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Vol 63 No 10

Published 12th May 2022


Burhan lets the Islamists back in

Shorn of political alternatives and determined to remain in power, the junta is falling back on Islamists of all stripes to shore up the regime

Six months after the Sudanese military seized power again, a new reality is taking shape for the junta. Whether it was always part of the military's aims, or simply a consequence of events, Islamists – and not just members of the formerly ruling National Congress Party (NCP) – are being restored to their privileges and taking important government jobs.

One increasingly credible view is that putting Islamists back in charge is the default option, since the coup-makers could not agree among themselves whom to nominate as a civilian prime minister. And fears are growing that this open door is letting in jihadists.

None of this means the restoration of the NCP. After all, junta leader General Abdel Fattah al Burhan was himself responsible for its fall (AC Vol 60 No 8, The revolution rumbles on). What he appears to be hoping is that by broadening the political spectrum the military can appear to be above the fray of conflicting civilian politicians and ideologies. Eventually, he could claim again that the Sudan Armed Forces (SAF) are not interested in ruling Sudan but have no choice because civilian politics is so divisive. 

After the 25 October coup, Burhan tried different options (AC Vol 62 No 22, General Al Burhan's power grab). All failed. He tried to appoint a civilian prime minister but could not get a consensus among his supporters. He also tried to build a civilian party that could act as his political base. He spent time and money engaging with the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) and then DUP splinter factions but failed to reach an agreement, despite support from Egypt (AC Vol 60 No 14, Military roadblocks).

At one point he was sympathetic to the efforts of the University of Khartoum Vice-Chancellor Fadwa Abdelrahman Ali Taha and some of his colleagues to build a front of Resistance Committees free of Communists and other radicals. But they failed to organise a rally they had worked on for months and gave up. A couple of weeks later, the whole board of the University of Khartoum was dismissed, and Burhan appointed a new one without any consultation with university staff, which caused an uproar. To a large extent, his last option – taken with some reluctance -- was to give greater space to the NCP Islamists.

The decision in early April to release a dozen Islamist figures, including Ibrahim Ghandour, ex-President Omer el Beshir's former foreign minister and NCP boss, was an important step. First, prosecutors dropped all charges against him and other Islamists, illustrating the control by their fellow Islamists of the Office of the Attorney General and the Public Prosecutor, respectively Abdelaziz Fathi al Rahman and Khalifa Ahmed Khalifa, who were appointed late last November. 

Increasingly, as in the early 1980s and after Beshir's coup d'état in 1989, the Islamists are using the justice system to release their supporters, get back their assets and intimidate opposition supporters, especially the members of the 'Disempowerment Committees' that were targeting Islamist and NCP cadres. 

This influence on the justice process – although not all judicial officials were NCP sympathisers – resulted in the reinstatement of 102 diplomats, including 48 ambassadors, 35 junior diplomats, and 19 administrative staff. All were NCP members or appointed through NCP patronage regardless of their qualifications. 

In December 2020 Beshir and his long-time deputy, Bakri Hassan Saleh, were transferred from Kobar Prison to the military hospital in Khartoum, where they move freely and meet friends and relatives with no restrictions, as seen in an April video. Beshir's health does not seem as bad as officials assured the international media it was when he was transferred. Burhan's position remains that he would never send Beshir to the International Criminal Court (ICC) as it could result in being obliged to send others. 

Some hardcore Islamists were appointed before 25 October, but their level of responsibility has not greatly changed compared with before Beshir's fall in August 2019. For example, Lt Col Mudhatir Osman has been Burhan's office manager at Army headquarters since the end of 2019. 

Previously, he did the same job for Minister of Defence and Vice-President Gen Awad Ibn Aouf. His promotion may be linked to being the son-in-law of Ali Ahmed Karti, a die-hard Islamist who was the head of the Popular Defence Forces before becoming foreign minister from 2010 to 2015 and a very wealthy businessman. 

Many believe Ali Karti is still in Khartoum, not in Istanbul like most Islamist leaders, and could have been arrested easily, had his connection with the security forces not been so good. It also indicates that Burhan wanted to keep all doors open. 

After the coup, important Islamists were nominated to the intelligence services, which has consequences for the regime's coercive style. Last December Burhan appointed Generals Abdel Nabi al Mahi and Abdelmonim Jalal to head Military Intelligence. He also removed Jamal Abdel Majid as head of the newly created General Intelligence Service (GIS) in late November and appointed his deputy, Ahmed Mufaddal, in his place. Two weeks later, Gen Hisham Hussein was promoted to the deputy position. He had helped fund the pro-military protest on 16 October last year, a key precursor to the 25 October coup, and had been a key commander of the Central Reserve Police (Dispatches 19/10/21, Military faction fans crisis, trying to derail transition to elections).

Disappointed  traveller
In mid-March, Burhan went on a regional tour, returning angry and disappointed. He had expected the United Arab Emirates to be supportive but got little money and several complaints about the release of some Islamists from custody and the appointment of others to key positions. Only in Cairo did he find sympathy from his counterpart, President Abdel Fattah el Sisi. Sisi told him Egypt would have no problem with the appointment of efficient bureaucrats, even if they were Islamists, so long as it was clear that the military was in charge.

Burhan's new tactic has had sometimes paradoxical consequences. Following the release of Ghandour, for example, 10 Islamist groups set up a new umbrella coalition, the Broad Islamic Trend. This includes the Islamic Movement (which mostly recruits from NCP members) and very radical groups, such as the State of Law and Development Party led by Mohamed al Jazouli, who is a supporter of so-called Islamic State (IS or Da'ish) and was only recently released from prison. But the Popular Congress Party (PCP) refused to join and warned that the Islamists should not ally with the military, unless they wanted to repeat what happened under Beshir.

Another consequence is the probable fall from grace of the Justice and Equality Movement (JEM) leader and finance minister, Jibril Ibrahim. Up to April, he was seen as a rallying figure for all Islamists, given his strong position in the cabinet. He had even nearly been appointed prime minister and was willing to build a new national Islamist party. 

But this mood did not last long. Contrary to what he promised after 25 October, neither western donors nor the conservative Gulf states provided funding, not even Russia. His other options having expired, Burhan's only recourse was to open the door to the NCP Islamists. 

Today, Islamists in Khartoum see Jibril Ibrahim as little more than a Darfuri politician and a failing finance minister who will have to raise taxes on basic foodstuffs and oil products to avoid a complete economic collapse. His 'natural leadership' has evaporated.

But Burhan's new path bothers the UAE. The de facto Abu Dhabi ruler and heir, Crown Prince Mohammed bin Zayed al Nahayan (MBZ) doubts that convinced Islamists would limit themselves to civic duties in Sudan.

Even here, however, the Ukraine war has an effect. The UAE and Saudi Arabia are still exasperated with the Biden Administration over Iran and want to maintain relations with Russia, especially on global oil marketing, to keep pressure on him. 

But their frustrations do not go as far as approving the idea of a Russian naval base at Port Sudan, just across the narrow Red Sea from Jeddah. Russia-Sudan relations were built under Beshir and the Islamists in Sudan would not hesitate to combine with Moscow if it meant cutting relations with western countries and their institutions. This, Riyadh cannot allow. 

Shuttle diplomacy on a broken loom

On 10 May, the African Union representative, Mahamed el Hacen Ould Lebatt, and the special UN envoy, Volker Perthes, were supposed to launch a new initiative to end the long and violent crisis that erupted with the latest coup in Sudan on 25 October last year (AC Vol 63 No 6, The junta runs out of bread and road). Five groups from across the Sudanese political spectrum should be sitting separately to draw up their positions on a possible return to constitutional order. As a first step towards this goal, the plan was for them to put forward names of a new civilian prime minister, the role that Gen Abdel Fattah al Burhan has been occupying de facto since he took power. This initiative was cancelled at the last minute due to 'irreconcilable differences' among the potential participants.

Few expected the initiative to succeed. Perthes, despite being leaning towards the military for months, was recently bitterly accused by the Sudan Armed Forces' (SAF) newspaper of being part of an 'European-American Zionist' plot to spread chaos and terrorism and aiming to become the 'Paul Bremer of Sudan'.

Gen Burhan also attacked the UN's engagement with Sudanese opposition groups, even though Perthes was less hostile to him than the ambassadors of the Troika (the United States, United Kingdom, and Norway). They, along with the European Union's and France's special envoys to the Horn, met in late April in Khartoum and demanded a return to constitutional rule before economic aid could even be considered.

In mid-February, Perthes published a summary of his findings after meeting all Sudan's stakeholders and announced a second step in his mediation, which never took off. That initiative was stopped by AU Commission chair Moussa Faki Mahamat appealing to the UN Secretary-General, António Guterres, to link the Intergovernmental Authority on Development (IGAD) and the AU to the process. Ould Lebatt publicly criticised the UN and said the AU should take the lead.

The Mauritanian had attempted in 2019 to broker an agreement between the military and the opposition to President Omer el Beshir after his overthrow.

Observers say Ould Lebatt's attitude puts him close to the Sudanese military, although he has no fresh ideas about a possible solution. He once suggested all the stakeholders should gather in the same room, but the opposition Forces for Freedom and Change (FFC) and others would not accept it, hence the idea of separate meetings.

Some in Sudan see the rivalry between the AU and the UN as a consequence of Guterres being too weak, or unwilling, to contradict the AU, especially when he has other crises on his plate. Others think that the principle of subsidiarity obliges him to accept joint mediation. Still others in Khartoum talk darkly about Chad's regional interests being to the fore and whether they play a role in Moussa Faki's ambitions after he leaves the AU.

Few of them realise that in New York, as in most western capitals, hopes for a settlement are low, so involving the AU helps spread the blame for failure. These manoeuvres also, incidentally, remind many of the way Beshir used to play the AU against the UN to diminish its influence.

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