A vicious power struggle within Sudan’s military leadership has led to a nationwide civil conflict and a huge humanitarian problem. “The situation is spiraling out of control,” UN agencies declared on August 16.
Living conditions within Sudan have deteriorated to such an extent that, according to the UN, since April more than a million people have fled to neighboring countries. Chad, South Sudan, Egypt, and Ethiopia are only four of the adjacent states that have each accepted tens of thousands of refugees. The International Organization for Migration (IOM) said on August 16 that the fighting has also displaced more than 3.4 million people inside the country. There is an acute lack of food, fuel, water, medicine, and electricity.
Following weeks of tension, fighting broke out on April 15 between the Sudanese Armed Forces (SAF) and the paramilitary Rapid Support Forces (RSF). The direct trigger was an incident on April 12. On that day, the RSF dispatched 100 armed vehicles equipped with anti-aircraft guns and other weapons to Merowe Air Base in northern Sudan.
They claimed to have received “information that the Egyptian Air Force was sending fighter jets to the base to attack the RSF.” The result was a standoff with the SAF, the nation’s armed forces, in the city of Merowe, and on April 15 the two militias clashed in the capital, Khartoum.
Nothing is more bitter than the falling out of old comrades. The two protagonists in the power struggle are Army General Abdel Fattah al-Burhan, head of the SAF, and his deputy in the military command but also leader of the RSF, General Muhammad Hamdan Dagalo, commonly known as Hemedti. They were once close allies.
In April 2019, the democratic revolution in Sudan led to the collapse of the 30-year-long regime of Omar al-Bashir. In the transitional democratic government that followed, Burhan became head of the ruling Sovereignty Council, representing the military arm in the country’s civilian-military collaborative administration. He was powerful but, as he saw it, not powerful enough.
Burhan’s role, which was perfectly legitimate, was embedded in the power-sharing agreement of August 2019 between the military and the civilian element within Sudan, known as the Forces for Freedom and Change (FFC), a loose coalition of civilian groups. Under that agreement, the powers concerned pledged themselves to move the country in an orderly fashion toward democracy, and to parliamentary elections in 2023.
However, popular feeling had grown increasingly impatient with the obvious lack of progress toward any form of democracy, and with the administration’s failure to deal with the country’s severe economic problems. On October 22, 2021, national frustration erupted in a mass protest in Khartoum, in support of civilian rule.
Together Burhan and Dagalo orchestrated a military coup and took over control of the country. Three days later, Burhan dissolved the country’s civilian cabinet, arrested Prime Minister Abdalla Hamdok and other leading figures, and declared that the country was under military governance.
THE GRAB for power did not last long. Widespread opposition, ranging from the Arab League to the US Secretary of State, was too great. Burhan pulled back, reinstated Hamdok, and pledged to “maintain the path of the democratic transition.”
It was not long before Burhan was challenged by Dagalo, his deputy in the Council of Generals. Dagalo, who had spent some 20 years in the RSF, now headed the paramilitary force. He had built it up into a powerful militia that had intervened in conflicts in Yemen and Libya.
The RSF has been accused of human rights abuses, including the massacre of more than 120 protesters in June 2019. Such a strong force outside the army was seen as a source of instability in the country. Burhan’s plan to take over control of the RSF, by merging it with the nation’s formal armed services, was the main bone of contention between the two erstwhile colleagues.
Reports indicate that the fighting has reduced Khartoum to an urban battlefield. Across the city RSF forces have commandeered homes and turned them into operational bases. The army, in turn, has been firing artillery on residential areas from both the air and ground.
“The remains of many of those killed have not been collected, identified, or buried,” the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights has said.
What do the two protagonists say they want? Dagalo has said, in a series of tweets, that he and the RSF are “fighting for the people of Sudan to ensure the democratic progress for which they have so long yearned.” Given the brutal track record of the RSF, many find this message hard to believe.
Burhan has said he supports the idea of returning to civilian rule, but that he will hand over power only to an elected government. It is likely that both are also mesmerized by the lure of power, and the wealth and influence that go with it.
Meanwhile the UK, US, and EU have all called for a ceasefire and talks to resolve the crisis.
How is Israel involved? Sudan, civil war, and the Abraham Accords
SUDAN, OF course, is nominally one of Israel’s new Arab partners under the Abraham Accords. Where does this chaotic state of affairs leave its normalization deal with Israel?
In February 2020 Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu met Burhan, head of Sudan’s Sovereignty Council, in Uganda, where they agreed to normalize the ties between the two countries. An initial agreement, on October 23, 2020, saw Sudan removed from the US government’s list of countries promoting terrorism, and on January 6, 2021, in a quiet ceremony in Khartoum, Sudan formally signed the Abraham Accords.
Just how substantive is the Israel-Sudan normalization deal? The then-military leadership under Burhan that concluded the deal with Israel was acting legitimately on behalf of the state of Sudan.
Whatever the outcome of the conflict between Burhan and Dagalo, Sudan is a nation in transition, on a rocky road to parliamentary elections intended to usher in full democratic civilian rule. Once the conflict is brought to an end, parliamentary elections held, and civilian rule restored, a democratic government could either endorse or renounce the nation’s membership of the Abraham Accords.
Which way the chips will eventually fall is anybody’s guess.
The writer is the Middle East correspondent for Eurasia Review. His latest book is Trump and the Holy Land: 2016-2020. Follow him at www.a-mid-east-journal.blogspot.com.