After a trial run in Egypt, Arab despots come for Khartoum

After a trial run in Egypt, Arab despots come for Khartoum
Comment: In Sudan, anti-democratic regional powers apply a military crackdown method tried and tested in Egypt, writes Abdelwahab El-Affendi.
7 min read
11 Jun, 2019
Head of the Sudanese Transitional Military Council, Abdul Fattah al-Burhan meets MBS in May [Anadolu]
Leading Emirati newspaper, Alittihad, came up with an interesting spin earlier this week, on the violent military crackdown on peaceful protesters in Khartoum that is widely believed to have been perpetrated with UAE blessing, and UAE-made armoured vehicles. 

It was claimed that the Sudanese "Islamic Movement", an offshoot of the Muslim Brotherhood, was responsible for "duping" the Deputy-Chairman of the Transitional Military Council (TMC), Mohamed Hamdan Dagalo (Hemedti), and his so-called Rapid Support Forces (RSF), formerly the Janjaweed militia, into committing the atrocity.

This is a rather convenient story for the tripartite Saudi-Emirati-Egyptian alliance backing the TMC in its attempt to contain the ongoing Sudanese popular revolution, which toppled Bashir on 11 April.

For Sudan posed a serious dilemma for this alliance, dubbed by many the "Arab Axis of Evil", rattled by the Arab revolutions of 2011.

The burgeoning alliance had at first exploited the revolutions opportunistically, supporting them in hostile countries, such as Libya and Syria, while violently repressing the Bahrain uprising.

In Yemen, the GCC brokered the peaceful removal of the former president Ali Abdalla Saleh, and a mechanism for an orderly transition. Syria and Libya were sworn enemies of the Saudi regime, which was also keen to safeguard its influence in Yemen. The GCC countries were also careful to appease their main western allies, including the US, where support for the uprisings was very strong.

However, as pro-democracy Islamists emerged as the lead beneficiaries of uprisings, this became a great source of worry for the Saudi-Emirati axis.

The lesson the regimes derived was that while democracy calls were a major threat, Islamists, especially the moderate ones, were even more so

Indeed, pro-democracy moderate Islamists have been the leading proponents of reform in the Gulf since the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait in 1990. Encouraged by the new Arab revolutionary tide, they began to agitate reform again.

In March 2011, a memorandum signed by 133 prominent individuals, mostly moderate Islamists, but including a good number of liberals and human rights activists, was handed to the UAE government.

A severe crackdown followed, with Islamists and their families stripped of their nationality and imprisoned, which the government sought to deflect through generous incentives that included up to 100 percent hike in salaries and benefits.

The lesson the regimes derived was that while democracy calls were a major threat, Islamists, especially democracy supporting moderate, were even more so. Not only did they represent the bulk of reform advocates, but they were more influential than their secular and liberal counterparts in the predominantly conservative Gulf.

A strategy was thus devised to crack down on Islamists, using alliances of convenience with secular forces, but not inside the countries involved, where liberal activists received equal, if not harsher, punishment in UAE and Saudi Arabia.

An experiment was conducted in Egypt, where "secular" opponents to the democratically elected president of Egypt, Mohamed Morsi, were encouraged to rebel, paving the ground for the July 2013 coup by army chief Abdel Fattah al-Sisi.

This success emboldened this "axis of militant despotism" to engage in an ambitious strategy to achieve region-wide hegemony, based on pro-active anti-democratic activism.

This included pre-emptive action against political forces, civil society groups and free media, as well as the outlawing of moderate Islamist groups, often designated as "terrorists".

Draconic anti-terror laws were used indiscriminately against free media, social media and civil society activism. A mere tweet or re-tweet could land anyone in deep trouble. The policy was exported across the region.

A decision was made in the three capitals to prioritise fighting pro-democratic forces in Sudan

With the 2016 election of Donal Trump to the US presidency, this anti-democratic activism felt even more emboldened, the reckless blockade and siege of Qatar. The aim was to silence its powerful media platforms and use the Kingdom's vast wealth to fund the faltering campaign to prop up dictatorship in Egypt, and gain influence in Libya, Tunisia, and other Arab countries.

Simultaneously, a war was waged on Yemen, and an even more reckless campaign engineered against Iran, in alliance with extreme right-wing forces in Israel and the US.

In this context, Sudan presented both an opportunity and a challenge. It was not a democracy, so it was safe. It was also the only country to respond to the Saudi-Emirati appeal for active participation in the war on Yemen, sending troops there as early as 2015.

Read more: Web 'blackout' sweeps protest-hit Sudan

This was in contrast to supposed close allies like Egypt, which refused to do so. In May 2017, the Saudis proposed a pro-US "Islamic alliance", which included all Arab countries, in addition to countries such as Turkey, Pakistan and Malaysia, hoping for support in their Yemen war, and a broader campaign against Iran. But Sudan was the only one to come through.

One challenge was that the Sudanese regime was ruled by a nominally Islamist faction, while the ongoing anti-Bashir protests are the only predominantly uprising in the Arab world without major Islamist involvement.

This presented the anti-democratic alliance with a dilemma: Should it support keeping an "Islamist" despot in power, Omar al-Bashir, because he is "our despot"; or should it support the largely secular pro-democracy uprising? 

In the end, it settled for what appears to be a magic formula: Remove the "Islamist" despot from the regime through a military takeover, thinking this would appease the protest movement, while expanding the military's dominance over the regime and the country.

Then, despite trying to implicate "Islamists", a decision was made in the three capitals to prioritise fighting pro-democratic forces in Sudan, be they secular or otherwise, over fighting Islamism.

It is no wonder that the crackdown came shortly after a series of visits in late May by the TMC head and his deputy, to Saudi Arabia, Egypt and the UAE

Thus came the military's crackdown on the protesters, shortly after a series of visits in late May by the TMC head, Abdelfattah Al-Burhan, and his deputy, Hemedti, to Saudi Arabia, Egypt and the UAE.

Indeed, the language of both men changed dramatically in the few days following the visits, with both dropping the conciliatory tone adopted towards the leaders of the protests.

Agreements reached earlier for handing over power to civilians were disavowed, and replaced by calls for elections. The crackdown followed in less than a week.

However, like all the alliance's other adventures (in Yemen, Libya, Qatar, etc.), this one has backfired badly.

The TMC is now shakier than ever, and protesters are now vehemently hostile to these regimes and their overt complicity in the atrocities and the attempts to impose a dictatorship on Sudan and its people.

None of the three countries has yet condemned the crackdown - suspiciously a copy-act of the assault on the Muslim Brotherhood protest in Rabaa Square in August 2013 - merely expressing "worry" and calling for negotiations to resume.

Read more: The Arab autocracies blocking Sudan's path to democracy

However, their official and semi-official media remains supportive of the crackdown, offering nothing but false excuses on its behalf, including the above-cited article on "Islamist" responsibility for the crackdown.

Incidentally, the Muslim Brotherhood officially condemned the atrocity on the same day, while the UAE's first timid reaction two days later, was to urge the parties towards "wisdom and restraint". The Saudis added that they would not permit chaos in Sudan (the same statement repeated by Hemedti many times before the crackdown).

While the two other countries made identical announcements, cracks are appearing in the alliance.

While all prefer military to civilian rule, the UAE - supported by the Saudis - is working to replace the army with Hemedti's militia, a move the Egyptians strongly oppose, citing warning lessons from Libya and Iraq.

This is likely to complicate matters further, as each party supports a rival force. It is possible that the Sudanese adventure could prove more disastrous for the trio than Yemen, leading to the unravelling of this alliance of despots.

But ultimately, their infighting may prove even more disastrous for the region than their alliance.

Abdelwahab El-Affendi is Professor of Politics and the Dean of the School of Social Sciences and Humanities, Doha Institute for Graduate Studies.

Follow him on Twitter: @wahabtweet

Opinions expressed in this article remain those of the author, and do not necessarily represent those of The New Arab, its editorial board or staff.