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Can diplomacy end the fighting in Sudan?

Even if the country is too big to fail, observers see challenges in restoring peace before the unrest spreads to neighboring countries.
Sudan refugees

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.

For more on the stakes in Sudan, check out Amberin Zaman’s interview with Cameron Hudson, former US Government adviser on Sudan.

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