Sudan: Seeking consensus

Dina Ezzat , Haitham Nouri , Wednesday 5 Jan 2022

There is no obvious exit from the political instability afflicting Sudan.

Gen. Abdel-Fattah Burhan
File Photo: Sudan's head of the military, Gen. Abdel-Fattah Burhan, speaks during a press conference at the General Command of the Armed Forces in Khartoum, Sudan, on October 26, 2021. AP

The resignation of Sudanese Prime Minister Abdalla Hamdok on Sunday had been anticipated in Cairo for over a month. Hamdok resumed his official mandate in November, after reaching an agreement with the Sudanese military which, on 25 October 2021, had stepped in and effectively halted the political transition agreed between civil forces and the army following the 2019 ouster of Omar Al-Bashir.

Speaking off record, Egyptian officials have for weeks expressed scepticism about Hamdok’s ability to piece together a political formula capable of winning the support of the political movements “who control the street, especially the Freedom and Change Movement”, and of the military. They also doubted that he would be able to put together a government of technocrats capable of steering the country towards elections.

Hamdok’s job, say sources, was made next to impossible by the simple fact that open-ended protests continued despite his reinstatement, a situation the military could not tolerate for, as one source said, perfectly “legitimate” reasons. The protests have been taking place on a weekly basis since 25 October 2021.

“The trouble with Sudan,” pointed out one source, “is that what the military will accept, and what civil forces are willing to agree, are very different things.”

Hamdok’s return from the house-arrest he was placed under on 25 October was largely a result of international pressure, say informed foreign diplomats. According to one Cairo-based Western diplomat the US, among others, made it clear to the head of the Sudanese military and of the Transitional Sovereign Council Abdul-Fattah Al-Burhan that Khartoum risked losing all international financial assistance if Hamdok was not allowed to resume his role as prime minister.

Hamdok’s come back, however, was viewed coolly by many political parties and by the street which now vehemently opposes any civilian-military partnership, even for the remainder of the transition.

Against this backdrop, Hamdok’s attempts to create an acceptable compromise were doomed from the start. In his televised resignation statement, he said he had taken it upon himself to try to fix an extremely difficult situation, and wished his successor better luck in completing the task.

Even prior to the announcement of Hamdok’s resignation this week, Al-Burhan was already consulting over a potential replacement. According to informed diplomatic sources, Al-Burhan is eyeing a new prime minister with an economic background who could reach an agreement between Sudan and the International Monetary Fund, and reconstruct Sudan’s civil institutions.

Cairo, like other concerned regional and international capitals, agrees that a technocrat government, even on strictly transitional basis, is desperately needed, and is worried about the ramifications of hard-to-control chaos breaking out in Egypt’s immediate and strategically crucial neighbour.

Egyptian officials say Cairo has been “very cautious” in its reactions to developments in Sudan and is well aware of the “extreme sensitivity” on the Sudanese street. Nor is it just Cairo keeping a close watch on developments in Sudan. Other regional and international capitals worry about the impact of long-term instability in Sudan on the already unstable Horn of Africa, where conflict is already raging in Ethiopia and there is a growing political tug-of-war in Somalia.

According to informed diplomatic sources, Al-Burhan was being advised by concerned Western capitals to consider a replacement for Hamdok who could command the respect of the Sudanese street. It has also been suggested that he will need to delegate more powers to the new prime minister to enable him to reach a deal with other political leaders over the remainder of the transition. And once again, the advice will have been accompanied by reminders to Al-Burhan that without a credible government he should not count on the financial support of the West or of international financial organisations.

While Al-Burhan is basically being told that a puppet prime minister and a puppet government will not pass muster, Egyptian sources say concerned regional and international capitals also know that the completion of the transition in Sudan cannot go ahead without a role for the military, as some political forces are demanding.

These sources point out that Sudan has already faced a series of civil wars, one of which led to the separation of the country into two only 10 years ago. Already, stability is fragile in the east of country, site of Sudan’s key ports on the crucial Red Sea, and in Darfur in the west.

Last week the World Food Programme announced that a warehouse containing tons of food earmarked for feeding 700,000 people for a month was looted by an unknown armed group. It was not the first such incident in recent weeks.

Two days before the announcement of Hamdok’s resignation, in a statement to mark the 66th anniversary of Sudan’s independence, Al-Burhan warned that the country could face a new civil war if political parties failed to come to an agreement on the composition of a technocrat government that could lead the way to elections.

Protest leaders viewed Al-Burhan’s statement more as a threat than an expression of concern. “He is telling us that we either succumb or we face the security forces. We are not going to leave the streets, no matter how many martyrs, before we secure civilian rule,” said Tarek Ahmed, a political activist who spoke from Khartoum before Hamdok’s resignation.

Sudanese medical sources have reported close to 60 deaths among demonstrators in the last six weeks. Volker Perthes, special representative of the UN secretary-general to Sudan, has appealed to Sudan’s security forces to observe the rights of demonstrators.

According to Ahmed, only civilian rule is capable of resolving the problems Sudan faces. Nor, he adds, is there a single political leader in Sudan who has the clout to tell the demonstrators to go home. “Quite simply, this will not happen,” said Ahmed, pointing out that protests continued in November despite the demonstrators’ sympathy for Hamdok.

Sudanese political leaders have been unequivocal about their determination to keep the demonstrations going until the army returns to the barracks, a course of action with which Al-Burhan and other senior military personnel are unlikely to agree.

For Egypt, Sudan seems to be entering a tough phase and it may take months before a compromise is reached, leaving a host of pressing questions unanswered, not least the fate of security cooperation between Egypt and its southern neighbour, including negotiations with Addis Ababa over the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam.

*A version of this article appears in print in the 6 January, 2022 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly.

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