Sudan’s fragile transition boosted by turnaround in ties with US, Israel

Khartoum is also a key broker in the Nile River dam talks with Egypt and Ethiopia.

al-monitor A Sudanese man wearing a face mask waves his country's national flag during protests in the capital, Khartoum, to mark the second anniversary of the start of a revolt that toppled the previous government, on Dec. 19, 2020.  Photo by ASHRAF SHAZLY/AFP via Getty Images.

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khartoum, jerusalem, arab spring, nile river, transition, gerd, abdalla hamdok, trump administration

Dec 24, 2020

Is Arab Spring sequel emerging in Sudan?

In case you missed it, Sudan is one of a few Arab countries — including Iraq, Lebanon and Algeria — that has seen the beginnings of what looks increasingly like a sequel to the Arab Spring demonstrations that began 10 years ago this month in Tunisia.

Starting two years ago, protesters, many of them young, took to the streets to demand a new social contract based on transparency and accountability, as well as jobs and decent government services.

Although the sequel isn’t the full-scale, to-the-ramparts protests of the first Arab Spring that began in Tunisia in December 2010 and spread to Egypt, Syria, Libya and throughout the region, the impact of the latest populist movements is already apparent, despite the restrictions of the COVID-19 pandemic.

In Iraq, for example, Prime Minister Adel Abdul Mahdi eventually gave in to pressures to resign and stepped down, replaced by Mustafa al-Kadhimi, who has advanced a careful and systematic program of reform, as Omar Al-Jaffal reports

In Lebanon, there is still no government in place following the catastrophic explosion at Beirut’s port in August. As the economy continues to spiral downward, protesters continue to demand accountable government, as Hanan Hamdan writes

In Algeria, protests led to the ouster of President Abdelaziz Bouteflika, who had served for 20 years, as we report here.

And then there’s Sudan, where this second wave actually kicked off in December 2018, two years ago this month.

Last year we covered Alaa Salah, also known as “Kandaka” or “the Nubian queen,” who led crowds of singing and dancing protesters against President Omar al-Bashir, a dictator and war criminal, who was deposed in April 2019 and replaced by a joint "military-civilian sovereignty council."

"What happened in Sudan," we wrote in October 2019, "may have foreshadowed the latest wave of demonstrations in the region."

A look at recent developments shows how Sudan may be a precursor to other changes.

Hamdok inherits a ‘dire’ economy

The country’s transitional government, led by Prime Minister Abdalla Hamdok, a 61-year-old economist, is a mix of bureaucrats and old-guard military types from the Bashir days.

Hamdok inherited an economy in near collapse and political institutions in advanced decay, if they ever functioned much at all. Sudan has 44 million people, including over 1 million refugees and nearly 2 million internally displaced persons, according to UNHCR

And the number of refugees is growing. So far this year, over 50,000 Ethiopians from the Tigray region have fled into Sudan as a result of the civil conflict there (more on this below).

Sudan’s official unemployment rate is estimated at 16%, but it’s probably much higher than that. The World Bank reports that Sudan’s poverty rate is 36.1%, but this too is an "official" number, and from three years ago, so one can reasonably expect closer to half of the population living below the poverty line. The Bank has classified Sudan as "medium high intensity" for fragile and conflict-affected states — a similar categorization to Iraq in the Middle East, but its plight is more desperate than that of Iraq. 

Sudan’s economic plight has been compounded by the COVID-19 pandemic. This year will be the country’s third year of negative growth. In 2020, Sudan’s economy is expected to contract by 8.4%, (following downturns of 2.3% and 2.5% in 2018 and 2019, respectively), and only a meager 0.8% growth rate is expected next year, according to the International Monetary Fund (IMF).

The October 2020 IMF staff report describes the humanitarian situation as "dire" and notes that "external imbalances are large, inflation is high and rising, the currency is overvalued and competitiveness is weak."

Fast Track: Khartoum to Washington via Jerusalem

Hamdok knew that he could only begin to address Sudan’s economic crisis if he first got off the US terror list, which he managed to do as part of Israel’s normalization of relations with many Arab states.

This move has made his country eligible for US and international assistance and, once implemented, will get Sudan out from under the cloud of many of the lawsuits from US victims of terrorism, as Jared Szuba reports.

Those lawsuits were from families of victims of al-Qaeda-sponsored terrorist acts over 20 years ago. Sudan provided safe haven for al-Qaeda and Osama bin Laden until 1996, and its spot on the US list of state sponsors of terrorism in that era was well earned. In addition, the country’s reputation was tarnished by Bashir’s human rights and war crimes violations, including in Darfur, where activities by state forces have been classified as genocide.

Hamdok pulled off the critical change in status by seizing a fast track presented by the desire of Israel and the United States to forge diplomatic ties between Israel and Arab states.

In other words, the path to normalization with Washington was through normalization with Israel.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu welcomed normalization with Sudan as "good for our pockets," implying the economic and trade potential, and more broadly as part of his "diplomatic tsunami," as Rina Bassist reported. Israel appreciated Sudan’s location on the Red Sea and the opening of Sudanese airspace for El Al flights east.

The normalization process stalled because of the slow workings of transitional government institutions and a yet to be formed legislative council. 

The change in Sudan, and US-Sudan relations, has indeed been "transformative," as The Wall Street Journal editorialized this week. The Trump administration has sought to close its part of the deal. The defense authorization bill passed by the US Congress and vetoed by US President Donald Trump this week includes $700 million in assistance and $230 million in debt relief for Sudan, as we report here. If the bill, or some amended version of it, is signed into law, it restores Sudan’s immunity to certain terror lawsuits in US courts.

Sudan in the middle on GERD talks

Sudan also has carved out an unlikely role as balancer in negotiations with Egypt and Ethiopia over Nile water allocation of the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam (GERD). The dispute, which has arisen over Ethiopia’s desire to dam the Nile upstream from Sudan and Egypt, has threatened at times to turn kinetic.

For the most part, Sudan has backed Egypt in pursuing an internationally brokered solution to the GERD dispute. Sudan has less to lose than Egypt once the GERD is in operation, and may indeed gain from the increased electricity generation for the region. But it also has an advantage with Egypt in assuring a steady and reliable water supply.

Egypt-Sudan ties have improved since Bashir’s ouster. The former dictator had some sympathies for the Muslim Brotherhood and Islamists, and a good relationship with Egypt’s regional rival, Turkey. The transitional government and Egypt have reset ties since last year, and Ankara is on the outs, seeking to gain sway in another regional state, Somalia, to compensate, as Fehim Tastekin reports. Egypt is also looking for leverage in Somalia, as Muhammed Magdy writes here.

Cairo sought to take advantage of a border skirmish on Dec. 15 between Sudanese and Ethiopian forces, with statements of support and solidarity with Khartoum, as Mohamed Sabry reports. Sudan, however, has no interest in escalating tensions with Ethiopia and has given priority to the diplomatic trackMohamed Saied explains the careful diplomatic tactics of Khartoum in balancing its border and water interests with Addis Ababa while staying close to Cairo as well.

‘Fragile’ tolerance for ‘painful’ reforms

The hope for reform in Sudan, as in most countries, eventually shifts from the exhilaration and electricity of the street to agonizing discussions among bankers and bureaucrats with the IMF and other international financial institutions.

Hamdok has requested IMF help, but even when the United States clears accounts with Sudan, Khartoum may still be shut out because of massive external debt and arrears to the IMF, international financial institutions and other creditors. 

"While there is broad agreement between the authorities and staff about the key reform priorities," the IMF reports, "public tolerance for painful reforms is fragile given prolonged economic hardship."

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