U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo with Sudanese Prime Minister Abdalla Hamdok on August 25, 2020 in Khartoum. Anadolu Agency via Getty Images.
Ever since the Trump administration announced on August 13 that the UAE would normalize ties with Israel, speculation and rumors have abounded that Sudan would soon follow suit. The spokesman for the Sudanese foreign ministry, Haider Badawi Saddiq, seemed to confirm this just days after the announcement when he told Sky News Arabia that his government was preparing to sign an agreement with Israel.
Apparently Saddiq was not a very good spokesman, as he was fired the next morning, and the acting foreign minister was quick to deny that normalization was under discussion. Days later, during a visit by Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, the Sudanese prime minister Abdalla Hamdok stated that the transitional government has no mandate to normalize ties with Israel.
To make matters more complicated, earlier this year Sudan’s leading general met with Netanyahu in Uganda and pledged to begin working toward normalization. And, more recently, Sudan’s ambassador to the U.S. acknowledged that discussions over normalization were underway. Even then, he gave only vague statements about the prospects, on the one hand noting that “it is difficult to say that the Sudanese people are ready and willing to normalize ties with Israel,” and on the other that Arabs realize “a change of strategy is needed,” vis-à-vis Israel. Then on September 15, Sudan’s chargé d’affaires (but not the ambassador) reportedly attended the signing of the Bahraini-Israeli agreement at the White House. Israeli media, meanwhile, have reported on multiple occasions—the most recent was last Wednesday—that an agreement with Sudan is imminent.
So what explains the mixed messages, and what are the real prospects for Sudan-Israel normalization?
Answers lie in the uncertain state of Sudan’s politics. Sudan is not a small, highly centralized monarchy like Bahrain, which made it easier for that country to join the UAE. In fact, there is no coherent Sudanese government at all. The country is in the midst a historic but chaotic political transition following the ouster of its long-time ruler Omar al-Bashir last spring.
Bashir came to power in a coup in 1989 and subsequently began refashioning Sudan as an Islamist state. In the early 1990s, Bashir opened up the country’s borders to terrorists such as the Abu Nidal Organization (a particularly bloody PLO splinter group) and Osama bin Laden’s nascent al-Qaeda. In response, the U.S. imposed sanctions on Sudan, which multiplied in the early 2000s as Bashir’s regime escalated a brutal war in Darfur, deemed genocide by many experts. In 2009 Bashir became the first sitting president to be indicted by the International Criminal Court. Then, in 2011, after years of civil war, South Sudan seceded, taking with it some three-fourths of the country’s oil.
It is frankly remarkable that Bashir’s cash-starved and isolated regime lasted 30 years. His longevity can be largely attributed to two factors. First was his ability to divide and co-opt the opposition. By deftly exploiting ethnic, regional, and political cleavages among the various anti-regime movements, while with equal dexterity pitting various factions within the security services against one another, he held off both revolution and coup.
Secondly, Bashir continuously exploited regional rivalries to his benefit. He maintained ties with both the Gulf states and Iran until severing the latter under intense Saudi pressure in 2016. He also grew increasingly close to Turkey and Qatar, both for practical reasons and out of Islamist sympathies, leasing a Red Sea port to Ankara in 2017 to be used as a naval base. At the same time, he maintained close ties with the Saudis and Emiratis—despite their increasing hostility to both Qatar and Turkey—by contributing thousands of Sudanese forces to the Saudi-led coalition in Yemen.
Bashir weathered many protests in his day, but the anti-austerity demonstrations that began in December 2018 ultimately did him in. After four months of marches and sit-ins, soldiers and police started abandoning their posts. On April 11, senior security officials arrested the aging president and announced the formation a Transitional Military Council. The protest movement was organic, but an “Arab troika” consisting of Saudi Arabia, the UAE, and Egypt helped seal the regime’s fate. Tired of Bashir’s efforts to play both sides of regional rivalries, they sought to replace him with a less fickle partner, reportedly giving their blessing to the coup in advance.
Tensions immediately emerged between the now-ruling junta and the protestors, who continued to call for civilian rule. Thanks to the African Union’s mediation efforts, and an uptick in international pressure on the junta following a massacre of protesters in June, the two sides eventually agreed to a transitional power-sharing arrangement in August. The agreement created an eleven-person civilian-military Sovereignty Council to govern Sudan for 39 months as well as a technocratic cabinet led by a civilian prime minister, the aforementioned Abdalla Hamdok.
The most important cleavage within the new government is between the military and civilian elements, with the former presently dominating. Yet one cannot speak of these as coherent blocs, as the opponents of the Transitional Military Council are divided by personal rivalries. Moreover, this coalition has little support from other opposition movements, many of them rebels, in historically marginalized areas distant from the capital. The military camp is similarly splintered by personal, regional, and institutional rivalries.
The members of the Arab troika—although they share the goal of combatting Muslim Brotherhood-style Islamism—have their own competing interests, and have consequently compounded the fractiousness of the new regime by backing different factions within the military. The UAE has aligned itself with the Darfuri warlord-turned-general Mohamed Hamdan Dagalo, known as Hemedti, while Egypt supports his main rival, Lieutenant-General Abdelfattah al-Burhan, the chairman of the Sovereignty Council. As for the Saudis, they have been content to follow Abu Dhabi’s lead, for now.
The transitional government’s fractiousness leaves Sudan in a precarious situation, one exacerbated by the continued threat posed by former Bashir loyalists. In March, unknown perpetrators attempted to assassinate Hamdok. Elsewhere there have been clashes between Hemedti’s militia and army units as well as between ethnic groups. Rumors of impending coups and conspiracy abound.
It is amid this chaotic political situation that the UAE has been pushing discreetly for Sudan-Israel normalization over the past year. The Emiratis arranged the meeting between Burhan and Netanyahu in Uganda in February—which was not announced until after the fact, blindsiding most Sudanese officials. Members of the civilian cabinet and the opposition were particularly incensed. Responding to the blowback, Burhan reportedly agreed to discuss normalization with the cabinet, but it is not clear how these discussions have progressed.
The furor over the Uganda meeting also reflected the fact that recognizing Israel remains highly controversial within Sudanese society. The Emirati leadership could afford to formalize ties since its citizenry is relatively small and reasonably satisfied with the government. Such quiescent populations are generally absent outside the Gulf and certainly in Sudan, where the regime’s legitimacy is weak. For years, the country’s political establishment—not only Bashir’s Islamist allies—has expressed solidarity with the Palestinians and sworn never to recognize Israel. Moreover, many Sudanese view the U.S. with suspicion due to years of sanctions, a miscalculated airstrike during the Clinton era, and Washington’s support for South Sudan’s independence; they are therefore wary of a U.S.-backed effort to normalize ties with Israel. For those pushing for normalization, it is safer to make plans behind closed doors and then to present the Sudanese public with a fait accompli than to allow powerful constituencies the opportunity to halt the process.
The controversy surrounding normalization within Sudan underscores a broader point about the geopolitical realignment underway in the region. As many have pointed out, realpolitik is driving the Arab-Israeli normalization process more than any ideological shift. This becomes especially apparent when examining what Israel, the UAE, and Sudan respectively seek to gain from normalization.
For Netanyahu, formalizing ties with Khartoum would add another diplomatic notch to his belt, and presumably one for which he would have to sacrifice little domestically (unlike the agreement with the UAE, which produced some pushback from the right over the suspension of West Bank annexation). And with each Muslim country that normalizes relations with Jerusalem, the barrier for other Arab and Muslim countries to follow suit is lowered. Furthermore, Israel and Sudan could mutually benefit from counterterrorism cooperation. Sudan has historically served as a smuggling hub within the Red Sea region, and Israel is intent on preventing groups such as Hamas and Hizballah from exploiting those networks. On a more quotidian level, Israelis no doubt appreciate having access to Sudanese airspace, which has already reduced travel time for commercial flights to South America.
For the Emiratis’ part, they share the goal with Israel of countering Iran and Muslim Brotherhood-style Islamism in the region. The UAE has been trying to corral Arab countries into normalizing ties to this end, and also as a means of elevating its status as a U.S.-friendly power broker. The Emiratis are highly conscious of their reputation in Western capitals, which contributed to their decision to draw down their controversial involvement the Saudi-led coalition in Yemen. The more Arab states the Emiratis can pull into Israel’s orbit, the more they feel they will have ingratiated themselves to Washington.
For Sudan’s transitional government, normalization is part of an effort to shed the last vestiges of the country’s pariah status, namely its designation by the U.S. as a state sponsor of terrorism. Burhan reportedly agreed to the February meeting in Uganda in the hopes of convincing Washington to drop the designation, which hurts Sudan’s chances at debt relief and investment. The status of Sudan-Israel ties has no official bearing on the decision; but Secretary of State Pompeo has given the impression that peace with Israel is, if not a precondition for dropping the terror-sponsorship designation, something that would make Washington look more favorably upon doing so.
By late August, the Trump administration and Sudan reached an agreement in principle to move towards lifting the designation in return for Khartoum paying compensation to victims of certain al-Qaeda attacks. U.S. officials are reportedly confident that a delisting will occur within several weeks—even though Congress is divided over the issue—paving the way for normalization with Israel. Both American and Sudanese media, however, have reported that U.S. and Sudanese officials continue to disagree over the procedures and timetable as well as how much financial assistance the U.S. and its partners will extend in return for recognition. And on Saturday Hamdok told reporters that he rejected linking delisting with normalization.
While the chances of Jerusalem and Khartoum forging diplomatic relations are thus greater than they have ever been, the situation in Sudan remains in flux. This volatility complicates any assessment of what to expect from the interim government in Khartoum moving forward. Will it be as violent and prone to ethnic cleansing as Bashir’s was? Will it be Islamist? Will it offer haven to terrorists?
With regard to Islamism, the transitional government’s Arab benefactors are presumably satisfied with the results so far. Bashir’s political party has been disbanded and those Brotherhood-aligned figures who have found refuge in Istanbul and elsewhere are unlikely to return anytime soon. At the same time, Islamism, amorphous a concept as it is, has strong roots in Sudan, going back to the Mahdi rebellion of the 1880s if not earlier. Islamists of one stripe or another would presumably be competitive if the country were to have democratic elections. In fact, Islamists could see their popularity rise in response to any moves the transitional government makes that are deemed “un-Islamic”—including normalizing ties with Israel. Likewise, it would be wrong to assume that Sudan’s military was insulated from Bashir’s Islamism, whatever the generals may now claim. We must beware any aspiring strongmen from the military camp who play up the Islamist threat to present themselves as a “moderate” alternative, along the lines of Abdel Fattah el-Sisi in Egypt or Khalifa Haftar in Libya.
The best hope for a relatively peaceful regime in Khartoum lies in pragmatism rather than a newfound sense of civic nationalism or ethnic harmony, which do not emerge overnight. Sudan’s generals may be brutal, but they are also smart. Of the many lessons to draw from Bashir’s downfall, one is that being an international pariah is costly, and another is that you must be careful in playing your benefactors against each other.
The country’s overall security and stability remain tenuous at best, despite the much-heralded announcement of a “final” peace deal between the transitional government and several rebel groups set to be signed on October 2, which for many reasons falls well short of offering a lasting peace.
And the problem of terrorism remains, even though Sudan is not likely to become, once again, the terrorist haven it was in the 1990s. After 9/11, Bashir halted direct support for many, but not all, terrorist groups, although the country remains a major transit point for jihadists due both to geography and its relative governance vacuum. The new regime appears to be making an effort to combat terrorism, as evidenced by the first recorded arrest of Boko Haram militants in the country last December. But the authorities’ attention could quickly turn elsewhere whenever the next internal crisis emerges.
More so than the agreements with the UAE and Bahrain, normalization between Israel and Sudan would represent a sort of Sadat-to-the-Knesset moment. It was Khartoum that hosted the 1967 Arab League summit where the participants agreed to the “three no’s”: no peace with Israel, no recognition of Israel, and no negotiations with Israel. And less than a decade ago Israel was conducting airstrikes on Sudanese soil.
But not all agreements are equal. Israel’s relationship with Jordan, while not to be taken for granted, has been relatively solid for 26 years. What Sudan’s regime will look like in 26 months, let alone 26 years, is anyone’s guess.