Nightmare in Sudan

Tuesday 25 Apr 2023

As fighting in Sudan continues for a second week, further escalation of the conflict seems much more likely than a peaceful settlement, writes Dina Ezzat

photo AP
photo AP

Against the backdrop of a fast-deteriorating humanitarian situation, diplomatic moves to contain the conflict in Sudan which threatens to wreck the already frail stability of the Horn of Africa, were intensifying.

On Tuesday, as Al-Ahram Weekly went to press, the UN Security Council (UNSC) was meeting at ministerial level to examine ways to prevent escalation of the conflict between the Sudanese Armed Forces (SAF) and the Rapid Support Forces (RSF) that began in the heart of the Sudanese capital 10 days earlier.

As fears grow over the humanitarian situation in Sudan, where the health system has all but collapsed and many people no longer have access to water and energy, and as concern mounted over the prospect of a major refugee crisis, the UNSC was hoping to secure a presidential or press statement that sends a clear message to the warring sides on the need to endorse the three-day ceasefire announced late on Monday by US Secretary of State Antony Blinken following joint American-Saudi mediation.

Informed Western and Arab diplomatic sources, speaking ahead of the UNSC meeting, said it may well prove difficult for the UNSC to agree a firm statement, not least because Sudan’s de facto leader and head of the SAF Abdel-Fattah Al-Burhan wants the matter kept away from the council.

“The Sudanese permanent representative to the UN tried hard to avoid an open ministerial UNSC meeting on Sudan, arguing that it is an internal Sudanese matter and does not merit international intervention,” said a New York-based diplomat. If there is to be mediation, he added, the Sudanese authorities would prefer either the African Union or the Intergovernmental Authority on Development (IGAD). “They say they want to stick to the principle of African solutions for African problems,” he explained.

Other diplomatic sources said UNSC deliberations betray the lack of any consensus over what needs to be done. They argue that Gabon, Ghana, and Mozambique, African non-permanent members of the UNSC, are leaning towards the Sudanese authorities, and there are question marks over the positions of two permanent members: China, which wants to protect its economic interests in Sudan, and Russia, the current chair of the council, which wants to see the US-UK penned call for a ceasefire in Sudan to fail given the two countries support for Ukraine.

Saudi Arabia, upcoming chair of the Arab summit scheduled to convene in Riyadh in mid-May, and Kenya, which will host the AU summit in July, have each been working to find ways to contain the violence that has so far killed hundreds of Sudanese civilians and which UN Chief Antonio Guterres said on Monday “could engulf the whole region”. Other concerned regional and international players, including Israel, have also been trying to sound out Al-Burhan and RSF leader Mohamed Hamdan Dagalo.

According to an Egyptian diplomatic source, while Egypt is participating in the diplomatic push, Cairo does not expect an immediate diplomatic breakthrough, much less an end to hostilities. He argues that things will probably get worse before any diplomatic process starts to materialise. The most Cairo expects at the moment is for the current half-hearted ceasefire to hold for a few more days, allowing the evacuation of more foreign nationals from Sudan.

By Tuesday, more than 1,000 Egyptians had been evacuated, including 180 Egyptian soldiers who were in Sudan for joint training manoeuvres. More Egyptians, both civilian and military, are expected to return home in the next few days, say government sources. After the killing of a member of Egypt’s diplomatic mission to Sudan on Monday, they will include the vast majority of Egypt’s embassy staff.

Diplomatic and security sources both tell the Weekly that the conflict between Al-Burhan and Dagalo, who served as military and paramilitary aides to Sudan’s ousted dictator Omar Al-Bashir, has entered a zero-sum game phase. They argue that unless one is close to being completely defeated, the war is likely to continue.

“As head of army and effective leader of the country, Al-Burhan is in a difficult position. If he loses the war to a paramilitary leader, he cannot expect to retain his position,” said one diplomatic source. He added that the stakes are just as high for Dagalo who, if defeated, will lose the privileges and resources he has accrued since Al-Bashir appointed him to lead the RSF 10 years ago.

According to Ali Al-Sherif, a Cairo-based retired Sudanese diplomat, the battle between Al-Burhan and Dagalo, which has been simmering for more than a year, is over two basic points: the integration of the RSF into the SAF, and leadership of the integrated body. Dagalo, he said, opposed prompt integration under the current SAF leadership, wanting instead a 10-year-phased integration under shared leadership.

El-Sherif argues that it is impossible for the SAF — “the national army” — to accept that military leadership be fragmented in such a way, though he added that the conflict is also “over control of resources which each side is eyeing away from national interests”.

Al-Sherif believes it is now the responsibility of Sudanese civil forces and concerned regional and international players to side with Sudan’s “national army”, not out of any alliance with its leader but because the SAF is better placed than the RSF to maintain Sudan’s territorial integrity and secure its stability.

“I think the Egyptian position on this conflict is really very positive because it is based on awareness of what it takes to maintain the stability and security of Sudan, which is crucial for the interests of neighbouring countries in East Africa and across the Red Sea.”

Al-Sherif also thinks that, given the balance of capacities and power on the ground, it is only a matter of time before SAF assumes the upper hand. How long it will take, though, is far from clear. And in the meantime, as civilians continue to pay a heavy price, “one can only hope that the collateral damage does not get worse.”

According to international organisations, by Tuesday close to 500 civilians had been killed, over 3,000 civilians injured, and thousands of refugees were reported to be moving towards the borders with Egypt, Chad, and South Sudan.


* A version of this article appears in print in the 27 April, 2023 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly

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