In what was seen as an escalation by the Sudanese regular armed forces (SAF), units belonging to the rival Rapid Support Forces (RSF) poured into the northern Sudanese town of Merowe, site of a strategic airport, in early April. Negotiators, both foreign and domestic, were working to defuse the situation which saw a standoff of units from both forces, continuing as of April 14.
RSF and SAF officers enjoying a Ramadan Iftar in Nyala, Darfur, April 2023
The move was condemned by the SAF in a strongly worded statement on April 13, saying that "this deployment and repositioning of forces violate the tasks and work system of the Rapid Support Forces, and it clearly violates the law and the directives of the central and state security committees. Its continuation will inevitably cause more divisions and tensions that may lead to the collapse of security in the country." There was a concerted effort by pro-SAF media outlets and voices friendly to the previous Islamist regime to amplify this narrative.
The RSF meanwhile sought to downplay the deployment to the North, portraying it as merely part of its regular tasks, which include "working in desert areas to confront human trafficking, illegal immigration, combat smuggling and drugs, transnational crime and confront armed looting gangs wherever they are found."
The escalation came days after the failure of talks between the two armed factions discussing the terms of how and when, as part of the democratic transition process, Sudan creates one army to be made up of the SAF, the RSF and various former rebel groups. The SAF wanted the RSF incorporated into the army sooner (in order to control it), while RSF wanted it to happen later, 10 years in the future, expecting that the relative strength of each group could change over time.
The division between the two factions is not new, and even precedes the overthrow of long time Islamist dictator Omar Al-Bashir in April 2019. The RSF was the outgrowth of something regimes in Khartoum had done for years – create paramilitary or alternate armed forces to either be a counterweight to the regular army or to do the dirty work that the army couldn't or wouldn't do. The RSF is, at its core, essentially a tribal militia initially created as cheap cannon fodder that then evolved into a military pseudo-fire brigade or praetorian guard for the Khartoum regime. But the RSF turned on its masters in 2019 and changed history.
And the RSF is an upstart organization led by an upstart, the notorious Hemedti – Gen. Muhammad Hassan Daglo, unlettered camelherder turned Janjaweed turned deputy interim ruler of Sudan. Arrayed against Daglo and the RSF is the military establishment that has ruled Sudan, badly and brutally, for most of its independent history. General Abdel Fattah Al-Burhan is the latest iteration of past generals turned ruler – Abboud, Nimeiry, Al-Bashir, all from the same hidebound institution and usually from the same part of Sudan.
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And while Hemedti and Al-Burhan continue to maneuver for power, Sudan is in deep economic, political and social crisis. The country essentially has no government but two armies, parasitical entities feeding off of and prolonging the misery of a state and a long-suffering people facing a multiple challenges. The Sudanese people, as seen on the streets, want neither man to rule.
But the RSF attempt to seize Merowe is more than it seems, and should be placed within the context of both recent events and Sudan's history. The reckless Merowe move comes as the SAF pushes aggressively into Darfur, the RSF's home base, to create new units of border guards in that troubled area as a counterweight to the RSF. Khartoum had created border guard units years before, and they were eventually absorbed into what became the RSF.
If Darfur is the RSF's home base, Merowe is part – a key part – of the SAF's home base. Northern State, where Merowe lies, is the heartland of Sudan's military. Nimeiry, Al-Bashir and Al-Burhan all come from this state. The Merowe airport/airbase was lengthened and modernized by the Bashir regime in 2006 as part of preparing for a military and security redoubt for the regime should the situation in Sudan deteriorate elsewhere in Sudan's regions during the turmoil before and after the end of Sudan's civil war. The idea was that Northern State was the protected home ground, the loyal last stand, of the regime should things go wrong. It was then not surprising that the Sudanese Islamist Tayyiba TV is posting, during this latest crisis, multiple videos of locals in Merowe supporting the SAF against the RSF interlopers – this is a strongly pro-SAF area.
So Hemedti's provocation in the SAF's Northern State backyard is in a way a response to the SAF's provocation in Darfur. Both sides are poaching and provoking, but the RSF has no air force, and trying to neutralize a modern airbase within the SAF's traditional safe haven is a tempting prize.
The SAF and RSF are different and draw from different areas. The SAF is still a hotbed of Islamist activism within the ranks of an organization that was never fully purged of loyalists from the Bashir/NCP years. The RSF is openly anti-Islamist, and Hemedti, seeking internal allies against the SAF, has positioned himself as regretting the October 25, 2021 military coup carried out by his partner Al-Burhan. But both rival strongmen share one thing: Both openly thirst for power, with a thirst that is barely concealed in the rhetoric each utilizes to maneuver internally and internationally.
And while the struggle in Sudan is mostly internal, there are a couple of key international elements that further muddy the waters. The SAF and Al-Burhan are the best thing that Egypt has seen in Sudan for decades. Sudan's former colonial masters in Cairo (Egyptian ties to Sudan, and intervention in Sudan, go back centuries) see in the Sudanese Army's current leadership their best hope for influence along the Nile Valley, at a time when Egypt faces an uncertain situation both internally and with Ethiopia. Sudan was a major conduit for assistance to Tigrayan rebels in Ethiopia during the recent war.
So while there are still Islamists inside the SAF, Egypt is prioritizing the emergence of authoritarian military rule in Sudan that would mirror its own as much as possible – devout but anti-Islamist (anti-Muslim Brotherhood but relatively sympathetic to other types of conservative Islam) with a military economic empire above and immune from the civilian state. Such a regime in Khartoum would be in lockstep with Cairo on the issue of the waters of the Nile and hostile to Ethiopia.
If Egypt prioritizes the dominance of the Sudanese Army and the Nile Question, the RSF is supported by, among others, the United Arab Emirates (UAE). And here, the shadow of Ethiopia looms large as well. The UAE, and by extension Hemedti, are seen by Egypt as supporters of Ethiopia. It is perhaps a bitter irony that the RSF and its leader – originally Darfur Arab tribesmen used by Khartoum to fight and kill "African" tribes two decades ago – are seen by Cairo as the more "African" side versus the more "Arab" (meaning pro-Egypt) SAF.
There is no doubt that the maneuvering will continue in Sudan as long as the two rivals exist and are equally matched. Neither Hemedti nor Al-Burhan want open civil war, at least not until one of them thinks he has the clear upper hand. But miscalculation by them or their subordinates can happen at any time. And both will cynically want to portray the other – to the Sudanese people and to the international community – as the culprit should things go awry.
*Alberto M. Fernandez is Vice President of the Middle East Media Research Institute (MEMRI).
 Youtube.com/watch?v=kqE-IRX-iU0, April 13, 2023.
 Youtube.com/watch?v=V_L0nhncti8, April 124, 2023.
 Fsf.gov.sd/news/2917, April 12, 2023.
 MEMRI Daily Brief No. 182, The Stunning Revenge of Sudan's Former 'Janjaweed', April 15, 2019.
 Youtube.com/watch?v=OgQ3wYRGCuA, April 13, 2023.