The West feared Sudan was becoming a second Iran, and sanctions weren’t far behind.
Most of the sanctions were lifted two years ago and afterwards the CIA hastened to open one of its largest bases in the region in Khartoum. Sudan disengaged from Iran and joined the Arab coalition in Saudi Arabia’s war in Yemen, which enriched its state coffers by some $2.2 billion sent by the Saudis and the United Arab Emirates, drawing Sudan closer to pro-Western Arab bloc states.
Thousands of Sudanese soldiers were sent to the battlefields of Yemen. Bashir, against whom the World Court in The Hague issued a criminal arrest warrant in 2009 for war crimes in Darfur, began to leave his palace to travel to Arab and Muslim countries.
In December Bashir was the first Arab leader to visit Damascus, marking the beginning of a crack in an Arab League boycott against Bashar al-Assad. Russia had pushed Bashir to Damascus in exchange for some political and economic aid, with the aim of rebuilding Assad’s legitimacy in the Arab world. Afterwards senior figures from the UAE and Bahrain visited Syria as well.
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Egypt treated Bashir with suspicion. The Sudanese leader had backed Ethiopia on the question of dividing the Nile’s waters and accused Egypt of stealing Sudan’s portion, turning the three-way struggle in Khalib by the Egypt-Sudanese border into a constant source of confrontation. Egyptian President Abdel-Fattah al-Sissi, who has waged all-out war against the Muslim Brotherhood since rising to power in 2013, has an ideological conflict with Bashir, whose base is the Muslim Brotherhood. Egypt claims he gave shelter to movement activists who fled Egypt. Despite these differences, the Saudi-Egypt alliance required Egypt to regard Bashir as an ally.
Sissi told French President Emmanuel Macron when they met at the beginning of the year that if Bashir were to be removed from power, “Sudan would turn into another failed state.” Sissi, like the Saudi leadership, sees every civil protest as a threat to the country’s stability, such as the chaos that ensued after the Arab Spring erupted in his country. But at the weekend Sissi issued a new declaration – that he supports the desires and rights of the Sudanese people to decide their fate without outside intervention. It’s interesting what he would think if the “people” gave its support to the Islamist Congress.
Israel is a secondary actor in the Sudanese arena. According to foreign sources, alongside its attacks on weapons convoys that moved from Iran to Gaza via Sudan, Israel has also had close relations with Sudanese opposition groups as well as with Bashir’s regime to help with the immigration of Ethiopian Jews to Israel. In the past, it was reported that an Israeli representative had maintained contacts with Bashir’s regime to examine the possibility of forging ties with Israel. In response to that report a Sudanese government spokesman told the Russian website Sputnik that there was no room for normalization with Israel.
“Israel has 38 groups active in Darfur and Mohammed Nur, the leader of the Front for the Liberation of Sudan, has visited Israel several times,” the spokesman, Ibrahim al-Sadiq, said. He claimed that it was Israel which created the “Darfur problem.” Sudanese researchers have published articles in favor of a rapprochement with Israel due to economic interests and Sudan’s need to break out of its international isolation. A recent report on Middle East Eye said that Mossad chief Cohen had met in Munich with the head of Sudanese intelligence, General Gosh, to discuss options for regime change in Sudan.
This web of international interests is being badly shaken by the military and political uncertainly now in Sudan. This week it became clear there’s no great harmony among the officers who removed and arrested Bashir. At first the defense minister, Aouf, named himself head of the military council that’s supposed to handle the state for the next two years. Gosh, commander of Sudanese police and Gen. Hamdan Daklau, head of the swift intervention forces, were supposed to rule alongside Aouf.
But the protest movements immediately renewed their demonstrations, and millions came out to demand the army’s removal from power in favor of a civilian government that would put together a constitution. Aouf decided to resign and he was replaced by General Abdel-Fattah al-Burhan, the army’s ombudsman.
But that appointment hasn’t calmed the protests either. At the weekend some detailed demands were formulated, including those calling for establishing special courts to fight corruption and put Bashir on trial, amend the existing constitution and hold a dialogue with all population sectors, and finally presenting a plan to improve Sudan’s troubled economy, which was the primary impetus for the protests that erupted in December.
Controversy among members of the military council has also erupted. The army had prevented other security forces, including the police, from attacking protesters with live fire near the presidential palace and Defense Ministry, making the army appear for a moment as the “peoples’ friend,” before it became a target of the protest movement.
The ever-changing developments in Sudan leave but one constant which will have to be dealt with by whoever has the job of rebuilding the country: the severe economic crisis that touched off the protests, due to a decision to triple the price of bread, to limit daily bank withdrawals to $10 and raise the prices of other basics by tens of percent.
These problems haven’t disappeared with Bashir’s removal from power. The International Monetary Fund expects a minimum 50 percent rise in prices and estimates the state’s deficit at over $51 billion, which is 88 percent of Sudan’s GDP. Inflation has reached about 70 percent and unemployment figures are estimated at tens of percent. Sudan lost three quarters of its oil fields to South Sudan when it became independent in 2011, and is trying to get loans and grants.
Desperate calls have been made to neighboring countries, but the response has been weak. Saudi Arabia and the UAE, which cultivated Bashir’s regime, are in waiting mode to see who takes control of the country. Qatar, which has helped Yemen, stopped the aid after Sudan’s alliance with rival Saudi Arabia. The IMF can’t provide aid to Sudan because of U.S. sanctions. But even if these obstacles are removed the fund’s tough terms for loans to needy countries, such as requiring a democratic regime and respect for human rights, alongside economic reform, may worsen the civil revolt.
In this desperate situation, Sudan could abandon its allies and turn again to Iran for help. There’s no guarantee that Iran, itself in an economic crisis, would agree to aid Sudan, though this would provide it an opportunity to acquire another sphere of influence at a relatively cheap price. But it’s a vicious cycle. Stabilizing a country controlled by the military means losing the chances of becoming a democracy, while anyone waiting for the democratic process to bear fruit is liable to lose the entire country.