Can diplomacy end the fighting in Sudan?

Raw Text

People fleeing street battles between the forces of two rival Sudanese generals wait with their belongings along a road in the southern part of Khartoum, on April 21, 2023.

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AFP via Getty Images

Week in Review

@AlMonitor

Andrew Parasiliti

@ATParasiliti

Sudan’s transition is worth saving

A once-promising transition in Sudan is collapsing amidst a showdown between two military leaders who are instrumental to the process, but seemingly not committed to its outcome.

On one side is Sudanese Armed Forces Commander Lt. Gen. Abdel Fattah al-Burhan, who seized power in 2021 and upended the carefully negotiated civilian transition; on the other is Lt. Gen. Mohamed ‘Hemedti’ Dagalo , head of the Rapid Support Forces (RSF), which began as the Janjaweed militia associated with the Darfur genocide. Mahmoud Salem has an upcoming piece that breaks down the parties.

Hostilities broke out on April 15 after the collapse of an agreement to integrate the RSF, which reportedly numbers 100,000 fighters, into the Armed Forces. So far more than 330 people have been killed and more than 3,000 injured, according to the World Health Organization . Fighting continued today despite a cease-fire for the Eid al Fitr holiday .

Jeffrey Feltman, former US envoy for Horn of Africa, warned that “a cynical cease-fire premised on power-sharing between the warlords will not be stable.”

A cease-fire is the urgent and necessary first step. Burhan continues to say he is committed to civilian rule, but it is hard to tell. Dagalo has the Wagner Group and Libyan militia leader Khalifa Hiftar in his corner. The good news is that all sides have been talking, and the deal on the table is hard-fought and worth keeping there. Meanwhile, the civilian leaders involved in the process, including former transitional prime minister Abdullah Hamdok , can merely watch from the sidelines until the generals put down their guns.

Risking collapse?

The fighting in Sudan comes in the context of a grim economic forecast, heightening the prospect of a chronically failing or collapsed state. A US official speaking on condition of anonymity to Jared Szuba expressed concern that foreign involvement could lead  Sudan’s crisis  into a Libya-like conflict.

The IMF World Economic Outlook projects Sudan’s economy to retract this year by 2.5%, the worst of all states surveyed in the Middle East and Central Asia (MECA). Inflation is expected to be 71.6% and unemployment 32%, also the worst in the region. About a third of the population lives below the international poverty line of $2.15 per day, and close to 70% below the middle income poverty line of $3.65 per day, according to the World Bank. The bank has classified Sudan under its "fragile and conflict situations” metric as a state facing “high levels of institutional fragility.”

These numbers were tabulated before the war of the generals broke out last week. Expect a revised, downward outlook.

Sudan should be too big to fail, given the stakes of regional powers in the country’s stability. Its population is estimated at 47 million, second to only Egypt in the Arab world, and the tenth largest in Africa. By area, Sudan is the third largest African country behind Algeria and the Democratic Republic of Congo. It has the 13th-largest gold reserves in the world and exports over 130,000 barrels of oil per day, in addition to possessing access to Nile waters and key ports and shipping lanes.

Instability and conflict in Sudan don’t stay in Sudan. Its neighbors include Egypt, Ethiopia, Libya, Eritrea, Chad, and the Central African Republic. (The latter four are also listed on the World Bank’s fragility and conflict situation list).  Sudan both influences and is influenced by its neighbors, including the Libyan and Ethiopian civil conflicts. It is also a central player, aligned with Egypt, in negotiations with Ethiopia over the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Damn (GERD). UNHCR estimates close to 60,000 registered Sudanese refugees in Egypt .

UAE well placed for diplomacy

The UN brokered a new political framework between the civilian and military factions in December 2022 to get the transition back on track. That it blew up seems, from the outside, not the fault of diplomats. This is an inside game, between the generals.

“Something went wrong between the parties,” said UAE professor and columnist Abdelkhaliq Abdulla .

The UAE, in particular, has been heavily invested in Sudan, as it has been throughout the Horn of Africa. Its engagement has led to an understated and unusually effective diplomatic approach. Its initiatives have been closely coordinated with the UN and its “Quad” partners — the US, UK, and Saudi Arabia — as well as Arab and regional allies such as Egypt.

“The UAE may be best positioned for diplomacy in Sudan and the Horn, where it has a number of interests shared by others,” said Abdulla, including stability in Egypt and preventing the return of the Muslim Brotherhood and radical Islamists.

“The UAE would never take sides in Sudan, not a chance,” said Abdulla, dismissing some reports that the UAE backs Hemedti.

“Our interest is in stability, and we have outstanding relations with all Sudanese, including Hamdok and the civilian parties,” he added.

The UAE helped negotiate the release of Egyptian troops taken captive by the RSF this week.

End of a ‘new chapter’

Given the events of the past week, it might be difficult to recall the genuine excitement associated with the demonstrations that began in Sudan in December 2018 and eventually deposed Sudanese dictator Omar Al-Bashir in April 2019.

There was Alaa Salah , also known as “Kandaka” or “the Nubian queen,” who led crowds of singing and dancing protesters against Bashir.

Sudan foreshadowed a  kind of sequel  to the Arab Spring, as popular demonstrations erupted in Algeria, Iraq, Lebanon and elsewhere. Its role in the region became increasingly impactful, and enthusiasm was high that a seemingly endless cycle of chronic poverty, abusive and corrupt governance, and, in Darfur, genocide, had been broken in Sudan via a new social contract and plan for civilian rule.

In March 2021, US Secretary of State  Antony Blinken   welcomed a “new chapter” in US-Sudan relations after Khartoum paid $335 million to compensate victims of al-Qaeda terrorism in the 1998 bombings of the US embassies in Kenya and Tanzania and the USS Cole in Yemen in 2000, and removing Sudan from the US list of state sponsors of terrorism.

Sudan’s delisting had been in the works for a while, but was accelerated by its decision to join the Abraham Accords in January 2021.

The good news kept coming. Hamdok, a highly regarded Sudanese and international public administrator with a background in economics, seemed the right fit to help ease Sudan’s transition to civilian rule. In June 2021, the IMF approved Sudan for its Heavily Indebted Poor Countries Initiative (HIPC) for debt relief. The country’s debt was dropped from $56 billion to $28 billion via its admittance to the program. More relief was expected as Sudan continued its economic reform program under the transition.

One casualty of the collapse of the framework agreement and the present conflict is that Sudan is unlikely to take the final step to normalize ties with Israel anytime soon. Ben Caspit has the scoop here , including on Israel’s mediation efforts and Mossad’s contacts with Hemedti.

US Secretary of State Antony Blinken has also been in touch with both Burhan and Dagalo, after an attack on a US diplomatic convoy attributed to the RSF. The US is preparing contingency plans to evacuate its embassy staff, as Jared Szuba and Elizabeth Hagedorn report .

Related Topics

Sudan coup

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People fleeing street battles between the forces of two rival Sudanese generals wait with their belongings along a road in the southern part of Khartoum, on April 21, 2023. - AFP via Getty Images. Week in Review. @AlMonitor. Andrew Parasiliti. @ATParasiliti. Sudan’s transition is worth saving. A once-promising transition in Sudan is collapsing amidst a showdown between two military leaders who are instrumental to the process, but seemingly not committed to its outcome. On one side is Sudanese Armed Forces Commander Lt. Gen. Abdel Fattah al-Burhan, who seized power in 2021 and upended the carefully negotiated civilian transition; on the other is Lt. Gen. Mohamed ‘Hemedti’ Dagalo , head of the Rapid Support Forces (RSF), which began as the Janjaweed militia associated with the Darfur genocide. Mahmoud Salem has an upcoming piece that breaks down the parties. Hostilities broke out on April 15 after the collapse of an agreement to integrate the RSF, which reportedly numbers 100,000 fighters, into the Armed Forces. So far more than 330 people have been killed and more than 3,000 injured, according to the World Health Organization . Fighting continued today despite a cease-fire for the Eid al Fitr holiday . Jeffrey Feltman, former US envoy for Horn of Africa, warned that “a cynical cease-fire premised on power-sharing between the warlords will not be stable.” A cease-fire is the urgent and necessary first step. Burhan continues to say he is committed to civilian rule, but it is hard to tell. Dagalo has the Wagner Group and Libyan militia leader Khalifa Hiftar in his corner. The good news is that all sides have been talking, and the deal on the table is hard-fought and worth keeping there. Meanwhile, the civilian leaders involved in the process, including former transitional prime minister Abdullah Hamdok , can merely watch from the sidelines until the generals put down their guns. Risking collapse? The fighting in Sudan comes in the context of a grim economic forecast, heightening the prospect of a chronically failing or collapsed state. A US official speaking on condition of anonymity to Jared Szuba expressed concern that foreign involvement could lead  Sudan’s crisis  into a Libya-like conflict. The IMF World Economic Outlook projects Sudan’s economy to retract this year by 2.5%, the worst of all states surveyed in the Middle East and Central Asia (MECA). Inflation is expected to be 71.6% and unemployment 32%, also the worst in the region. About a third of the population lives below the international poverty line of $2.15 per day, and close to 70% below the middle income poverty line of $3.65 per day, according to the World Bank. The bank has classified Sudan under its "fragile and conflict situations” metric as a state facing “high levels of institutional fragility.” These numbers were tabulated before the war of the generals broke out last week. Expect a revised, downward outlook. Sudan should be too big to fail, given the stakes of regional powers in the country’s stability. Its population is estimated at 47 million, second to only Egypt in the Arab world, and the tenth largest in Africa. By area, Sudan is the third largest African country behind Algeria and the Democratic Republic of Congo. It has the 13th-largest gold reserves in the world and exports over 130,000 barrels of oil per day, in addition to possessing access to Nile waters and key ports and shipping lanes. Instability and conflict in Sudan don’t stay in Sudan. Its neighbors include Egypt, Ethiopia, Libya, Eritrea, Chad, and the Central African Republic. (The latter four are also listed on the World Bank’s fragility and conflict situation list).  Sudan both influences and is influenced by its neighbors, including the Libyan and Ethiopian civil conflicts. It is also a central player, aligned with Egypt, in negotiations with Ethiopia over the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Damn (GERD). UNHCR estimates close to 60,000 registered Sudanese refugees in Egypt . UAE well placed for diplomacy. The UN brokered a new political framework between the civilian and military factions in December 2022 to get the transition back on track. That it blew up seems, from the outside, not the fault of diplomats. This is an inside game, between the generals. “Something went wrong between the parties,” said UAE professor and columnist Abdelkhaliq Abdulla . The UAE, in particular, has been heavily invested in Sudan, as it has been throughout the Horn of Africa. Its engagement has led to an understated and unusually effective diplomatic approach. Its initiatives have been closely coordinated with the UN and its “Quad” partners — the US, UK, and Saudi Arabia — as well as Arab and regional allies such as Egypt. “The UAE may be best positioned for diplomacy in Sudan and the Horn, where it has a number of interests shared by others,” said Abdulla, including stability in Egypt and preventing the return of the Muslim Brotherhood and radical Islamists. “The UAE would never take sides in Sudan, not a chance,” said Abdulla, dismissing some reports that the UAE backs Hemedti. “Our interest is in stability, and we have outstanding relations with all Sudanese, including Hamdok and the civilian parties,” he added. The UAE helped negotiate the release of Egyptian troops taken captive by the RSF this week. End of a ‘new chapter’ Given the events of the past week, it might be difficult to recall the genuine excitement associated with the demonstrations that began in Sudan in December 2018 and eventually deposed Sudanese dictator Omar Al-Bashir in April 2019. There was Alaa Salah , also known as “Kandaka” or “the Nubian queen,” who led crowds of singing and dancing protesters against Bashir. Sudan foreshadowed a  kind of sequel  to the Arab Spring, as popular demonstrations erupted in Algeria, Iraq, Lebanon and elsewhere. Its role in the region became increasingly impactful, and enthusiasm was high that a seemingly endless cycle of chronic poverty, abusive and corrupt governance, and, in Darfur, genocide, had been broken in Sudan via a new social contract and plan for civilian rule. In March 2021, US Secretary of State  Antony Blinken   welcomed a “new chapter” in US-Sudan relations after Khartoum paid $335 million to compensate victims of al-Qaeda terrorism in the 1998 bombings of the US embassies in Kenya and Tanzania and the USS Cole in Yemen in 2000, and removing Sudan from the US list of state sponsors of terrorism. Sudan’s delisting had been in the works for a while, but was accelerated by its decision to join the Abraham Accords in January 2021. The good news kept coming. Hamdok, a highly regarded Sudanese and international public administrator with a background in economics, seemed the right fit to help ease Sudan’s transition to civilian rule. In June 2021, the IMF approved Sudan for its Heavily Indebted Poor Countries Initiative (HIPC) for debt relief. The country’s debt was dropped from $56 billion to $28 billion via its admittance to the program. More relief was expected as Sudan continued its economic reform program under the transition. One casualty of the collapse of the framework agreement and the present conflict is that Sudan is unlikely to take the final step to normalize ties with Israel anytime soon. Ben Caspit has the scoop here , including on Israel’s mediation efforts and Mossad’s contacts with Hemedti. US Secretary of State Antony Blinken has also been in touch with both Burhan and Dagalo, after an attack on a US diplomatic convoy attributed to the RSF. The US is preparing contingency plans to evacuate its embassy staff, as Jared Szuba and Elizabeth Hagedorn report . Related Topics. Sudan coup. Join hundreds of Middle East professionals with Al-Monitor PRO. Business and policy professionals use PRO to monitor the regional economy and improve their reports, memos and presentations. Try it for free and cancel anytime. Already a Member? Sign in. Individual. Corporate/Campus. The Middle East's Best Newsletters. Join over 50,000 readers who access our journalists dedicated newsletters, covering the top political, security, business and tech issues across the region each week. Delivered straight to your inbox. Free. Subscribe for free. What's included: Our Expertise. Free newsletters available: The Takeaway & Week in Review. Middle East Minute (AM) Daily Briefing (PM) Business & Tech Briefing. Security Briefing. Gulf Briefing. Israel Briefing. Palestine Briefing. Turkey Briefing. Iraq Briefing. Premium Membership. Join the Middle East's most notable experts for premium memos, trend reports, live video Q&A, and intimate in-person events, each detailing exclusive insights on business and geopolitical trends shaping the region. $ 25.00 / month billed annually. $ 31.00 / month billed monthly. Go annual and save 20% Become Member. Become Member. Start with 1-week free trial. What's included: Our Expertise. AI-driven. Memos - premium analytical writing: actionable insights on markets and geopolitics. Live Video Q&A - Hear from our top journalists and regional experts. Special Events - Intimate in-person events with business & political VIPs. Trend Reports - Deep dive analysis on market updates. Text Alerts - Be the first to get breaking news, exclusives, and PRO content. All premium Industry Newsletters - Monitor the Middle East's most important industries. Prioritize your target industries for weekly review: Capital Markets & Private Equity. Venture Capital & Startups. Green Energy. Supply Chain. Sustainable Development. Leading Edge Technology. Oil & Gas. Real Estate & Construction. Banking. We also offer team plans. Please send an email to pro.support@al-monitor.com and we'll onboard your team. Already a Member? Sign in. Security Briefing Security Briefing. Middle East defense and security in your inbox. Latest News. LA art exhibition on Middle East women opens amid US reproductive rights row by Romain FONSEGRIVES | AFP | Apr 21, 2023. Paris court gives Canada-based professor life for 1980 synagogue bomb by Anne-Sophie LASSERRE | AFP | Apr 21, 2023. Out of Khartoum, Sudanese fleeing violence find 'taste of life' Agence France-Presse | AFP | Apr 21, 2023. See more. Podcasts. Former Sudan advisor to US government Cameron Hudson says US sanctions on Sudan's rival generals could have averted conflict. See more. Videos. Is Netanyahu winning or losing on judicial reform in Israel? Live Q&A webinar with Ben Caspit. Latest developments in Iran's economy: Live Q&A webinar with Bijan Khajehpour. See more. Start your PRO membership today. Join the Middle East's top business and policy professionals to access exclusive PRO insights today. Join Al-Monitor PRO. Start with 1-week free trial.