The June 3, 2019 massacre of over a hundred civilians in Khartoum by units of Sudan's ruling junta, the Transitional Military Council (TMC), has galvanized some international action. It led the U.S. to appoint a new Special Envoy for Sudan, after believing that it did not need one. The new Envoy, Ambassador Donald Booth, is a veteran career diplomat, who was Obama's Special Envoy for the same portfolio until 2017. In announcing the appointment, U.S. Assistant Secretary of State for African Affairs Tibor P. Nagy outlined four possible scenarios for Sudan going forward – one preferred option and three very bad ones.
The preferred option was, of course, a transitional process that eventually leads to a civilian government acceptable to the Sudanese people. That was a path towards which Sudan appeared to be inching, in fits and starts, in the short period between the fall of Sudanese president Omar Bashir in April 2019 and the June massacre. It is the only path that seems to offer the possibility of a better life for Sudan's 41 million people.
While hope springs eternal, that path seems a more difficult one, since it would involve the security forces surrendering power to the very people who are today accusing the TMC of murder, rape, and abuse. Nagy has reiterated U.S. support for the African Union and Ethiopia's ongoing efforts to get a transition back on track at a time when there is near zero trust between the TMC and the civilian opposition. The TMC has affirmed its willingness to install a civilian government of technocrats to lead the country to elections while keeping real power in its hands. The status quo is a volatile stalemate between the military and the political opposition.
The other, much more dangerous options Nagy mentioned were a return of the Bashir regime, the TMC deciding to hold on to power, or Sudan's descent into a chaotic Libya or Somalia type situation.
A return of the imprisoned Bashir himself to power seems unlikely. But the Islamist National Congress Party (NCP) sunk its claws deep into Sudan's administrative state and national security apparatus during almost 30 years in power. These entities were repeatedly purged to ensure loyalty (in the end, obviously, this did not work). But it is not impossible to imagine a return to some sort of Bashir-like state, a brutal kleptocratic regime clothed in the language of Political Islam under the guise of an Islamist general or colonel, a younger version of Bashir. While the TMC has purged dozens of senior officers suspected of disloyalty in the Sudanese Armed Forces (SAF) and National Intelligence and Security Service (NISS), supposedly pro-Bashir officers, it is unlikely to have gotten all of them. In April, the TMC retired all officers holding the rank of lieutenant general in NISS in an effort to control that powerful organization. Sudan's Islamists also had friends and supporters in Ankara, Doha, and Gaza, and even in Tehran.
Even outside the military, extremists are not hard to come by. Sudanese jihadists have joined ISIS, AQIM (Al-Qa'eda in the Islamic Maghreb) and Al-Shabab, and fought and died in Libya, Mali, Syria, Iraq, and Somalia. A small cell that dubbed itself Al-Qaeda in the Land of the Two Niles killed two U.S. Embassy employees in January 2008. Radical clerics, even some who have pledged loyalty to ISIS, are plentiful and seem to go in and out of prison with frequency. Influential older firebrands, like Sheikh Masa'ad al-Sidairah (b. 1944) have their followers. Moreover, the ideological infrastructure installed by Communist-turned-Islamist president Nimeiry two years before his overthrow in 1985 has proven to be surprisingly durable through various changes of regimes.
While Islamists are a real threat, the possibility of the TMC remaining in power, perhaps under that technocratic fig leaf, seems more likely. Bolstered by some easy credit from Saudi Arabia and the UAE (Bashir was favored by Qatar and Turkey in his latter stage), it may well try to ride out the political storm, realizing that Western attention spans are limited and the list of failed states requiring attention can be a long one.
If the TMC can hold together and keep Sudan's abysmal economic situation from deteriorating further, its leaders may conclude that they can survive more or less intact, despite rampant rumors that the ruling junta leaders are increasingly divided. Cutting off the Internet in order to stifle massive and peaceful opposition demonstrations is, like much else in this option, a temporary stopgap that the civic opposition will eventually overcome. That is actually how Sudan has been governed for decades – temporary stopgap measures postponing real reform and change and aimed at winning a little more time. It is also the default policy for most autocratic regimes in the Middle East.
It is the warning about the fourth option – that Sudan could descend into chaos – that presents something new in the Sudanese tradition. The country has been wretchedly ruled for decades, wracked by tyranny in the center and wars on the periphery, but has never come close to something like that at the center of power. There have been bloody coup attempts in Khartoum and a spectacular, failed raid by Darfur rebels that reached the Nile bridges to Khartoum in 2008, but nothing like chaos. The country is much more homogenous than before with the departure of South Sudan in 2011 and low-intensity brush wars in Darfur, Abyei, South Kordofan and Blue Nile all show the regime's brutal counterinsurgency policy giving them the upper hand.
So why is chaos a real possibility? The answer lies in the internal dynamics of the TMC and in the nature of rule in Sudan, which has traditionally been monopolized by people from Northern Sudan, usually from Ja'alin, Shayqiyya, and Danagla tribal roots. The TMC also has roughly three constituent parts – the Sudanese Armed Forces (SAF), the NISS, and the Rapid Support Forces (RSF), led by the TMC's deputy, Lieutenant General Muhammad Hamdan Dagalo (also known as "Hemedti"). The SAF and NISS were tools of the traditional elite and staffed as such.
The RSF, of course, has its roots in brutal counter-insurgency in Darfur, and its makeup is completely different than that of the army and intelligence services. It has no Northern Sudanese "Jallaba" roots but is composed of Darfur's camel-herding Arab tribes, including Hemedti's own Awlad Mansour sub-section of the Mahariya tribe which is part of the larger Northern Rizeigat tribal confederation. These are the tribes that provided the bulk of the Janjaweed, armed and supported by Khartoum to savagely suppress rebel movements in Darfur. They fought rebels, attacked civilians, and fought each other.
The RSF was an effort by Khartoum to formalize and discipline these unruly but useful units. The basic idea was that desperate and unemployed tribesmen inured to decades of war fighting over grazing rights, land, and water would make good fighters if properly channeled. The RSF was initially controlled by a NISS general with Hemedti as his deputy. But because Bashir didn't trust NISS (or SAF), the RSF was made independent in 2017, giving Hemedti even more power. After all, barely literate Darfuri Arabs could be useful regime shock troops – but they could never hold power where it really mattered in Sudan, in Khartoum, in the Nile Valley, could they?
So Sudan's ruling cupola has clear personal, institutional and ethnic fissures. All of these seem sharper and clearer than they were under Bashir. Bashir's (the NCP, SAF, and NISS) reliance on a military unit like the RSF, made up of a traditionally marginalized, poor, and resentful underclass, now seems like a fateful decision that sowed the seeds of his own demise. In my own encounters with Janjaweed leaders, including Hemedti, they were very aware of how they were being manipulated by their masters in Khartoum. Not being Islamists, they held no deeper loyalty to the Center beyond whatever material benefit or power they could accrue. But beyond politics, SAF and NISS as institutions have their own guns and ambitions that may well not include being ruled by forces they regard as their inferiors. An eventual settling of accounts within the TMC can only take place inside Khartoum.
The aftermath of the June 3 massacre was a key period in which to ascertain the correlation of forces inside the TMC. Hemedti and the RSF were widely blamed for the massacre. Other generals had been purged for less since April 2019. And what has been the result? If anything, Hemedti's profile is even higher than it was before June 3. On June 18,, he appeared live on Sudanese television before thousands of members of "popular organizations" in Khartoum – Sufi religious orders, tribal leaders, pro-military professional organizations (which are smaller than the opposition Sudanese Professionals Association). His address was crude but vigorous, as he called for a rapid transition to an independent government and promised greater power for local and tribal administrations to manage their own affairs. Hemedti isn't planning on going anywhere.
* Alberto M. Fernandez is President of Middle East Broadcasting Networks (MBN). The views expressed herein are solely those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official views of the U.S. Government.
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