It is probably no coincidence that the sudden, violent crackdown on protesters in central Khartoum followed a series of meetings between the leaders of Sudan’s military junta and autocratic Arab regimes that are actively attempting to shape the country’s future.
Analysts say the rulers of Egypt, Saudi Arabia and the UAE, no friends to democratic governance, are acting in concert to thwart the aspirations of Sudan’s reform movement. All three tried to shore up Omar al-Bashir’s regime, and since he was toppled in April by popular protests they have conspired to foment a counter-revolution. This fateful turning point may now have arrived.
For Egypt’s president, Abdel Fatah al-Sisi, the Khartoum violence brings back old memories. In 2013, Sisi, then an army general, led the assaults on pro-democracy demonstrators in Cairo’s public squares, resulting in hundreds of deaths and injuries.
Sisi’s intervention crushed the Arab spring in Egypt. Mass detentions, executions and de facto dictatorship ensued. Notwithstanding the Khartoum killings, nothing on that scale has yet occurred in Sudan. But tolerance for months of non-violent public protest ended abruptly on Monday.
A visit to Egypt by Gen Abdel Fattah al-Burhan, the head of Sudan’s junta, which is officially called the transitional military council, went ahead after talks with the opposition on forming a new administration broke down at the end of last month.
Although Sisi has publicly pledged to honour the “will of the Sudanese people”, he values a stable, pliable Sudan helping to fight Islamists. He may also hope for Sudanese concessions on border and Nile water disputes in return for backing the generals.
Egypt has already given the junta significant assistance, using its regional influence to rally support. The African Union, which Egypt currently chairs, set a 15-day deadline for the military to hand over power when Bashir fell. After Sisi intervened, the deadline was extended to three months.
Burhan and his deputy, Gen Mohammed Hamdan Dagalo, known as Hemedti, have also been shoring up support in the Gulf. After Cairo, Burhan went to the UAE which, along with Saudi Arabia, has promised $3bn in aid since the security forces seized power. The powerful Emirati crown prince, Mohammed bin Zayed, vowed to help Burhan “preserve Sudan’s security and stability”.
Dagalo, head of the paramilitary Rapid Support Forces that reportedly spearheaded Monday’s crackdown, meanwhile went to Jeddah to meet Mohammed bin Salman, the Saudi crown prince who gained international notoriety after last year’s murder of Jamal Khashoggi.
Sudan’s military already had strong ties to the Gulf monarchies, having assisted in the Saudi-UAE war in Yemen. “Sudan stands with the kingdom against all threats and attacks from Iran and the Houthis,” Dagalo said after the meeting.
Sudan’s pro-democracy movement and civil society activists have deplored all this fraternal back-slapping, viewing its as foreign meddling in Sudan’s sovereign affairs. But familiar power dynamics are working against them.
The generals rightly fear a reckoning should they bow to the opposition’s demand for majority control over any transitional military-civilian government. Regional Arab states want to be able to influence Sudan’s future policy, especially on security issues, terrorism and Iran.
In this respect, the interests of both coincide with those of the Trump administration. Washington has been missing incombat as the Sudan crisis has unfolded. It has publicly urged dialogue. But the western world’s leading democracy has shown zero interest in actively supporting Sudan’s passionately sought democratic renaissance.
Donald Trump seems content to let his autocratic Saudi and UAE allies take the policy lead. Similar considerations inform American attitudes to the conflict in Libya, where Trump has favoured the Gulf Arabs’ choice of a “strongman” leader over the UN-backed government.
Where is Britain, the former colonial power, in Sudan’s hour of need? Irfan Siddiq, the UK ambassador to Khartoum, has energetically lobbied for a peaceful, negotiated settlement. He is very active on Twitter. But the British government as a whole appears uncaring and unengaged.