While an agreement to normalise relations between Sudan and Israel was announced on 23 October, the joint military and civilian government in Khartoum will now have to show that Sudan has something to gain from it.
In late September, Sudanese Sovereign Council Chairman Abdel-Fattah Al-Burhan said that “there is an opportunity we must seize in order to have Sudan’s name removed from the list of countries that sponsor terrorism,” one possible result of the agreement with Israel.
The US designated Sudan a state sponsor of terrorism in 1993 after Khartoum had begun to host extremist Islamist groups and leaders such as Osama Bin Laden. In 1998, after the bombing of the US embassies in Kenya and Tanzania, Washington subjected Khartoum to harsh economic sanctions and staged a series of military strikes against locations in the country that it described as staging points for extremist military operations.
Having Sudan’s name struck off the American list means “we can return to the international community, which will enable us to benefit economically and obtain advanced technology, and it will allow for the release of international aid,” Al-Burhan said.
To charges that the announced normalisation with Israel is a betrayal of the Arab national cause and the Palestinians, Al-Burhan said that “we all want a Palestinian state in the pre-1967 borders. But we do not want Sudan to bear the whole responsibility for that.”
The transitional government has achieved enormous inroads towards reconciliation and peace with what are now officially termed the “armed struggle movements” in Darfur, Jebel Nuba, South Kordofan and the Blue Nile states, which for decades fought the central government in Khartoum under the regime of former Sudanese leader Omar Al-Bashir, ousted by a popular uprising in April.
According to Sudanese diplomatic sources who spoke to Al-Ahram Weekly on condition of anonymity, domestic peace in Sudan cannot be achieved unless the country’s name is removed from the terrorism list, and this could only happen via the Israeli normalisation.
This assertion conflicts with statements made by Sudanese Prime Minister Abdallah Hamdok, who said that Sudan refused to link the removal of its name from the American terrorism list with normalisation with Israel because the “peace agreement requires a countrywide public discussion.”
That “discussion” never occurred, however. Meanwhile, Hamdok added his name to the tripartite statement with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and US President Donald Trump, who mediated the recent normalisation agreements between Tel Aviv and Bahrain and the UAE.
Khartoum has said that it plans to discuss such issues as migration (there are more than 6,000 Sudanese citizens in Israel), agriculture, aviation and trade with Israel, while the office of the Israeli prime minister said that Israel planned to send $5 million worth of wheat to Sudan to meet mounting food needs.
However, not all are convinced that Sudan has much to gain from normalising with Israel. According to Al-Shafie Khidr, an economics professor and former leader of the Sudanese Communist Party who opposes the agreement, “the only thing to be gained from peace with Israel is the removal of Sudan’s name from the terrorism list, making it possible for us to work with international institutions, donors and banks. Everything beyond that is practically nothing.”
He pointed out that Sudan was weighed down by more than $60 billion in debts. “These will not be written off due to a peace with Israel.”
Khartoum has engaged in what some describe as a long and futile search for a major international partner in development. “It couldn’t convince the Soviets in the 1960s, or the Americans in the 1970s and 1980s, or the Chinese afterwards, to contribute extensively to Sudanese development,” said Sudanese economic journalist Khaled Al-Tijani.
What drove Khartoum to normalise relations with Israel despite the meagre economic returns and growing tensions in government circles?
“It must have been the US insistence on linking the removal of the terrorist designation with an agreement with Israel,” Khidr said. “Sudan is surrounded by countries with diplomatic relations with Israel, such as Egypt, Ethiopia, Chad, Eritrea and South Sudan. For Sudan to remain alone would only court a return to the policies of the Al-Bashir regime that was overthrown by the revolution.”
Khidr does not believe the ruling coalition in Sudan is at risk of collapse due to this diplomatic step. The non-Arab militant movements in the country (which are all Muslim) are not opposed to peace with Israel, while in mainstream political circles to voice opposition to normalisation with Israel implies opposition to domestic peace or promoting tensions in a country that desperately needs peace after decades of civil war.
This attitude applies pretty much across the board, from the conservative Islamist-oriented Umma Party to the Communist, Nasserist and Baathist parties on the left.
*A version of this article appears in print in the 29 October, 2020 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly