Groups vs the state in Sudan

Ahmed Mustafa
Tuesday 2 May 2023

The seeds for the Sudan crisis were sown decades ago in the post-Cold War period, writes Ahmed Mustafa


It may be too early to draw conclusions from the destructive war currently taking place in Sudan. Nevertheless, there is a non-urgent lesson that can be derived from it. This is one found in the past developments that led to the current situation. 

Three decades of military rule in Sudan backed by the Sudanese Muslim Brotherhood have damaged the state to the point of making central government almost irrelevant. One of the main pillars of the state, the national army, became infested with elements of either the Muslim Brotherhood or those sympathetic to them during this period. 

The weakening of the state was compounded by ousted former Sudanese president Omar Al-Bashir’s legalisation of the Janjaweed militia that his Muslim Brotherhood government used to destroy the Sudanese region of Darfur. This militia has now morphed into the Rapid Support Forces (RSF) led by Mohamed Hamdan Dagalo, also known as Hemedti, who is fighting army leader Abdel-Fattah Al-Burhan for power in Sudan.

Both groups, the Brotherhood and RSF, are by nature anti-state and have a cult-like or militia mentality. Both see national armies as their antagonists. The regular army is built on discipline and a national doctrine of protecting the state and defending its borders. The Muslim Brotherhood, on the other hand, from which many terrorist offshoots have emerged like Al-Qaeda and the Islamic State group or IS, has a rigid organisational structure built on the notion of tae’a (obedience), and the RSF is in essence tribal in its structure. The first notion is the more dangerous as it bestows a divine illusion on the group’s internal order, while the second mainly revolves around a leader who guarantees satisfying the group’s greed.

Since the collapse of the world’s major ideologies at the end of the Cold War in the 1980s, some anticipated the next century to be a “century of religion.” As such notions coincided with the rise of the so-called Islamist groups in the Middle East, Asia, and Europe, they became the subject-matter of academic studies and talks at conferences and in commentary in the media. 

The idea of religion replacing political ideology did not primarily tie into that, but instead connected to a broader meaning that included cults, activist groups, fringe groups and a radical left or extreme right at opposite ends of the political spectrum. This started to dilute the nation-state as we had come to know it over the past century.

Such groups started to gain clout, to the extent that major countries acknowledged their impact and dealt with them as a power to be considered even if not officially recognised. The rise of polarising organisations also dominated the 1980s and 1990s, varying from NGOs to militant and terrorist groups that were armed and looking to wreak havoc. While is true that people tend to group similar phenomena together, and groups and collectives have always existed, previously they had always been part of a system or under the control of the state and had not acted as rivals to it.

Changes in the previously Communist countries and adverse developments in the Western democracies also played a role in weakening state systems at the end of the 20th century. However, the main rising danger was from various non-state groups. 

The Taliban in Afghanistan might be considered a terrorist movement, for example, but they hold similar ideas to those of the White Supremacists or Neo-Nazi groups in the US or Europe. Militia-like groups emerged as key players in countries that had lost their governing structure, for example in Iraq to Libya through to Syria and Yemen. 

In these countries, various groups were encouraged by the weakening of the state, and in some cases they even went as far as to actively demolish or overthrow it, either by military invasion (like in the Anglo-American invasion of Iraq) or through civil wars.

Sudan was a particular example, as various groups already dominated the state and had for years behaved in a parasite-like fashion, sucking its blood and in the process rendering it a terminally ill patient. As a result, when the Sudanese army ousted Al-Bashir, it was not in a healthy condition to sustain what remained of the state. 

The groups that had leeched off the previous regime grew to find themselves in a position where they could put a strong foot forward to rule the ailing nation.

The rise of groups vs states was a narrative that was almost inevitable given the global infrastructure of the present era. Towards the end of last century, the US and the West, enjoying victory in the Cold War, wanted to reshape the world in their image. 

A New World Order was to be imposed by the rapid growth of advanced military forces, and in the process the idea of sovereign states needed to be reconsidered. Pre-emptive interventionism was the solution, and it found some so-called theorists who were willing to produce the literature to support it. Even late UN secretary-general Kofi Anan wrote an article for the UK magazine the Economist in September 1999 calling for “redefining” the sovereignty of nation states. Fortunately, his contribution did not go further than its pages.

The irony today is that the warring factions in Sudan claim to be standing up against the Muslim Brotherhood and for civilian rule in the country. In fact, both are actively destroying what remains of the state. Both claim to be inclusive and not after any opportunistic benefits. But the reality seems to be that their final goal, whether intentional or by default, is to take over what remains of the primary institution that is still holding the state together: the national army. 

Once this happens, it makes no difference whoever wins power, whether the RSF or the Muslim Brotherhood. The state would have gone beyond reconstruction, and an armed group would have won control of the state.

We are seeing a great deal of analysis and rhetoric about the root causes and conflicts – domestic and foreign – that have led to another state in the region becoming a failed state. But the seeds for this were sowed decades ago, when the world tolerated the rise of groups that weakened the authority and continuity of the state.

* The writer is a London-based seasoned journalist.

A version of this article appears in print in the 4 May, 2023 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly

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