On February 3, 2020, in a remarkable, historic and audacious move, General Abdel-Fattah Burhan, head of Sudan’s Sovereignty Council, met with Israel’s then-Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in Uganda. It was the first-ever time that a Sudanese head of state publicly met with an Israeli official.
In October 2020, Sudan and Israel announced their intention to normalize relations in a video teleconference that also included then-U.S. President Donald Trump and Sudanese Prime Minister Abdalla Hamdok. Sudan joined the “Abraham Accords” in January the following year and after a few months repealed the anti-Israel boycott that had been in force since 1958.
Not surprisingly, the rapprochement between the two countries drew international attention and ignited a stormy debate in Sudan. Those opposing normalization were mainly ideological leaders, leaders of other small but vocal groups, and minority organizations. The vast majority of Sudan’s people did not express opposition to the diplomatic moves.
Reactions on social media clearly indicated that the Sudanese public favored normalization, or at least did not oppose it as long as it served Sudan’s interests. The official signing of the agreement was supposed to take place in Washington, D.C. in November 2021. A coup by the Sudanese military leadership on October 25 delayed this significant step.
Relations between the two countries have the potential of becoming productive, especially in areas related to technology, education, security, agriculture and agriculture-adjacent industries. Cooperation in the fight against international terrorism already existed and has even been increased, as Burhan declared in a televised interview about two months ago. Intelligence-sharing with Israel, he said, “enabled Sudan to arrest terrorist groups that could have threatened the security of Sudan and of the region.”
- Israeli Officials Reportedly Meet Sudan Ruler in Khartoum
- Israel Can Only Make Real Peace With a Democratic Sudan
- Israel's Man in Sudan Maneuvers Deftly Among the Powers Seeking Sway
Despite the progress that had been made, the coup against the civilian government once again sparked a debate about normalization, this time surrounding Israel’s view of the coup. Two weeks before the coup, a military delegation visited Israel; since the coup, the two sides have maintained contacts, including low-profile meetings.
This was perceived in Sudan as proof of Israel’s support for the military leaders, which will have a negative impact on the opinions of the public and pro-democracy forces in Sudan regarding normalization in the coming years.
For the sake of future relations, Israel must clarify its position regarding the undermining of Sudan’s transition to democracy by the military, with which Israel maintains close ties thanks to security cooperation, the main area of interest for both countries at the moment. It is what the United States and other democracies did immediately following the coup.
Progress in the war against terrorism is, of course, important and legitimate. It is impossible to blame a country that has adopted a security-driven foreign policy; Along with justice, ensuring security is the raison d’etre of the modern state. However, security must be understood and prioritized in a broad, strategic and comprehensive sense, and in a manner serving the interests of both countries. The present unconstitutional situation in Sudan is a threat to the stability and security of Sudan and the region.
Sudanese history demonstrates that it will not have stability unless it functions properly as a democracy. Its immense political, ethnic and cultural diversity cannot be managed in an autocratic system such as that established after the coup. Popular opposition to the army is strong and persistent, and there is no evidence that it will stop or be restrained. In fact, it will only become stronger and more organized – which will perpetuate the political and security instability in which terrorists operate and thrive.
In addition to non-violent resistance, there is an armed movement in the Nuba Mountains – the Sudan People’s Liberation Movement – and another in Jabal Marra in the Darfur region – the Sudan Liberation Movement – who refuse to join the transitional government because they do not believe the army facilitate real change in Sudan.
By using force to remain in power, the army’s leaders are conveying a message to these two movements (which themselves believe in the use of weapons) that military force is the only means of coming to power in Sudan. This logic of force will only lead to more instability in the country, which will spill over into its neighbors, as has happened in the past. The absence of democracy foments chaos, and the logic of force will create the ideal environment for enabling terrorism to take root in Sudan.
Before the military coup, one achievement of the civilian transitional government was to dismantle the mechanisms of the regime of former President Omar al-Bashir; this included the removal of his party faithful who were appointed to rule the country through the so-called empowerment policy or the delegation of authority. The current government has reappointed various members of al-Bashir’s regime, which means that the “old regime,” which posed a threat to regional and international stability, and specifically to Israel, is once again in power.
The institutions are once again being run by the old regime. Strategic thinking about security and instability requires the Israeli government to stand alongside the civilian, pro-democratic forces in Sudan. These are the forces that would establish a democratic Sudan and would not pose a threat to any country in the region.
The decision to take practical measures to promote normalization between Sudan and Israel was historic, and reflects basic changes that are taking place in Sudan, and in the region as a whole, in the direction of peace and stability in accordance with the vision of the Abraham Accords. Both countries have something to gain from good relations – in terms of the economy, technology, education and security cooperation. But the military coup and Israel’s unclear position are jeopardizing the public support that has been achieved to date.
If Israel is interested in continued normalization, and in security and civil stability, it must unequivocally support democracy. By doing so it will bring about a change in the perception of many Sudanese, who think that Israel is supporting the authoritarian military regime, or acquiescing to it. There is no place for this regime, in Sudan or anywhere else.
Nasredeen Abdulbari is the former justice minister of Sudan.