Sudan's democratic transition is still at risk of counter-revolutionary meddling

Sudan's democratic transition is still at risk of counter-revolutionary meddling
Comment: The reforms enacted in Sudan do not represent the immediate demands of protesters, and instead signal interference of UAE as a counter-revolutionary force, writes Jonathan Fenton-Harvey.
6 min read
14 Sep, 2020
Sudanese protesters' demands have not yet been met. [Getty]

A week after a 'historic' peace deal between Sudan's government and five armed rebel factions, Sudan's transitional government on 6 September pledged to remove Islam as the country's state religion after 30 years of Islamic rule.

"For Sudan to become a democratic country where the rights of all citizens are enshrined, the constitution should be based on the principle of separation of religion and state" read a document signed by the Sudanese interim prime minister, and Abdel-Aziz al-Hilu, a leader of the Sudan People's Liberation Movement-North rebel group.

Sudan has previously made "secular" reforms, including decriminalising apostasy and ending its alcohol ban in July. These changes do not represent the immediate wishes of protesters for better livelihoods, and are evidence of external counter-revolutionary interference.

Not addressing people's concerns

Those who followed Sudan's reformist path since the revolutionaries ousted dictator Omar Bashir in April 2019 will be aware that people have been fighting for better living conditions, against corruption, and to bring those responsible for human rights abuses to justice.

Protests even continued in August of this year, one year after the power sharing agreement between the Transitional Military Council (TMC) and Sudan's civilian movements.  The deal was considered a vital turning point for Sudan's revolution as it aimed to create a power sharing coalition with elections to be held within three years.

Among Abu Dhabi's greatest concerns after Sudan's revolution was that political Islamists may seize power

"When we started the revolution, it was because of the economy," Mohammed Abdu, an engineer and member of the Sudanese Professionals Association (SPA), which helped strike the deal with the military, told Al Jazeera.

"And when the first martyr fell, the goal became justice for those who lost their lives during this revolution," added Abdu. "We promised to hold those who killed civilians to account. That main demand has not yet been met." 

The economy is still in free fall and many Sudanese people still languish in poverty. Sudan's little-reported floods in September have also displaced around 500,000 people and have killed over 100, further adding to the country's woes, which the coronavirus pandemic has also worsened.

Continued Emirati meddling?

One of the leading proponents of Sudan's peace deal was the United Arab Emirates (UAE). When it was announced, Abu Dhabi praised the agreement, claiming to support Sudan's security and stability. More notably however, Sudan's ambassador to the UAE said that Abu Dhabi had played a key part.

"The UAE has played a significant role in achieving the peace accord. They closely followed the negotiations from the beginning and offered assistance to bring more parties to the negotiation table," said the ambassador Mohammed Amin Abdullah Al Karib.

Soon after Bashir fell, the UAE and Saudi Arabia backed military figures who still play a big role in the government and led the recent peace deal. These include chairman of the Sovereignty Council of Sudan Abdel Fattah al-Burhan and his deputy, the notorious Mohamad Hamdan Dagalo (also known as 'Hemedti').

Hemedti is culpable of war crimes in Darfur and against protesters before the transitional agreement. In April 2019, Saudi Arabia and UAE jointly offered $3 billion to the TMC, seeking to shore up its control.

Undermining Sudan's democratic progress fits in with the UAE's goal of securing a "stable", "secular" and authoritarian system while excluding political Islam, as per its agenda elsewhere in the region.

Among Abu Dhabi's greatest concerns after Sudan's revolution was that political Islamists may seize power or be elected, as was the case in Egypt following the 2011 revolution, something the UAE fears could cause Sudan to drift towards its adversaries, Turkey and Qatar.

Having learnt from Egypt's case, the UAE sought to act preemptively to ensure the military dominated Sudan's post-revolutionary future, and replicate Egypt's model of military rule.

Renewed economic and ideological interests

In April, Sudanese officials told Al Jazeera that the UAE's state-owned port management company DP World had stepped up efforts to gain control of Sudan's principal seaport. Port workers said they would protest if it were to be privatised.

Despite initially failing to secure all-out military rule, Abu Dhabi is still focused on expanding economic influence in the Horn of Africa, along with its ideological aims. It could still look to gradually empower its military allies in an already fragile transitional agreement, to achieve these goals.

The UAE is using its usual humanitarian guise to expand influence in Sudan and gain favour. It reportedly sent around 100 tonnes of aid via the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) to help alleviate the damage from Sudan's floods.

There are potentially other factors driving Sudan's reforms. Khartoum would like to appease the United States in order to get itself removed from the US' list of state sponsors of terror. Appearing on that list since 1993 has been economically crippling, hindering foreign investment into the country. Washington advanced talks over this in August.

Such changes, however, risk further empowering the UAE, and enabling it to shore up a military rule. Acting as the middleman, the UAE brokered meetings with Mossad chief, Yossi Cohen and Hemedti, The New Arab's Arabic language sister-site revealed in August.

The UAE is using its usual humanitarian guise to expand influence in Sudan and gain favour

And last February, the UAE reportedly sponsored a meeting between Burhan and Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu which raised the prospect of normalisation. However, with Sudan receiving limited international support, regional dynamics further risk derailing its transition progress.

Sudan was tipped as a potential candidate to normalise relations with Israel following the UAE and Israel's normalisation deal in August. Though there is uncertainty over Sudan's decision on this, Khartoum still feels it is important for regaining favour in Washington.

Read more: Despite US pressure, Sudan's cost-benefit analysis puts normalising ties with Israel on hold, for now

Such high-level communications between Sudanese military actors and Emirati-Israeli figures reveal the growing cooperation to bolster authoritarian leaders in the country, and how Abu Dhabi has upgraded its alliance with Tel Aviv to acquire support for this.

Clearly, these changes in Sudan are artificial, merely designed to replicate secular and authoritarian rule in the country which would not serve the people and would fail to alleviate impoverishment.

As Washington has shown it could play a big role in Sudan's transition, progress largely rests on how the US chooses to act. It is therefore crucial for Washington, along with other international actors like the European Union, to proactively support a fairer system in Sudan which benefits the people, while curtailing avaricious counter-revolutionary forces.

Jonathan Fenton-Harvey is a freelance journalist. 

Follow him on Twitter: @jfentonharvey

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