I have just returned from a brief and intensive visit to Sudan as part of an Egyptian civil society mission aiming to strengthen relations between the Egyptian and Sudanese peoples.
Former foreign affairs minister Mohamed Al-Orabi headed our delegation, which consisted of prominent parliamentary, academic, media, diplomatic, and sports figures. In the space of 48 hours, we met with a broad spectrum of Sudanese political, social, spiritual, academic, and cultural figures.
I can comfortably say that practically the whole of Sudan was represented, geographically, demographically, and socio-politically. During our meetings, we tried to convey various messages, of which three are the most important
Our first message was our awareness of the profound changes that have taken place in Sudanese society over the past few years. This is now a revitalised society that has regained its ability to influence public affairs.
Of course, the Sudanese have always been a deeply politicised people. But the December Revolution in Sudan injected a new impetus into political life in the country that drew broader swathes of socio-political forces into the politics of change.
As a result, in addition to the regular Sudanese political parties we are familiar with, the revolution and subsequent developments have given rise to new organisations that are highly flexible, pluralistic, and complex in terms of their internal structure. They advocate freedom, democracy, and peace. Young people are the driving force of these organisations, and Sudanese women figure prominently in them, to the extent that Kandaka, or the “Nubian Queen,” has become an icon of the revolution, not just in Sudan but also in other Arab countries.
I will add parenthetically here that there was a significant women’s presence in all our meetings apart from those we had with representatives of the Sudanese Sufi orders and local government administration. This new, dynamic, and pluralistic scene, with its strong youthful and feminist components, is the framework the Sudanese people are operating in as they strive to overcome the residue of the era of Sudanese National Congress Party rule and its repercussions on Egyptian-Sudanese relations.
A second message was our awareness that the political crisis sparked by the declaration of the state of emergency in Sudan and the dismissal of the government on 25 October 2021 persists.
Despite the economic difficulties of the country, a new government has not yet been formed, and some former regime figures are back in office in some government agencies. Protest demonstrations and strikes continue, and, indeed, we saw some of these while we were in Khartoum.
When we visited Khartoum University, we found the campus without students and staff due to a strike. Resistance committees were planning a major protest march and rally in the capital on Friday, the day our delegation was scheduled to depart for Cairo, though they delayed putting up their roadblocks until after we had left. This was an act of kindness that we appreciated and that had symbolic value for us all.
Yet, even as the crisis continues in Sudan, there are signs that the two main sides, the civilians and the military, are moving towards a more pragmatic approach in addressing the 25 October crisis that emerged against a backdrop not lacking in volatility and tensions related to the marginalisation of outlying areas and the difficulties of managing diversity in a complex, multi-ethnic, and multilingual society, and, indeed, a multi-theistic one, as Traditional Sovereignty Council member Malik Agar has noted.
Such difficulties have been compounded by the military forces that parallel the official Sudanese army, such as the Rapid Support Forces and the armed militia movements. In short, Sudan does not have the luxury to gamble on the time factor as a solution to its many political, economic, or security problems. Among the recent signs of flexibility between the two sides has been the release of leaders of the Forces for Freedom and Change (FCC) last month and the willingness expressed by the FCC’s Central Council to engage in a dialogue with the military. This represents real progress.
The third message we took with us was our recognition that there is a large and growing demand in Sudan for Egypt to play a greater role in the country, whether to help resolve the current political crisis or to strengthen relations at the grassroots level between the Sudanese and Egyptian people.
In most, if not all, the meetings our delegation had with various components of Sudanese society we heard two main requests being made. The first came in the form of a question – what took you so long to make this visit? The second was in the form of a demand – that one visit is not enough.
In keeping with the Sudanese people’s well-known generosity, we received countless invitations to visit some of the most important political actors in Sudan. Unfortunately, time did not permit us to accept all these invitations, but their spirit was reciprocated, and the hope remains.
The important point here is that despite the many regional and international players in Sudan in the context of a broad trend of increased attention to Africa as a whole for purposes related to maritime security, the fight against terrorism and illegal migration, and economic investment and cooperation, this has not changed the collective awareness in Sudan of the importance of the Egyptian presence in the country at the government and civil society levels.
It is the “dominion of the Nile,” as FFC Central Council leader Yasser Arman put it. There is also the fact that the Egyptian presence in Sudan has ancient, deep, and diverse foundations that make it easy to build on and develop in accordance with new circumstances and needs.
The question now is what do the Sudanese people want from Egypt and what can the Egyptian government and civil society do for Sudan? This will be the subject of a following article.
* The writer is professor of political science at Cairo University.
*A version of this article appears in print in the 26 May, 2022 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly.