January 6, 2021 MEMRI Daily Brief No. 250

A Second Chance For Sudan

January 6, 2021 | By Amb. Alberto M. Fernandez*
Sudan | MEMRI Daily Brief No. 250

With one exception, the Trump administration certainly did not distinguish itself when it comes to Africa.[1] But that exception, Sudan, is an important one. Through a bulldozer intensity focused on helping make peace between Israel and its Arab neighbors, through seemingly crude pressure and clumsy creativity, the administration came through with three great deliverables for Khartoum's transitional government: removing Sudan from the State Sponsors of Terrorism List, restoring Sudan's sovereign immunity for past complicity with terrorist acts, and providing both bilateral and IMF debt relief that will make Sudan able to more easily tap international assistance for very poor countries. Khartoum in return has to move forward with normalizing relations with Israel.[2]

I am one of those who criticized the administration for pressing too hard to get Sudan's fragile transitional government to agree on Israel – even though I support normalization – but in the end, it worked and, like the other agreements between Israel and Arab states over the past few months, this is a solid, respectable diplomatic achievement.

Sudan, after 30 years of brutal dictatorship, has been given a second chance. That chance has been principally won by the Sudanese people themselves, who in 2018 and 2019 rose up against the Omar Al-Bashir regime and, with the help of key parts of the Sudanese military establishment, brought the regime to an end. But certainly, the international community also played a helpful secondary role. And second chances in the Arab world are nothing to look down upon, as we see several countries – Lebanon, Syria, Iraq, Yemen – in deep, seemingly intractable existential crises. Sudan is also in crisis, and yet one can only compare it to the situation in Lebanon and see real hope and the possibility of progress on the banks of the Two Niles.

Sudan's most immediate problem is economic. Inflation ran at over 200% in 2020, exacerbating already widespread poverty and hunger. Supplying fuel, food, medicine, and electricity are major challenges. GDP in 2020 decreased even more than it had the past two years as a result of the coronavirus pandemic. Almost half of all Sudanese between the ages of 15 and 64 suffered from malnutrition as children. And with freedoms won by the Sudanese Revolution comes the right to demonstrate and complain, loudly. Expectations and frustrations are very high. Sudan's biggest challenge over the next two years is finding a way to show tangible forward motion towards a better life for its people. According to the country's Charter for the Transitional Period, democratic elections are to be held by late 2022; these would be the first fully free elections in Sudan since 1986.

The second, no less daunting, challenge that Sudan faces is that of civilian-military relations, specifically how to rein in a sprawling military establishment accustomed to both economic and political privilege. In Sudan, there are two military entities, the Sudanese Armed Forces (SAF) and the Rapid Support Forces (RSF), the paramilitary forces built up by the previous regime out of the Darfur conflict and used as a type of Praetorian Guard by Bashir in his last years. Both SAF and RSF are mentioned by name in the Transitional Charter as "national military institutions that protect the unity and sovereignty of the nation." SAF's Abdel Fattah al-Burhan and RSF Commander Muhammad Hamdan Dagalo (AKA "Hemeti") are, respectively, chairman and vice-chair of Sudan's Sovereignty Council.

Continued human rights abuses by RSF have led to repeated calls for its disbanding and incorporation into the ranks of the regular military.[3] Even if RSF and Dagalo were squeaky clean (they are not) there would be tension, given that this force is largely recruited from Sudan's Darfur Arab community, a small marginalized portion of the population that has never held real political power.[4] The relationship between RSF and SAF and the relationship between both of them and the civilian transitional government and Sudan's activist civil society is a major flashpoint that bears careful monitoring. One of the challenges going forward for the international community will be helping Sudan manage these relationships. It is also an opportunity for the United States to work with Arab allies – Egypt, Saudi Arabia, United Arab Emirates – in constructive engagement to make sure that Sudan's military caste stays within its lane. This will be a heavy lift.

When elections do come in Sudan the current leadership – including al-Burhan, Hemeti, and civilian Prime Minister Abdallah Hamdok – will not be able to run for high office. This raises the question of who exactly will run. Already we have seen Islamists – whether connected to Bashir's now-dissolved National Islamic Front (NIF)/National Congress Party (NCP), or his former comrade Hassan al-Turabi's Popular Congress Party (PCP) – agitating for a role in the political process. The head of the former rebel group Justice and Equality Movement (JEM), which had ties to al-Turabi's PCP, recently told Al-Jazeera that Islamist groups should be allowed to resume political activity inside the country.[5] Islamists are already active.[6] A formerly pro-NCP Sudanese Islamist satellite television channel Al-Tayyiba, shut down in Khartoum, now operates from Turkey, which has become a safe haven for Islamist anti-Arab regime broadcasters in recent years.[7]

The case of Sudan and political Islam is unique in the Arab world. This is not a place, like so many others, where authoritarian, ostensibly secular or leftist or pro-West regimes suppressed the Muslim Brotherhood. Sudan is the country that was ruled outright with an iron hand – waging genocidal war and supporting global terrorism – by Islamists from 1989 to 2019, and where Islamists had considerable power even before, during the last years of the Nimeiry dictatorship and the democratically elected government of the late Sadeq al-Mahdi. It was Al-Mahdi's U.S.-supported government, not Bashir's NCP, that began the practice of arming Darfur tribesmen with automatic weapons and enrolling them as militia against the Sudan People's Liberation Army (SPLA). These are the historic roots of Hemeti's private army of today. Nimeiry (also an American ally at the time) restarted the Civil War against the South Sudanese in 1983 for the sake of shari'a law.[8]

It would seem to be a great tragedy if, coming out of three decades of Islamist dictatorship, a democratic process would give birth to still another Sudanese experiment in illiberal Islamist politics. But in a true democracy, results should be respected. Regardless of what the ground rules are, the coming political process leading to 2022 elections (and after) will be complicated.

It is in the interest of the United States, and I would argue, of the Sudanese people that a future Sudan – one at peace with itself and its neighbors and supported by the West – would be something like what is described in the 2019 transitional charter:

"The Republic of Sudan is an independent, sovereign, democratic, parliamentary, pluralist, decentralized state, where rights and duties are based on citizenship without discrimination due to race, religion, culture, sex, color, gender, social or economic status, political opinion, disability, regional affiliation or any other cause."[9]

This is the last of the three great challenges – economic crisis, civil-military relations, and the political process leading to elections – that Sudan, and those in the international community who care about Sudan, must overcome in the next two years.

*Alberto M. Fernandez is Vice President of MEMRI and served as a diplomat in Sudan from 2007 to 2009.


[1], December 21, 2020.

[2], October 23, 2020.

[3], January 5, 2020.

[4] MEMRI Daily Brief No. 182, The Stunning Revenge of Sudan's Former 'Janjaweed', April 15, 2019.

[5], December 12, 2020.


[8], July 3, 2019.

[9], August 6, 2019.

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