The October 25 military coup in Sudan was led, surprisingly, by incumbent President Gen. Abdel Fattah al-Burhan, head of the civilian-military Sovereign Council formed to oversee the transition to democratic elections. Security forces placed civilian Prime Minister Abdalla Hamdok, Foreign Minister Mariam al-Mahdi and other top administration officials under house arrest, and the military spread throughout the capital Khartoum and encircled it with roadblocks. At least seven protesters were killed in the ensuing rioting, some 140 were injured and many others were arrested. Internet services were blocked. Burhan issued a series of proclamations, dissolving the government and the labor unions and establishing a new government of technocrats, announcing in an address to the nation that it would remain in power until elections in 2023.
Coups are hardly rare in Sudan. In fact, there have been no fewer than five successful coups since gaining independence in 1956. The power-sharing civilian-military government was formed in 2019 after the overthrow of dictator Omar al-Bashir who had ruled the country for 30 years. It was intended as a temporary compromise between senior military commanders and senior civilian leaders for a transition period until elections were to be held in 2022. This power-sharing structure was bound to hamper the running of the state, but the desire to extract Sudan from the deep economic and political crisis in which it was mired prompted the rival factions to cooperate, at least temporarily.
The joint government was not popular. The participation of the military was perceived by many as a continuation of Bashir’s rule, despite assurances by Burhan that his intention was to heal the economy and improve adherence to human rights. The civilian leadership under Hamdok was not popular, either, due to his communist past. His stated plans to promote political liberalization and combat religious oppression were met with skepticism. He also failed in his attempts to put an end to the tradition of Khitan – female genital mutilation – and to extradite Bashir to the International Court of Justice in the Hague to stand trial for crimes against humanity (especially the genocide in Darfur by the Janjaweed militias under his command).
Nonetheless, the government partnership succeeded in improving ties with Sudan’s neighbors, chief among them Egypt and South Sudan. In an unusual step, South Sudan President Salva Kiir was asked to mediate between the government in Khartoum and rebel groups in Darfur, whom he convinced to join the government (under the “Juba Agreement”). In the international arena, the government committed to fight terrorism and did indeed act on its promise, for example, expelling Hamas activists from Sudan some two weeks ago.
The US and Western Europe embraced this double-headed government, realizing that domestic stability in Sudan was an important aspect of regional stability. The Trump administration took the opportunity to clarify that the road to the West goes through Israel, too. But the road to Washington also crossed Tel Aviv because the Sudanese government sought the country’s removal from the list of states sponsoring terrorism in order to achieve international rehabilitation and qualify for loans and investments. To that end it needed the support of Israel and of the Jewish lobby in Washington. The initial change actually began under Bashir, who put out feelers to determine whether a trilateral Sudanese-American-Israeli deal was feasible.
But real progress was only achieved in February 2020 with the meeting in Uganda between Burhan and then-prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu. An Israeli statement after that meeting said a decision had been made on “cooperation leading to normalization between the two states.”
Hamdok, it should be noted, was initially not enthusiastic about rapprochement with Israel, but various exigencies convinced him to go along with the line adopted by the military. And, indeed, on October 23, 2020, following the signing of Israel’s normalization agreements with the UAE and Bahrain, Sudan also joined the Abraham Accords. In return, the US provided Sudan with a $1.2 billion loan and, as promised, removed it from the list of states sponsoring terrorism.
The coup in Sudan could potentially deteriorate into further violence, inter alia because of its complex ethnic mosaic and tribal-affiliated social structure. Thus, for example, the Beja tribe in the east of the country could carry out its threat to secede from Sudan and thereby cut off the vital seaport of Port Sudan from the capital. Several groups of Darfur rebels, who were brought into the government at great pains, could also carry out their threat to form camps for its people in the Khartoum area. And, of course, the struggle between the military and civilians could deteriorate into all-out civil war. What is more, Qatar and Turkey were quick to jump into this seething cauldron in a bid to bolster their standing in Africa (Turkey, for example, has already established a significant bridgehead in Libya).
President Biden was quick to cut off $700 million in aid to Sudan and advised Israel to freeze the normalization process, for now. The new US envoy to Sudan, Jeffrey Feltman, who coincidentally was in Khartoum a day before the coup, will be forced to go back there and see how the fire can be doused.
And what about the agreement between Israel and Sudan? Progress toward normalization, it would seem, will have to await more auspicious timing. The signing agreement planned for next month in Washington will be postponed. Nonetheless, given the military’s support of the agreement with Israel to begin with, the coup is unlikely to affect change. Any government that is formed in Sudan will have to confront economic difficulties, a challenge invariably linked to continued US aid and, indirectly, to continued ties with Israel. Sudan is at a crossroads. Hopefully it will take the most straightforward road.
The Article was published on The Jerusalem Post, 3 November 2021