What happens in Sudan won’t stay in Sudan

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In 2011, a street vendor set himself on fire in Tunisia, an act that triggered unprecedent waves of protests in the Arab World toppling dictators in Tunisia, Egypt, Libya, and Yemen. Theses waves initially seemed ushering change toward a democratic order in a region that has endured robust authoritarianism. Arab states, where people had dared to dream of a better future, have now descended into protracted civil wars, as in Syria, Libya, Yemen, (not to forget Iraq), or suffered authoritarian backlash, as in Egypt, Tunisia, Bahrain, and Algeria.

When the 2019 Sudan uprisings against long-time dictator Omar al-Bashir created a military-civilian transitional government, the Sudanese hoped that their country would transition to democratic rule. Everyone hoped that Sudan will learn to avoid the Egypt or Syria scenarios. Sudanese, who have been prey to 35 military coups, attempted coups, and plots since independence in 1956 and to systemic violence from various governments, are now likely facing one of the worst conflicts in their history. And the consequences will go far beyond Sudan.

What happened?

On 15 April, citizens of Sudan’s capital, Khartoum, woke up to what many considered inevitable. Sudan’s army and a paramilitary force known as the Rapid Support Force (RSF) have declared war against each other bringing the country to its knees, with little regard to Sudanese people caught in the middle.

This war features two generals: the army is led by Abdel Fattah al-Burhan, and the RSF is led by Mohamad Hamdan Daglo (aka Hemedti). Not long ago, these generals were allies. When the uprisings toppled Omar al-Bashir, they formed a military-civilian government in August 2019. Burhan and Hemedti portrayed themselves as guardians of the revolution. Even though Sudanese did not buy it, Western powers thought they could make reformers out of them.

In October 2021, al-Burhan, with the help of Hemedti, led a coup against his civilian counterparts in the transitional government overturned any hopes for a civilian democratic transition. Following months of internal and external pressure, both generals inked a UN-backed framework in December 2022 to restore Sudan’s transition to democracy. Little attention has been paid as to how this framework exacerbated tensions as army and RSF feared losing power and control to one another during this transition. High-Western and UN diplomats naively did not see the crisis coming, even though many Sudanese and regional observers warned against this scenario.

Regional implications

Sudan is situated at the crossroads between the Middle East, North Africa, and the Horn of Africa, and it is bordering seven countries. The fighting, which started in the capital Khartoum, is now spreading to other parts of Sudan, including Darfur, with both actors mobilizing forces along tribal and ethnic lines.

The regional and international implications of this crisis loom as the fighting is likely turning into a civil war. At this point, no one knows whether the army or the RSF will vanquish the other, but their quest has far consequences for the Middle East and the Horn of Africa. The drag of regional patrons and neighbours, such as Chad, South Sudan, Egypt, Eritrea, Ethiopia, and Libya into a regional conflict is an evident possibility.

The crisis has wider implications as many external powers, who were entangled in Sudan in the last decade for oil and resource exploitation, will not stay still in this conflict. With the relative disengagement of the US in Sudan and Middle Eastern affairs, other international actors increased their involvement. Russia harboured plans to expand its influence in Africa to break its isolation after the Ukraine war. In addition to negotiating military and economic deals allowing Russia to use Sudan’s ports on the main trading routes to Europe, there has been accusations that Russia’s Wagner Group was involved in illicit gold mining in Sudan. China, the largest trading partner with Sudan, has invested greatly in infrastructure and oil extraction in the last years, giving it an important stake in the conflict. Wealthy oil producers, the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, and the United Arab Emirates, who interfered to shape the transition in Sudan and invested in a range of economic and military enterprises, especially in ports on the Red Sea, are also now backing different sides in this fighting.

The crisis is triggering different narratives and reactions. European observers anticipate another refugee crisis, neighbouring countries see in the crisis instability and an additional tax on their crumbling economies, humanitarian organisations must deal with another major humanitarian crisis in the making with no preparation, and international forces are vying for opportunities to expand their influence. But for people in Sudan, their country is unravelling under the weight of accumulated injustices, grievances, and violence. Sudanese are joining their Arab counterparts in paying the price for dreaming of economic welfare and freedom while fighting steadfast structures of imperialism and authoritarianism that keeps on winning.

Written by Dr May Darwich, Associate Professor of International Relations of the Middle East – University of Birmingham.