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The prime minister has been restored to power under a deal that looks dangerous for democracy
The ceremony restoring Abdalla Hamdok to the premiership on 21 November had none of the celebratory atmosphere of the occasion in August 2019 when he was first appointed to lead the transition to civilian rule. This time, Mohamed Hamdan Dagalo 'Hemeti', commander of the paramilitary Rapid Support Forces (RSF), was present. But Fadlallah Burma Nasir, the leader of the National Umma Party (NUP) who helped get Hamdok appointed two years ago, was not. This spoke volumes about the political reconfiguration that had just taken place and explained Hamdok's tense expression (AC Dispatches 23/11/21, Premier Hamdok reinstated but military's fight with civilian opposition intensifies).
Hamdok and Gen Abdel Fattah al Burhan, head of the armed forces, made a 14-point agreement to end the 25 October military coup and restore the status quo ante but many questions went unanswered (AC Vol 62 No 22, General Al Burhan's power grab). Why, for example, had the international community, including the Troika (the United States, the United Kingdom and Norway) endorsed the deal, alongside the European Union, and Switzerland. Why too were Egypt, the United Arab Emirates and Saudi Arabia so supportive of the pact if it really was restoring democracy?
Behind the scenes, ever since the 25 October coup, mediators from within and outside the country worked to narrow the gap between Burhan and Hamdok (AC Dispatches 4/11/21, Burhan tries to negotiate after coup falters). Domestically, it was Hayder al Saffi of the Republican Party, Fadlallah (NUP), the human rights activist Mudawi Ibrahim, Mohammed Ismat of the Unified Unionist Party (UUP), the lawyer Nabil Adeeb, former Sudan Communist Party leaders Shafei Khidir and Kamal Bolad of the Ba'ath Party, who worked on the compromise they believed was necessary to avoid more bloodshed.
Hamdok cited avoidance of civil war as justification for the 21 November deal, but many were sceptical. Despite the death toll – 41 demonstrators shot dead and 200 injured – civil war was never a realistic prospect.
A more plausible explanation put forward by many on the civilian side was that it was as an opportunity to cut the Forces for Freedom and Change (FFC) out of the picture. Fadlallah, for example, believes that the FFC has no real constituency and, as an alliance of small organisations, it doesn't belong on the national stage, although this view is not universally held in the NUP.
The military was happy to oblige. After 21 November it was soon clear that FFC leaders were not in the first batch of those released from detention, despite Hamdok's promise that all detained activists would be freed. The FFC members also lost their seats on the all-important Sovereignty Council and so cannot be part of the cabinet of technocrats Hamdok has promised.
The failure to free prisoners was just one of the contradictions Hamdok had to explain to 'the street'. The first batch of detainees to be released were those closest to Hamdok and with no record of criticising the military. Faisal Mohammed Saleh, the former Minister of Information freed by the army on 22 November, is typical of these.
Yasser Arman, of the Sudan People's Liberation Movement – North (SPLM-North) and a senior advisor to Hamdok, is an exception as he was much more vocal against the military. But he was released to save the face of SPLM-North chair, Malek Agar, who had accepted a seat on the new Sovereignty Council and promised on 17 November that all political prisoners would be freed within 48 hours.
The military has been in no hurry to keep its side of the 21 November deal. Gen Burhan announced that those who have 'insulted' the army would be prosecuted and imprisoned.
Sure enough, on 28 November a number of bitter critics of the army who had been released from detention were yanked back after only a few hours of freedom, including: Muhammad Suleiman al Faki, a member of the Sovereignty Council; Ibrahim al Sheikh (minister of industry); Wadj Saleh (De-Empowerment Committee, which was nationalising assets handed to private interests under President Omer el Beshir); FFC spokesperson Gaafar Hassan; and Sudan Professionals' Association leading member Ismail al Taj.
At the same time, Burhan sought to consolidate his hold on the national bureaucracy. Hundreds of oppositionists appointed in a fit of reformist zeal to official posts after the overthrow of President el Beshir were dismissed after 25 October and replaced with Islamists and other stalwarts of the Beshir era. They repopulated institutions such as federal states' administrations, the state media, the state-owned companies boards and the Central Bank. Burhan signed a decree on 12 November stating that the new appointees could not be removed except by the future parliament, which is a long way off.
Burhan's move now looks like an attempt to build a political constituency. His nominees to public posts could influence the choice of MPs for the transitional parliament in 2023 and they may look to Burhan for leadership.
But Hamdok is fighting back. His riposte came when he sacked the Director-General of the Police Force, Lt Gen Khalid Mahdi, and his deputy, Lt Gen Sadiq Ali Ibrahim on 27 November, 48 hours after the Transitional Sovereign Council appointed a known friend of the Beshir regime, Abdel Aziz Fathal Rahman Abdeen Mohamed, as the new Chief Justice of Sudan. Hamdok cited the brutality of the suppression of the demonstrations as his motive.
Islamist entities such as Ghazzi Salah ed Din's Reform Now Movement and the Popular Congress Party (PCP), which groups many old stalwarts of the now-banned ruling party under Beshir, the National Congress Party, have high hopes of Burhan. PCP leader Ali el Haj is in jail over his role in Beshir's June 1989 coup d'état and the party is led for now by Mohammed Badr ed Din. These forces are hoping to return to politics via the patronage or protection of Gen Burhan.
Burhan is also cultivating the political elite of Darfur, such as the Sudan Liberation Army's (SLA) Minni Minnawi, Jibril Ibrahim (leader of the Justice and Equality Movement and until recently finance minister), Tijani Sissi (chair of the Darfur Regional Authority).
Formally, Burhan is saying that he will leave politics after the 2023 elections but few take that seriously.
Both Burhan and his deputy Hemeti are said to harbour longer-term political ambitions, as an insurance against future prosecution and to protect the military's (and their own) financial sprawling interests.
Some nagging questions within the multiple components of the armed forces and intelligence services centre on the personal rivalry between Burhan and Hemeti, and the differing interests of their foreign backers. What happens if the military chief and his deputy fall out terminally?
Although there have been sporadic clashes between the national army and Hemeti's Rapid Support Forces, they have been quickly reined in. Should there be a serious split at the top, there is unlikely to be much restraint lower down.
HIGH-STAKES POKER IN KHARTOUM
It has fallen to Mohamed Hamdan Dagalo 'Hemeti', deputy leader of the junta, to spell out how Sudan's military might retaliate if international organisations and Western nations persist with sanctions imposed after the coup on 25 October.
Hemeti's logic was brutally simple. Should these countries and organisations fail to support Khartoum's military regime, they will no longer be able to rely on it to police migration across Sudan's national borders. 'If Sudan will open the border, a big problem will happen worldwide,' Hemeti told the Politico news website in late November.
Using refugees as bargaining chips was a tactic favoured under Sudan's ousted National Congress Party regime. It is a still a powerful one against the European Union and the United States, given the political unease there over migration.
Sudan hosts about a million refugees from other countries, along with about 7 million displaced people from Sudan and South Sudan, according to UN data. Hemeti's not so veiled threat to play the migration card may also help explain why western countries backed the Sudanese military's deal with Prime Minister Abdalla Hamdok on 21 November.
US Secretary of State Antony Blinken declared that the release of Hamdok was a 'first step' towards agreement, but other diplomats were less cautious in their support. Some outside the negotiations think that UN Representative Volker Perthes, who had early been sidelined in earlier talks, may have thought he could regain influence by endorsing the deal and pushing others to do the same. Officials in Western capitals had criticised the Forces for Freedom and Change, but the organisation had been endorsed by the British and US embassies in Khartoum.
Western diplomats' support for the deal may also have been influenced by the prospect of junta leader General Abdel Fattah al Burhan striking a deal with Moscow that leads to a Russian naval base in Port Sudan (AC Vol 62 No 18, Hedging the Eagle and the Bear). After its moves in Libya, Central African Republic, and now Mali, Russia's manoeuvres in Sudan backed by an agreement with the military would further undermine the position of the US, the UK and the EU. Western states have tried hard to dissuade Djibouti and Somaliland from offering facilities to Moscow.
And then there is Ethiopia. The instability in the Horn is worsening as Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed takes his country to the edge of the abyss (AC Vol 62 No 15, Khartoum's fractious neighbours). If Ethiopia's crisis deepens still further, international organisations would have to run a relief operation from Sudan and Djibouti. Asking for cooperation from a military regime under sanctions wouldn't work. It seems that Western and UN officials envisage some kind of cooperation with Khartoum as they nervously monitor developments in Ethiopia.
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