Arab states’ interests fuelling generals’ thirst for power in Khartoum

Sunday October 31 2021
Gen Abdel Fattah Abdelrahman al-Burhan

Chairman of the Sovereignty Council Gen Abdel Fattah Abdelrahman al-Burhan (second right) visits army corps after the Sudanese army foiled a coup in September. PHOTO | FILE


The Sudan coup leaders have shrugged off global pressure even as protesters dig in for confrontations to push for the reinstatement of a civilian administration in Khartoum.

The generals, who engineered a coup to replace the transitional government of Prime Minister Abdalla Hamdok, seem to be savouring the benefits of divisions within the influencers in the international community, including the United Nations, on decisive actions to restore order in the country.

They are further emboldened by the shadow of Egypt and the Gulf monarchies as the US and Bretton Woods institutions mull freezing aid.

As the world scrambled to save what had been a promising but shaky transition to civilian rule and years of isolation, on October 25, Lt-Gen Abdel Fattah al-Burhan, the leader of the Transitional Sovereign Council, ordered his troops to raid residences of civilian government officials, including Prime Minister Hamdok. The leaders were detained, but Dr Hamdok was later freed on October 27.

Observers say this has been long coming and the military was only waiting for an opportunity to strike. Some argue that Sudan’s influential military profited from the African Union’s lukewarm response to the chaos afflicting the transition.

Murithi Mutiga, the Horn of Africa Project Director at the International Crisis Group (ICG), told The EastAfrican that the coup was a reflection of the strengths and weaknesses of the continental body.


“The AU succeeded in pegging back the military in June 2019 following the crushing of protesters. They were successful when they stepped in,” he said. “It led to the formation of a coalition Cabinet of the military and civilians. But they needed to be more engaged. They weren’t.”

Before the coup on Monday, Sudan had twice experienced coup attempts, according to al-Burhan himself, all blamed on followers of ousted leader Omar al-Bashir. But neither the AU nor the UN Security Council seems to have paid closer attention. As the transitional government appeared to teeter on the brink of collapse, US Special Envoy for the Horn of Africa Jeffrey Feltman flew to Khartoum to speak with both sides, and urged national dialogue. The coup happened just hours after he departed.

It is clear that the current leaders of the military had a common goal with Bashir’s: To remain in power or influential in crucial sectors.

“The military's motive was to ensure it remains influential, especially in economic matters. Sudan's economy is skewed and that favours them, and Dr Hamdok's reforms threatened the military’s influence on the economy,” Mr Mutiga said, referring to a series of Western-backed reforms, including changing the formation of security forces, regulating the exchange rate and fighting corruption.

“These IMF-type reforms caused pain to the public. The military even organised a blockade in eastern Sudan, through which it imports most of its goods from overseas,” Mr Mutiga added.

This has been a bumper year for coups. Army men in Mali, Guinea and Chad all carried out putsches and toppled sitting governments.

And then Tunisia and Sudan. In the former, a slow-motion coup has unfurled since late July, when President Kais Saied fired the prime minister, dissolved parliament amid widespread popular unrest and assumed extraordinary powers. A decade after a Tunisian uprising unseated a long-ruling dictator, the country finds itself in a kind of autocratic limbo, with obituaries already being written for what was the lone success story of the Arab Spring.

In Sudan, roiling tensions over the past month between a fragile civilian leadership and the powerful military exploded in the beginning of this week. Not unlike Saied and previous generations of would-be strongmen, Lt-Gen Burhan framed his move as a push toward stability and progress.

In a briefing Tuesday, Burhan waved away reports of arrests of numerous civilian officials and attacks on pro-democracy activists by the security forces.

"Certain individuals have been put in custody— those individuals believed to undermine national unity and national security," he said. "We are not muzzling mouths; we are blocking any voice [that] directly undermines our national harmony."

The military's intervention, for now, interrupts a shaky democratic process that began almost three years ago with massive protests against long-ruling dictator Omar Hassan al-Bashir. The protest movement, which represented a vast cross-section of Sudanese society, managed to unseat Bashir in April 2019 after key figures in Sudan's security establishment turned on the president. In the fitful months thereafter, Sudan came out from the diplomatic cold, mending fences with certain Western governments and winning its removal from the United States' state sponsors of terrorism list.

But those gains were always fragile.

"Sudan's military and civilian leaders had been sharing power in a shaky arrangement weakened by mutual suspicion and disagreements on fundamental questions such as who to hold to account for decades of atrocities committed under Bashir and whether the military should be able to control parts of the economy," said journalist Max Bearak. "Players both old and new are vying for power in a Sudan that seems up for grabs."

Chain of events

A stung Biden administration condemned the chain of events and said it was freezing $700 million in direct assistance to Sudan, which was promised as part of a US plan to assist the country's democratic transition.

But Burhan, who has the tacit backing of a number of Arab states, is in a strong position. "Burhan could pull this off with the support of other allies, namely Egypt, the Saudis and the Emiratis," said Magdi el-Gizouli, a Sudanese analyst at the Rift Valley Institute. "He is not a pariah like Bashir, nor is he an Islamist. He will find a new, more pliant civilian face, he will maintain formalities, and the West will simply end up dealing with that person."

That trio — Egypt, Saudi Arabia and the UAE — also cheered Saied's gambit. Among other factions, the Tunisian president was at odds with the Islamist Ennahda party, whose historic affiliation to the Muslim Brotherhood has earned it the enmity of the inveterate anti-Islamists in power in Cairo and Abu Dhabi.

As Saied's transitional government struggles to secure a loan from the International Monetary Fund to make up for a major budget deficit, reports suggest that he is already in talks with the petro-rich Emiratis and Saudis for a bailout.

In 2013, the two Gulf monarchies played a pivotal role in helping shore up the regime of Egypt's President Abdel-Fattah Sisi. And they also may try to buttress Burhan in Sudan, which, like Tunisia, has at times become the arena for a broader regional "Great Game" pitting Egypt, Saudi Arabia and the UAE against on-and-off geopolitical adversaries Qatar and Turkey. Those dynamics were most acutely on show in Tunisia's neighbour, Libya, with the two camps backing rival warring factions amid tensions that spilled over into Tunisia's domestic politics.

Analysts suggest that Gulf royal largesse already strengthened Sudan's military in its manoeuvrings after Bashir's fall. "Financial support from Saudi Arabia and the UAE gave the generals crucial leeway to resist popular demands for civilian rule, shaping a lopsided balance of power that allowed the generals to navigate a period of mass mobilisation," wrote Sudan scholar Jean-Baptiste Gallopin. "The Emirates' covert financial flows subsequently earned them unparalleled leverage across large segments the political spectrum, which helped the generals . . . Consolidate their power."

Now, experts argue any hope for restoring Sudan's democratic prospects may require exerting pressure on these Arab powers.

"The Gulf monarchies and Egypt, which of all outside powers have forged the tightest links with Burhan and the military, should urge authorities to exercise restraint rather than resort to indiscriminate force," noted a policy memo from the International Crisis Group. "The US and EU should use the considerable leverage they have with Gulf capitals and Cairo to convince them to push the generals in Khartoum to change course." "The regional Arab governments and Sudanese politicians who support the new military rule will be unmasked in the coming weeks, and as they are, Washington and other parties need to make clear that there are consequences for supporting a rogue regime," noted Alberto Fernandez, a former US chief of mission in Sudan. "Initial public comments from Cairo, Doha, Abu Dhabi, and Riyadh have been muted. But all of these states will need to balance between their individual agendas for Sudan and their complicated relations with the West."

Military takeover

As the World Bank and the US announced suspending aid to Khartoum, the IMF said it was monitoring the situation. The AU labelled the situation a “military takeover” which they condemned and suspended Sudan. The UN Security Council, after days of dilly-dallying, issued a statement, expressing “serious concern” about the military “takeover” in Sudan and demanded urgent reconstitution of a civilian-led government. “The members of the UN Security Council called on Sudan’s military authorities to restore civilian-led transitional government on the basis of the Constitutional Document and other foundational documents of transition,” said a statement issued by Kenya, the October President of the Council.

“They urged stakeholders to engage in dialogue without preconditions in order to enable full implementation of the Constitutional Document as well as the Juba Peace Agreement, which underpin Sudan’s democratic transition.”

But Sudan, The EastAfrican has learnt, has also seen support within the AU. At a meeting of the African Union Peace and Security Council (AUPSC), an intense debate raged on about whether to condemn the coup or just call for the release of detained officials and urge peace. The continental body’s 15-member conflict and crisis response organ was divided, with countries with recent military leaderships reluctant to attack al-Burhan. The AUPSC comprises Egypt, Chad, Algeria, Burundi, Cameroon, Malawi, Senegal, Nigeria, Kenya and Lesotho, among others.

“There’s a big divide between governments that have been brought in by military coups and those that have been brought in by democratic free and fair elections,” said Macharia Kamau, Kenya’s Foreign Affairs Principal Secretary. “That divide is playing out all over Africa. It is for us to understand which side we stand on. The more we sanction and legitimise coups, the more we should expect to be out-negotiated in many of these continental decisions and organisations.”

The AU has a clear policy on unconstitutional changes of government, which includes coups, and is supposed to reject them outright and suspend the culprits. Sometimes though, it falls short, as was the case in Zimbabwe and Chad.

The AU organ somewhat succeeded to put strong language in its statement. The UNSC is supposed to take cue from the local blocs, in a principle known as subsidiarity. Yet, having voiced its condemnation on Wednesday after two days of negotiations, the AU’s stance was met with another round of intense debate at the UN Security Council.

“The inability of the Security Council to make a statement (which was finally made four days later) is an indication that the way the Security Council and the African Union Peace and Security Council work together could be made better and stronger,” Dr Martin Kimani, Kenya’s Permanent Representative to the UN, told the media at a state-out on Wednesday night, speaking as President of the UNSC.

“I hope that the UN Security Council could consider this step by the AU Peace and Security a challenge to step up.”

But, even as Sudan’s military received support from some quarters, debate is on whether the country can stabilise under a military leadership. Al-Burhan promised to reconstitute a new government “without politics” or infighting, suggesting it would place its finger on the pulse of every official it appoints now. That could mimic neighbouring Egypt, which once removed an elected president, for being sympathiser of the Muslim Brotherhood before the military head later legitimised his rule in an election back in 2014.

Armed groups

Unlike Egypt, though, which has a stronger and unified military, Sudan could face problems, especially from different armed groups who did not join the transitional government.

“You cannot stabilise Sudan through a coup. It is a complex society with no coherent military,” said ICG’s Mutiga. “The coup was a blunder, and the likely outcome is not stability but chaos. This is because people have tested the freedom and they will resist attempts to take it away.” Protesters who have continued to defy the state of emergency have vowed to organise a massive rallies in Khartoum. That could make or break the military’s control over the population. When the military ousted al-Bashir in April 2019, it had joined protesters only late in the day, having propped Bashir for months by crushing protesters. That marked their first move to safeguard power. They only allowed civilians in government after pressure from the AU and mediation from Ethiopia’s Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed.

On October 27, Burhan told the media in Khartoum that there would be a new government of experts and technocrats soon.

“We intend to safeguard all the gains including the peace agreements and the freedoms of the people,” he said.

The general, who also cut internet and telecom services, said the services had been “abused by people who wanted to cause trouble” and argued they will be restored as soon as the protests stop.

There were no guarantees on when the new government will be formed or whom it will comprise. Already, civilian groups who supported Hamdok have rejected the coup. And armed groups who had been negotiating for a peace deal also rejected it.