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Egypt's hand appears in play behind scenes in Sudan

The head of the Sudanese Transitional Military Council has visited Saudi Arabia, Egypt and the United Arab Emirates, raising questions about Cairo’s role in Sudanese affairs.

CAIRO — Much of the world is wondering who is really running the show in Sudan now that its president of three decades has been ousted. It's certainly not the protesters being crushed by the military as they seek a civilian democracy. Many observers think the real ringmaster behind the military is a tripartite Arab alliance formed by Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates and Egypt.

With the apparent blessing of that alliance, the military currently seems to be in charge of the chaos. The Transitional Military Council is headed by Lt. Gen. Abdel Fattah al-Burhan. The deputy he appointed to the council is Mohammad Hamdan Dagalo, of Darfur infamy. Under now-ousted President Omar al-Bashir, Dagalo had led the Janjaweed militia accused of committing genocide there.

Burhan has made a flurry of trips recently. Cairo was his first stop after Bashir was toppled April 11. Burhan arrived May 25 in Cairo to meet with Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, amid the crackdown on protesters in Sudan.

The visit raised questions about the nature of Egypt's role in Sudan and the support Sisi is offering Burhan.

Burhan was warmly welcomed in the presidential palace. The men held individual bilateral talks, followed by wide-ranging discussions attended by Egyptian Minister of Defense Mohammad Zeki and Chief of Intelligence Abbas Kamel.

Sisi's spokesperson, Bassam Radi, said in a May 25 statement that Sisi stressed “Egypt’s full support for the security and stability of Sudan and for the free will and choices of the brotherly Sudanese people in determining their future and preserving state institutions.” The leaders agreed to “ongoing intensive deliberations to contribute to restoring Sudan’s stability, promoting the Sudanese people’s free will and backing their choices.”

Following the Cairo visit, Burhan returned to the Sudanese capital of Khartoum, then headed to the United Arab Emirates (UAE), then to South Sudan, Ethiopia and Saudi Arabia to participate in the urgent Arab and Islamic summits regarding escalating tension with Iran.

Observers said Burhan’s recent visits show that the Sudanese military council is leaning toward the Saudi, Emirati and Egyptian axis, as opposed to Turkey and Qatar, which are Bashir’s allies.

Babiker Faisal, a leader of the Sudanese opposition group Freedom and Change Forces, said Burhan’s visits also indicate the Transitional Military Council is expanding its powers and authority. Faisal said during a May 29 press conference in Khartoum that the Freedom and Change Forces organization was surprised by the visits.

After four months of protests, the Sudanese army toppled Bashir and formed the council, which seized control of the governmental institutions. There were some failed rounds of negotiations with protester groups, which include political parties and movements, mainly the Sudanese Professionals Association, the National Consensus Forces, Nidaa al-Sudan Forces and the Democratic Unionist Party.

A few days after Burhan visited Cairo and Dubai, the Qatari Al-Jazeera channel reported May 31 that the Transitional Military Council withdrew the permits of the channel’s correspondents and shut down its offices in Khartoum amid mounting tensions between the council and protesters. Meanwhile, Sudanese security forces continued their violent dispersal of protests, which by June 5 had resulted in the deaths of more than 100 people, according to the Central Committee of Sudanese Doctors, which has participated in the demonstrations.

Shamael Nour, a Sudanese journalist who works at Al-Tayar newspaper, told Al-Monitor, “Burhan’s visit to Cairo held two messages. For one, the military council is trying to gain legitimacy by paying visits to other countries to remain in power, especially those that supported it after it seized control. This is a source of concern for the Sudanese people. Second, the Transitional Military Council chose the axis led by Saudi Arabia, the UAE and Egypt, at the expense of Qatar and Turkey.”

In addition, Burhan’s visits were preceded by a visit May 24 by his deputy Dagalo (also known as Hemetti) to Saudi Arabia to meet with Crown Prince Mohammed Bin Salman. Dagalo said Sudanese forces will continue their engagement in the Saudi-led war on Yemen.

According to an Associated Press report published May 8, the tripartite alliance played a key role in convincing Sudanese army generals, through secret channels, to remove Bashir after they grew tired of his shifting loyalties and his contact with their rivals Turkey and Qatar.

Hassan Nafaa, a political science professor at the University of Cairo, said Burhan’s travels reflect that this alliance is coordinating counterrevolutions in the Arab world. Nafaa said he believes the aim is to empower a Sudanese regime similar to Egypt's to control security and order in the country and fight Islamist groups such as the Muslim Brotherhood.

He added that the Egyptian regime is concerned about the Brotherhood's potential rise to power in Sudan after Bashir’s fall. Therefore, Nafaa explained, the Egyptian regime supported Burhan to foil the plans of Islamists and avoid repeating the scenario that occurred in Egypt after the January 25 Revolution of 2011.

Rakha Hassan, Egypt’s former deputy foreign minister, said Cairo is approaching the Sudanese situation with a focus on security rather than politics.

Hassan told Al-Monitor, “Bashir formed an alliance with the Brotherhood, which angered Egypt. [Egyptian] security institutions found it hard to deal with him.”

Egyptian Ambassador to Khartoum Hussam Issa met May 28 with a delegation from the Sudanese Professionals Association in an attempt to dispel their fears that Egypt would support the military council if it planned to remain in power. He told the delegates, “Egypt is committed not to intervene in Sudanese affairs, and it will support the choice of the civil government as soon as it is formed.”

However, Tarek Fahmi, a political science professor at the American University of Cairo, told Al-Monitor, “Egypt’s role is limited to supporting the moves of the Sudanese Transitional Military Council in setting the path of the political process and transition, away from the Turkish-Qatari axis that was close to Bashir.”

Fahmi added, “The Sudanese political forces need Sisi, as he is the head of the African Union this year and is capable of playing a strong role in garnering support for a peaceful transition and shielding Sudan from sanctions, in case the handover of power takes longer than expected.”

He noted that Sisi succeeded in persuading the African Union to grant two additional months to the military council to hand over power, instead of the initial two weeks. Sisi's April 25 call for negotiations among African leaders in Cairo ended with initial approval of an Egyptian proposition to grant the military council three months to relinquish power. Still, the African Union announced June 6 that it was suspending Sudan’s membership over the rising death toll in the brutal crackdown against protesters.

Nour said, “Although the civil forces are still capable of influencing the public, the generals of the council will not walk away easily." The journalist added, "They have huge concerns about handing over power to a civil government that would harm their interests in the Yemeni war, or their economic privileges.”

Along those same lines, Nafaa said he believes that it is likely that the military council is deliberately dragging its feet. 

“I think the Egyptian regime is advising the military council to stall, as stalling guarantees more tension among the revolution forces," the political scientist said, adding, “It seems work is underway to foil the popular revolution in Sudan and empower a military rule with no Brotherhood presence.”

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