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A multiplicity of mediators is trying to broker a new deal between civilians and army factions
A week after General Abdel Fattah al Burhan's coup and bid to disband the transitional government, military and civilian rivals are locked in negotiations in the face of mounting national and international opposition to the takeover. Abdalla Hamdok, the prime minister sacked by Burhan and put under house arrest, is central to efforts to revive the transition by envoys from the African Union, the UN and the United States (AC Vol 62 No 10, Transition under pressure).
It seems that Burhan and allies saw the coup primarily as a military operation to coerce sectors of the political class. So, there was little effort to rally support or run a media campaign to justify the coup (AC Vol 62 No 22, General Al Burhan's power grab & AC Dispatches 25/10/21, The street confronts the army).
After the coup, the military's sole success came on 1 November with the lifting of the blockade of Port Sudan which had sharply pushed up bread prices. It was the High Beja Council that had imposed the blockade in September, in cahoots with the military, to worsen economic conditions to pressure the transitional government. That triggered a few half-hearted protest rallies, with obvious military backing, in Khartoum.
Tensions between the military and the Rapid Support Forces under General Mohamed Hamdan Dagalo 'Hemeti' on one side and radical civilian critics of them on the other, escalated after the failed coup on 21 September. These raised wider questions about the shape of the transition and the pace of reforms. Prime Minister Hamdok wanted an overhaul of the government without dramatically changing the balance between the military and civilians (AC Vol 61 No 11, Quicker march for the military).
But the coup plotters had not built much civilian support. The only senior politicians to prepare the ground for the coup, Minni Minawi of the Sudan Liberation Army (SLA-Minnawi) and Jibril Ibrahim, the Islamist leader of the Justice and Equality Movement (JEM), faced pressures within their own movements not to endorse it.
For many activists, whatever they think of Khartoum's political elites, it was the military who organised the Janjaweed and burned villages in Darfur.
Although some of their fighters were seen operating alongside the Sudan Armed Forces or the Rapid Support Forces militia in Khartoum, Minawi and Ibrahim backed away from the coup when they saw the opposition to it. Minawi called for the release of the jailed ministers. Ibrahim, who although Finance Minister in the transitional government had earlier called the military to take over, then gave some ambivalent interviews arguing for negotiations.
The security services have their own rivalries. Burhan and Hemeti dislike each other and their alliance is of one of necessity, rather than a common cause.
Whatever his political ambitions, Hemeti must also know the limits of his base: many Sudanese blame the Darfuri armed groups – that is the RSF, SLA-Minnawi and JEM – for shooting civilians rather than the SAF and the police.
As in the run-up to the toppling of President Omer el Beshir in April 2019, the rank and file and the junior officers of the SAF strongly sympathise with the protestors and working people. That could fracture the army should senior officers order a shoot to kill policy at big demonstrations. Rights groups say the security forces have killed over 15 civilians since the coup and wounded hundreds. Ructions between junior and senior officers was one of the causes of the failed coup on 21 September.
Gen Burhan insists that he wanted to sideline politicians and bring in technocrats. But he arrested several qualified cabinet ministers and their advisors, then brought in a batch of Islamist politicians, from the theoretically defunct National Congress Party and the Popular Congress Party, founded by Hassan al Turabi, ideological advisor to the 1989 coup.
These include: Ibrahim Ghandour (former minister of Foreign Affairs and Head of the NCP), Mohamed Hamid Tabidi (National Intelligence and Security Services), General Al Shazly Hamed Al Maddeh, and Mohamed Ali Jazul, known for his empathy with Islamic State.
That move was reversed and most were sent back to jail after a day or two of freedom. It showed the lack of planning even among Burhan's inner circle. Its attempt to build a political force by reintegrating elements of the PCP and NCP was not thought through.
There is, however, consensus about money. The Deputy Director of the Central Bank, Farouk Kambrisi, was arrested, allegedly for not signing a transfer of funds to a company owned by the military. Meanwhile, Abdel Basit Hamza, a businessman who managed some of the NCP's biggest companies, was released and the junta is keen to keep him out of prison.
That puts the spotlight on the 18-member Committee to Dismantle the 30 June 1989 Regime and Retrieve Public Funds, a task force which has handed back more than a US$1 billion in assets to the Finance Ministry. It has also seized more than 50 companies and 60 organisations, over 420,000 hectares of farmland and 20 million square metres of residential property, most of it tied to the NCP and political leaders in the Beshir regime. Burhan wants to disband the Committee but is yet to propose an alternative.
Some reconstituted form of investigation and assets search could be part of negotiations to restructure the transitional institutions. As negotiations intensify in Khartoum, the options are limited for Burhan and the divided coup-makers.
Their hope that civilian opposition to the coup will ebb looks misplaced. With economic woes mounting, more may join the protestors on the streets. That will strengthen the hand of the Forces for Freedom and Change which is demanding Hamdok's release from house arrest and the reappointment of all the detained ministers.
Against that, Burhan wants the Sovereignty Council, the ruling body presiding over the transition, reduced to three persons from 11. And he wants a strong military representation on the Legislative Council, the transitional parliament which is to draw up a new constitution ahead of multi-party elections.
With mutual distrust between the military and civilians reaching new highs, renegotiating the transition will be fraught. But the imminent risks of a new wave of violence amid economic breakdown could persuade both sides, encouraged by external mediators and guarantees, to strike a fresh agreement.
HOW TO LOSE FRIENDS
High among the list of the coup plotters’ mistakes was their failure to read the international dynamics around Sudan. Neither General Abdul Fatteh al Burhan nor Gen Mohamed Hamdan Dagalo ‘Hemeti’ have had much exposure beyond Egypt and the Gulf States which might explain their miscalculations. They may also have thought that normalising relations with Israel would have been enough to placate western governments. That was another misstep.
As Khartoum’s Ambassador to Washington, Nureldin Satti, acknowledged, Burhan and Hemeti lied to Jeffrey Feltman, the United States Special Envoy for the Horn. They will have to pay the consequences, added Satti.
France had good relations with Hemeti due to his family and business ties in Chad and Niger. But he gave Paris, which was due to send a top intelligence official to Khartoum, no warning of the impending coup. No one believed Hemeti’s claim that he had got involved in the coup too late to warn outsiders.
Only Moscow gave Burhan and Hemeti unqualified backing by blocking discussions at the UN Security Council for several days, stalling a swift condemnation of the coup. Russia had nurtured ties with Military Intelligence and the National Intelligence and Security Services (NISS) for years. Moscow was uneasy about the civilians’ doubts about Russia’s planned military base at Port Sudan, giving it more access to the Red Sea.
Hemeti, who had brought in Russian companies on security and mining projects, had become more careful with Moscow over the past 18 months. That is because of the deepening crisis in Central African Republic (which pits Moscow against Paris) along with his business interests in Chad and Niger that could suffer if he offends Paris.
Russia cannot afford to bankroll a military regime in Khartoum. China, which worked alongside Russia at the UN Security Council, could bail out Khartoum if it wanted. But Sudan is not as important to Beijing as it was in the early 2000s. And China has other ambitions in the Horn which would be complicated if it chose to confront the West over Sudan.
Egypt, Saudi Arabia and United Arab Emirates are closely tied to Burhan and the junta but they, too, have financial and diplomatic limits. Egypt, a former colonial power alongside Britain in Sudan, sent its intelligence chief Maj Gen Abbas Kamel to Khartoum the day after the coup. Egypt’s President Abdel Fatteh el Sisi sees a democratic experiment in Sudan as an internal threat and supporting Burhan makes sense.
Saudi Arabia and the UAE share the same distrust of democratic regimes but there are differences. The UAE wants to end Qatar’s influence in Khartoum above all. Both Gulf States have substantial economic interests in Sudan which would benefit from a more stable civilian regime. By associating UAE in its mediation in Sudan, Washington has tied Abu Dhabi’s hands.
Saudi Arabia has been traditionally more cautious on direct involvement in Sudan’s politics. Both the Gulf monarchies want to stay close to, and as influential as possible in, Washington at this critical point in the international negotiations with Tehran over the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action.
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