The constant tumult in Sudan is keeping the international community on its toes. After months of protesting and violence, the military overthrew President Omar al-Bashir in April of this year and established a transitional military council. The TMC declared there would be a two-year transitional period after which the state would hold elections. Pro-democracy protests continued as demonstrators called for a civilian-led transitional body, citing that the TMC was no better than the previous regime they had fought to remove. On June 3, the TMC massacred hundreds of protestors and instituted an internet black out worse than any during al-Bashir’s rule. After another mass protest on June 30, the TMC and the civilian opposition began negotiating with the help of envoys from Ethiopia and the African Union. These negotiations led to an agreement on a joint sovereign council comprised of eleven members: five military, five civilian, and an unknown eleventh member. This council would govern for three years while organizing elections. The military will rule for the first 21 months, and the civilian government will assume control for the next 18 months. On Thursday, Sudan was rocked by another military coup, an attempt that was shortly foiled by security forces. Skeptics say the coup was fabricated by the military in order to pressure the civilian opposition group into signing the deal. This constant political flux works in the military’s favor, leaving civilians at a disadvantage at the negotiating table.
The civilian group negotiating with the military is the Alliance for Freedom and Change, which is comprised of smaller opposition parties and civil groups. There is nothing to unite them beyond the demand for a civilian government, so it is unknown how the AFC will function once in power. One part of the agreement is that a legislative body will be assembled in three months. This allows the military to run the government, unchecked by a legislature, for the first three months of this transition. It is likely that the military will use this time to exploit the AFC and take measures to protect themselves. They could do so fairly easily because the AFC does not have a united ideology and will therefore struggle to maintain a cohesive strategy in forming a civilian led governing system. The lack of a legislature would give the military license to make laws that would preserve their power and set the precedent for how the civilian-led council will govern. To combat this, the AFC will need to continue protests to maintain pressure on the military.
The agreement reached is still vague on the details of how the transition will play out. It is unclear if the eleventh member of the new transitional council will be a civilian or a member of the military. It is also unclear how the new legislature will be elected and what the details are on a new constitution. This uncertainty is leaving Sudan open to interference from regional powers. There are two groups that have been vying for influence in Sudan for the last few decades: Saudi Arabia and the UAE; and, Qatar and Iran. In the 1990s, Sudan became an increasingly more Islamist state, even housing Islamic extremist Osama bin Laden. This created a strong bond with Iran, a state interested in promoting Islamist rule and Islamic law. However, due to the religious differences between Shia-majority Iran and Sunni-majority Sudan, their relationship soured, and Sudan turned to Saudi Arabia. Sudan has supported the Saudi war effort in Yemen by providing troops, significantly strengthening diplomatic ties between the countries. Because of this relationship, the Saudi-UAE alliance has been backing Sudan’s military, and weeks after al-Bashir’s ouster, both Gulf nations jointly offered $3 billion in aid. $500 million of that has already been deposited into Sudan’s central bank (Durmaz. 2019). Conversely, Qatar has been one of the largest Arab investors in Sudan, and therefore is seeking control of the developing situation in Sudan (“Qatari-Sudanese ties”). Because of the ongoing conflict between the Qatar and the Saudi-UAE alliance, Sudan has been playing the Gulf states against each other of the last few years to get financial aid from both sides. This presents a dilemma now that Sudan is unstable. These four countries now have an opportunity to shape the government in Sudan, and with their support for a military led council, the AFC is at a major disadvantage.
These developments in Sudan could have a significant impact on U.S. foreign policy. The U.S. State Department designated Sudan as a State Sponsor of Terrorism in 1993. This designation led to increased sanctions and increased restriction on U.S. foreign aid (“State Sponsors”). This action by the U.S. State Department was largely due to former President al-Bashir’s decision to provide asylum to Osama bin Laden. With al-Bashir gone, there is the possibility of Sudan being removed from the SST list, which would allow for sanctions to be lifted, increased U.S. aid, and an increase in U.S. business investments. Removal from the list would help the Sudanese economy; however, the U.S. will not remove Sudan from the list until the military no longer holds power and there is a “significant change in the country’s leadership and policies” (Wroughton. 2019). The Sudanese economy will be significantly affected by the deal made between the military and AFC, and more importantly, by how the deal is implemented.
If the AFC does not find a way to unite on an ideological basis, they risk losing all the ground they have gained over the past eight months. Protestors need to continue to pressure the military, so that the military does not further exploit the AFC or undermine negotiations. Sudan is in a precarious position, and with many foreign powers competing for its allegiance, it needs to continue internal negotiations to reach a deal that will create stability leading to a democratic Sudan.
Durmaz, Mücahid. “Are Gulf monarchies trying to hijack the Sudan uprising?” TRTWorld. May 2019. https://www.trtworld.com/middle-east/are-gulf-monarchies-trying-to-hijack-the-sudan-uprising-27066
“Qatari-Sudanese ties – years of co-operation and excellence” Gulf Times. October 2017. https://www.gulf-times.com/story/568527/Qatari-Sudanese-ties-years-of-co-operation-and-exc
“State Sponsors of Terrorism.” U.S. Department of State. https://www.state.gov/state-sponsors-of-terrorism/
Wroughton, Lesley. “Washington will not remove Sudan from terror list while military rules: U.S. official.” Reuters. April 2019. https://www.reuters.com/article/us-usa-sudan/washington-will-not-remove-sudan-from-terror-list-while-military-rules-u-s-official-idUSKCN1RS1SU