Coup in Sudan and the misalignment within the Arab Troika
- by Federico Donelli, PhD
- article available here
One week after the seizure of power by the General Abdel Fattah Abdelrahman al-Burhan the country is still in chaos. A portion of civil society that is represented by the Forces of Freedom and Change (FFC) coalition has called for civil disobedience. Over the last few days, clashes have been violent and have led to hundreds of arrests, many injuries, and some casualties among civilians. Although it is too early to say how the overall situation in Khartoum is going to develop, the Sudanese political events of the last month have highlighted the intertwining of local and regional political dimensions. Since the 2019 revolution that led to the overthrow of Omar al-Bashir's regime, Sudan's political transition has been the focus of the concerns of some regional players such as Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, and Egypt. The so-called Arab troika has not only watched Sudanese events but has tried to guide them through financial and diplomatic support. The action of the three regional players was based on a shared understanding of the future of Sudan. Over the last twelve months, however, their positions have progressively diversified. Some international developments, such as the change of US administration, have prompted the shift.
Further, foreign policy choices made by each player, above all the revival of Egypt's African projection, have contributed to accelerating this process. As a result, to advance their interests within Sudan, each regional player has chosen to strengthen ties with one of the Sudanese political actors. The cautious attitude adopted by Riyadh after Biden's election led Saudi Arabia to withdraw from Sudanese political affairs while maintaining financial ties. Until that moment Saudi Arabia had supported al-Burhan. The vacuum was filled by Egypt, which saw in al-Burhan a reliable and akin partner. The trust relationship between President al-Sisi and al-Burhan is based on bilateral military ties. The past two months have shown how there has been a significant convergence of security interests between Sudan and Egypt, especially towards Ethiopia on the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam (GERD) issue. By contrast, the Egyptian authorities view General Mohamed Hamdan Dagolo, known as Hemeti with suspicion. Cairo considered the head of the Rapid Support Forces (RSF) unreliable because Hemeti was too close to the past regime. In recent years, Hemeti, who controls many of the military's financial assets, has operated with the support of Abu Dhabi. Although it is not possible to talk about a fracture within the troika, there is no doubt that visions are less aligned than a few months ago. Egypt has begun to perceive the presence and influence of the two Gulf monarchies in the Horn of Africa as interference in what it considers its natural sphere of influence.
The differences between regional players have thus embedded into the intra-military rivalry between the Sudanese Armed Forces (SAF) and the Rapid Support Forces (RFS). The alliance of convenience between al-Burhan and Hemeti has not addressed the grounds for conflict. The rivalry concerns the political leadership of the country and the control of the more than 250 Sudanese companies owned by the military. Though latent, the rivalry is constantly ready to burst. Since the coup, Hemeti and the RSF have taken a much more defiladed position compared to al-Burhan and the SAF. A wait-and-see choice that could allow Hemeti to retain power if not even gain it if al-Burhan's coup fails. Conversely, the feud between SAF and RSF is likely to flare up in the medium term if al-Burhan's takeover succeeds. In that case, their external sponsors would risk being dragged into opposing sides. An eventuality that would contribute to further cooling the relationship between Egypt and the UAE. In the coming weeks, to defuse this danger al-Burhan could exploit an internal or border crisis (al-Fashaqa) to regroup the security forces and divert attention away from Khartoum.
Dr. Federico Donelli
University of Genoa,