“Sudan is under intelligence polarisation from the UAE [and] Saudi Arabia on one side and Qatar and Turkey on the other. There is also another tension between Egypt and Ethiopia, who use Sudan in a proxy war against each other.”
New regional tensions threaten Sudan’s fragile democratic transition
A new conflict on Sudan’s eastern borders is threatening the country’s hybrid military-civilian leadership with deepened internal disputes and more foreign intervention in an already fragile democratic transition.
Sudan is ruled by a technocratic government under a military-civilian ruling body known as the Sovereignty Council, which is leading the transition into democratic civilian government in 2022.
After nationwide protests against his 30-year rule, president Omar al-Bashir was overthrown in April 2019 by the military and was replaced by the Transitional Military Council (TMC).
Further protests demanding an end to military rule, and a massacre that left more than 100 protesters dead in Khartoum, led to an agreement on 5 July 2019 between the TMC and a civilian alliance, the Forces of Freedom and Change (FFC), on a 39-month transition process.
‘Sudan is under intelligence polarisation from the UAE and Saudi Arabia from one side and Qatar and Turkey on the other. There is also another tension between Egypt and Ethiopia, who use Sudan in a proxy war against each other’
– Sudanese security expert
Regional actors, meanwhile, are exploiting civil-military rifts in Sudan to impose their own agendas, according to several observers.
The current splits and political uncertainty in the country have prompted attempts by regional and big-power intelligence agencies to turn Sudan into a hub for their counterterror and other intelligence efforts, a senior security expert with close links to the transitional government said.
“Sudan is under intelligence polarisation from the UAE [and] Saudi Arabia on one side and Qatar and Turkey on the other. There is also another tension between Egypt and Ethiopia, who use Sudan in a proxy war against each other,” he told Middle East Eye.
He added that Sudan is already the target of aggressive international meddling because of the conflict of interests of regional axes, with competition between United States and EU on one side and China and Russia on the other.
More locally, the camp of Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates (UAE) want Sudan to be on their side regarding the rift among Gulf states while also seeking to decrease the influence of Qatar and Turkey in Sudan that the Sudanese transitional government inherited from Bashir’s era, he said.
Additionally, Sudan, which has borders with Egypt and Ethiopia, is used by both countries to serve their respective political and economic agendas.
Former US diplomat and Atlantic Council senior fellow Cameron Hudson said that Sudan is struggling to maintain its independence regarding its regional stances as powerful states are putting pressure on its new government.
“Sudan has been struggling for some time to manage its external relations with larger and more powerful states, who all have an interest in the ultimate political outcome in Sudan,” he told MEE.
“We see this with UAE helping to push the Israel [normalisation] deal. We see this in Egypt pushing its views on the Renaissance Dam talks,” said Hudson, who is also the former chief of staff at the office of the US special envoy to Sudan at the US State Department.
Ethiopia, Sudan and Egypt have been locked in a bitter dispute over the filling and operation of the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam (GERD), which remains unresolved although the reservoir behind the dam began filling in July.
Talks have so far stalled, with Egypt and Sudan insisting that binding agreements are needed to secure their future interests and water security, and must be agreed prior to the filling process.
Hopes for stability dashed
Meanwhile, Sudan’s controversial deal to normalise ties with Israel, following in the footsteps of its Gulf allies the UAE and Bahrain, created huge splits among the country’s political class and its people.
It was also perceived to be partly a result of foreign pressure from the UAE and the US, taking advantage of Sudan’s desperate need for financial aid and opening up trade opportunities in the midst of political upheaval, the Covid-19 pandemic, and an economic crisis that has taken a toll on millions of people.
With the normalisation deal with a key Washington ally and the US decision to remove Sudan from the State Sponsors of Terrorism List, transitional rulers have been hoping for more stability and improved economic conditions.
Yet, a nascent conflict in Ethiopia’s Tigray region, bordering the already restive Eastern Sudan, has opened up a new front of tension for the country. Sudanese officials expect up to 200,000 refugees to flee the conflict into Sudan.
Eastern Sudan itself has been recently rocked by widespread protests, with demonstrators last month disrupting the country’s largest port and calling for independence from Khartoum, as indigenous tribes objected to a government-brokered peace deal which they say excluded their voice.
Sudanese political analyst Abdul Galil Suleiman warned that the Tigray fighting is not just threatening Sudan but the entire region, including Ethiopia, Eritrea and Eastern Sudan.
“The fighting is taking place in the strategic city of Humra, which is located in the middle of the borders between Ethiopia, Sudan and Eritrea,” he told MEE.