Sudan’s post-revolution ministerial delegation arrived in the United States in late 2019 amid notable strides recently undertaken by the transitional government. The Sovereign Council, assembled in the aftermath of Omar al-Bashir’s ouster, announced in November 2019 that the ruling party of the former president, the National Congress Party, would be outlawed and its assets subject to seizure. Additionally, the council repealed the controversial Public Order Law, which disproportionately impacted women and applied strict codes regarding clothing, public engagement, and social interactions. While such developments are notable as the sovereign council works through its transition to civilian governance, destabilizing influences persist that threaten to derail Sudan’s democratization efforts. Prior to the constitutional declaration of August 2019, regional actors aligned themselves with Sudan’s ruling Transitional Military Council (TMC), some of whose members remain on the Sovereign Council, to promote their respective national interests. Most of these engagements ultimately proved destabilizing for the country in transition, and questions persist about the direction of Sudan in light of the various international influences.
Bashir’s Balancing Act
During his presidency, Bashir was able to maintain international relations despite his outstanding arrest warrant from the International Criminal Court and the United States listing of Sudan as a state sponsor of terrorism. Bashir’s adept engagement included regional powers such as Qatar and Saudi Arabia, as well as states with strained relations within the international community such as North Korea, China, and Russia. Bashir also demonstrated an ability to obtain funding and maintain diplomatic relations with other Middle Eastern countries despite regional relations deteriorating, specifically regarding the Saudi, Emirati, Egyptian, and Bahraini blockade of Qatar. At a time when the region was seemingly divided between the two sides, Bashir maintained relations with the two opposing factions, on one hand by primarily joining the war against Houthi rebels in Yemen to support the Saudis and Emiratis, and on the other by signing agreements with Qatar and Turkey for coastal ports along the Red Sea and boosting tourism by securing three daily Qatar Airways flights to Khartoum from Qatar. Yet as protests intensified against Bashir in early 2019, his allies turned their attention to future leadership within Sudan and limited their support for him. In January 2019, Bashir traveled to Qatar, who had previously supplied him with funding, to secure financial support to curb economic problems plaguing the country, but Qatari officials instead offered him asylum. After the military coup and during his subsequent corruption trial, Bashir acknowledged that he received $90 million from Saudi Arabia during his time in office, including $25 million from Saudi Crown Prince Muhammad bin Salman.
Emirati and Saudi Engagement with Sudan
The United Arab Emirates (UAE) and Saudi Arabia have been two of the most visibly involved countries in the Sudanese revolution. A Reuters report from July 2019 indicated that Sudanese officials who overthrew Bashir collaborated with the UAE and received its support to conduct the coup. Similarly, TMC officials traveled to the UAE and Saudi Arabia in late May 2019, where it is believed that officials from the two countries gave their blessings for Sudanese authorities to conduct the violent dispersal on June 3 that left over 100 demonstrators dead. Shortly after the TMC assumed control of the government, Saudi Arabia and the UAE pledged $3 billion to Sudan in the form of medical supplies, food, petroleum products, and $500 million deposited in the Central Bank of Sudan. This support has been transactional in nature, as Sudan has supported the Emirati and Saudi campaign in Yemen with over 30,000 security personnel, according to TMC officials. Additionally, the TMC essentially severed ties with Qatar in April 2019 by denying the Qatari Minister of Foreign Affairs entry to Sudan after the coup, and construction for the Qatari and Turkish ports along the Red Sea has reportedly slowed since the coup with TMC officials noting that any Turkish military presence in Sudan would complicate Sudan’s relationship with the Saudis; these decisions have only strengthened ties between Sudan’s military rulers and the Emirati-Saudi bloc. While Saudi and the UAE reportedly have differed recently in terms of regional foreign policy outlook, any future involvement in Sudan’s transition to civilian rule would prove destabilizing based on their recent endeavors. Both countries have attempted to situate themselves as the perennial power and diplomatic authority in the region, and their efforts have come at the expense of the Sudanese protesters who have rejected Emirati and Saudi intervention. Meanwhile, ruling military officials in Sudan have acquiesced themselves to Emirati and Saudi influence, and these officials will continue to rely on their support to maintain authority over the course of Sudan’s three-year transitional period.
While Egypt has not provided the same extent of material resources to Sudan’s transition, Egyptian and Sudanese authorities have met on multiple occasions since Bashir’s ouster to discuss the transitional process. Egyptian officials, led by President Abdel-Fattah El Sisi, have emphasized the need for stability in Sudan and have called for peace between all parties. Yet Egyptian authorities are also believed to have tacitly supported the June 3 dispersal, as TMC officials visited Egypt on their regional tour in late May. Egypt, possessing the chairmanship position of the African Union under Sisi, has utilized the African Union to diminish international pressure against Sudan to form a civilian government. In addition to supporting the Emirati and Saudi bloc, Egypt’s involvement in the Sudanese revolution has been economically-driven. In 2011, Ethiopia began construction of the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam (GERD), a 6,500 megawatt dam along the Blue Nile River in Ethiopia. Egypt, a water-scarce country, has alleged that the dam will have disastrous effects for Egypt’s economy, which has created tension between the two countries. Sudan, a party to preexisting treaties with Egypt over water-sharing of the Nile, has supported Ethiopia in its endeavor to build the dam, complicating its relations with Egypt. In light of the new regime, Egypt has extended diplomatic support to the country and its military officials to convince Sudan to soften its position on the dam and be more amenable to Egypt’s concerns.
Ethiopia, neighboring Sudan in the Horn of Africa, proved to be an invaluable negotiator between the TMC and civilian leaders. Ethiopia recommended the formation of a transitional council, consisting of both military and civilian officials, which was ultimately adopted in the constitutional agreement signed in August 2019. Following the June 3 dispersal, Ethiopian mediators led negotiations between the two parties, seeking an end to the violence and a formal transition to civilian governance. Ethiopia’s interest in Sudan’s transition has been twofold. As a country historically engulfed by ethnic divisions, which have been exacerbated in recent months, reducing regional conflict is of the utmost importance to Ethiopia. Additionally, Ethiopia hopes to maintain Sudan’s support in its negotiations with Egypt over the GERD. Construction on the dam has stalled over the past year under new Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed due to internal divisions between Ahmed and military contractors associated with the project among other logistical concerns. Negotiations between Egypt, Ethiopia, and Sudan resumed in September, though it appears Sudan remained relatively neutral in the discussions, as Egyptian and Ethiopian officials described the negotiations as “deadlocked” and blamed each other for failing to achieve a resolution to the crisis.
Future Engagement for a Civilian-Led Sudan
Egypt, Saudi Arabia, and the UAE all proved to be destabilizing partners during the early stages of the Sudanese Revolution, as their officials reportedly green lit the June 3 massacre. Though Ethiopia’s economic interests in collaborating with Sudan are undeniable, Ethiopia proved to be arguably the most genuine actor in the transition to promote a democratic future for Sudan. Military officials in the government will continue to foster support from the Arab bloc, but civilian officials must work to quell these influences. For Sudan to successfully transition into a democratic country, civilian officials in Sudan must be cognizant of and counteract these external forces by strengthening their domestic institutions to avoid future reliance on destabilizing international influences.
At a time when the region has experienced significant political upheaval, policymakers in the U.S. and European Union must work to ensure that continued injustices against the Sudanese people do not persist and that appropriate transitional justice measures are undertaken prior to any possible removal of Sudan from the state sponsor of terrorism list.
Regarding transitional justice mechanisms, Sudan’s transitional government has already formed a commission to investigate the June 3 massacre, and the transitional government signed a memo of understanding with the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) to open an office in Khartoum. However, the investigatory commission includes members of the security apparatus in Sudan, raising questions about the entity’s legitimacy to impartially report on the massacre. The European Union has, in part, contributed to the rights violations in Sudan by providing financial support to the Sudanese government to curb migration. The Sudanese military, along with their support from regional actors, have demonstrated a willingness to utilize violence against Sudanese civilians, thus destabilizing the country, which Western countries must no longer allow to occur.
To prevent the further destabilization of Sudan under military rule, Western countries ought to promote civilian-led governance and support Sudan’s transitional justice mechanisms. Independent investigations led by Sudanese citizens, without influence from the military junta, must occur to ensure that all individuals complicit in recent violence as well as the years of corruption under Bashir are held accountable. As Sudanese protesters have demonstrated antipathy towards other Arab countries for conspiring with the military junta, promoting civilian governance represents an opportunity for Western countries to rebuild their severed relations with Sudanese citizens, which could lead to future economic cooperation should Sudan be removed from the state sponsor of terrorism list. By promoting the calls of civilians to hold military officials accountable for their crimes, U.S. and European Union policymakers will gain leverage over regional actors seeking to destabilize Sudan for ulterior benefits.