Why Sudanese are wary of outside influence as they press for civilian rule

Sudanese protesters camped outside military headquarters in Khartoum are aware of the dangers of outside interference in their revolution.
Sunday 19/05/2019
A Qatar airways plane prepares to land at Khartoum International Airport, March 31. (AFP)
Wariness. A Qatar airways plane prepares to land at Khartoum International Airport, March 31. (AFP)

Competition between rival Middle Eastern powers for influence over Sudan following the overthrow of its Islamist regime could frustrate efforts to return the country to civilian rule.

A tug of war between a Saudi-led coalition, including the United Arab Emirates and Egypt, and a Turkish-Qatari faction has been evident for years, with recently deposed Sudanese President Omar al-Bashir having been content to leave his options open, engaging with both to serve his interests: essentially the receipt of funds to keep the Sudanese economy afloat.

Although they might say otherwise, both alliances are more interested in promoting their interests than in a democratic transition in Sudan. In fact, they could put a brake on, if not scupper, attempts by the Transitional Military Council, a temporary body governing the country, to negotiate with Sudanese opposition leaders a path towards civilian rule.

For the Turkish-Qatari faction, the overthrow of al-Bashir, who rose to power in an Islamist-backed coup, is a blow to its promotion of political Islam across the Middle East. It raises questions over the substantial investments it has made in the strategically important Red Sea island of Suakin, which Qatar and Turkey agreed to redevelop with a dock facility for civilian and military vessels envisaged.

An Ottoman Empire-era naval base, Suakin is reportedly a key part of Turkey’s plans to project power in the region. It already has bases in Qatar and Somalia.

The Saudis and their allies are backing the military council for three reasons: a desire to keep a lid on the Islamists whom they have sought to thwart elsewhere in the region, notably in Egypt; concern that the “people power” that led to al-Bashir’s toppling on April 11 could morph into “Arab spring”-like protests; and the need to ensure that Sudan continues to send troops to fight Houthi rebels in Yemen.

After al-Bashir’s fall, the Saudis and Emiratis were quick to declare support for the military council. They granted $3 billion of assistance, including an immediate $500 million to stabilise the flagging currency and the rest in the form of food, medicine and petroleum products.

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan said a “democratically elected” al-Bashir had been overthrown and some Turkish media suggested that the coup had been orchestrated by Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates and Egypt to sabotage relations between Turkey and Sudan.

For Sudan’s nascent democratic movement, the continued influence of the rival Middle Eastern powers may threaten its goal of civilian government free of Islamist and army influence.

Negotiations between the military council and leaders of the Sudanese revolution, the Declaration of Freedom and Change Forces (DFCF), an opposition umbrella group, have been making progress but questions have been raised about the coup leaders’ willingness to cede power.

The military said it agreed with the DFCF on a 3-year transition to a civilian government, with an interim legislative council dominated by the opposition alliance. The two sides have still to agree on the composition of a temporary overarching authority, the sovereign council, which would rule the country until elections. Both the military and the DFCF want majorities on the latter body. Tensions over the pace of negotiations may have sparked clashes between soldiers and opposition supporters, which led to a suspension of talks.

Backing from Saudi Arabia and its allies may prompt the military council, whose leader, Abdel Fattah al-Burhan, and his deputy, Mohamed Hamdan Daglo, have links with Riyadh to prolong the transition process. Indeed, Egypt seemingly exerted its influence in the African Union to significantly extend the 2-week deadline the body had set for the army to hand over power to a civilian authority.

While the Saudi-led coalition seems to have the upper hand in the tug of war with Qatar and Turkey over Sudan, the latter alliance is unlikely to give up trying to influence events, although for the moment its leverage is limited. Islamist followers are being harassed and those in authority are under scrutiny — three Islamists on the military council resigned under pressure from the opposition.

Some have suggested that an Islamist-dominated “deep state,” which evolved over the 30 years of al-Bashir’s dictatorship, could prove to be a serious obstacle to change in the country. None of al-Bashir’s network of covert armed units has been demobilised though a few seem to be under central military control, Africa Confidential reporting suggested.

There had been speculation that the reason the Saudi-led alliance was so quick to lend its support after the coup was because it feared a power grab by Islamists and their backers.

Sudanese protesters camped outside military headquarters in Khartoum are aware of the dangers of outside interference in their revolution, especially considering Saudi and Emirati support to the military council. Their resentment of outside interference may be expressed more vocally in the future if the opposition suspects that the transitional process is being hijacked.