Sudan has been in political upheaval since late December 2018 when thousands took to the streets to the protest increasing cost of living and a woeful economy. The protests continued and picked up steam resulting in President Omar al-Bashir being ousted by the military in April.
Pro-democracy protesters are now flooding the streets to demand the ruling Transitional Military Council (TMC) hand over power to a civilian group. The protestors are continuing their calls for democracy in the face inhumane repression from the TMC including a brutal crackdown dubbed the Khartoum Massacre on June 3rd when TMC forces massacred 128 people and raped 70.
The military’s misdeeds have not stopped despite international condemnation, and on July 29th TMC forces killed four high school students and an adult participating in a peaceful demonstration. In response, the military closed schools indefinitely.
The European Union has repeatedly called on the Sudanese government to cede power to a civilian group, and the United States has made similar statements. However, America’s regional allies and geopolitical games much larger than Sudanese internal politics have impeded the democratic demands of the Sudanese people.
Saudi Arabia is a key player in Sudanese politics, and Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed Bin Salman has enjoyed robust support from American President Donald Trump. Saudi Arabia plays an important role in Sudan due to its economic investment into the country and repeated intervention into the country’s economy and politics.
Sudan’s latest political revolution is a call back to the Arab Spring, a political movement across the Middle East which struck fear in many Arab world elites. Saudi Arabia prefers its sphere of influence to be stable, in order to keep business flowing and lessen inspiration for any political revolutions in their own country.
In fact, Saudi Arabia has said as much. The Saudi Press Agency made an official statement after the Khartoum Massacre in June that said, “The Kingdom hopes that all parties in Sudan will choose wisdom and constructive dialogue to preserve security and stability in Sudan, protect the people of Sudan from all harm, while maintaining Sudan’s interests and unity.”
Russia also made ambiguous comments, but they seemed to place more blame at the feet of protestors. Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Mikhail Bogdanov said, “naturally, in order to do that, you need for order to be imposed, and you need to fight against extremists and provocateurs who don’t want the stabilization of the situation,”
Rather than forcefully condemning the military the Saudis focused on “all parties”. This was the Saudi’s response in large part due to their proximity to the TMC. Similarly to Saudi Arabia, Russia also prefers stability in the region over any democratic regime change.
Cooperation on Iran
As with many current regional concerns, the geopolitical games trace back to America and Saudi Arabia’s combined anti-Iran strategy.
Saudi Arabia and Mohammed Bin Salman have been in constant contact with the transitional military government ever since al-Bashir was overthrown. In this time, Sudan has recommitted to fighting Iran with Saudi Arabia and maintains forces in the Yemen war in support of Saudi Arabia.
“Sudan is standing with the kingdom against all threats and attacks from Iran and Houthi militias,” Sudanese General Mohammed Hamdan Dagalo said during a meeting with Saudi diplomats.
The United States also plays a pivotal role in the excessive force used by the Sudanese military against protestors. Shortly before the June massacre, US Congress blocked President Trump’s plans to sell munitions to Saudi Arabia and the UAE. However, plans were shortly leaked on how the President could get billions of dollars of arms to Saudi Arabia and its allies.
Saudi Arabia is a crucial military ally to Sudan and the TMC is heavily funded and armed by the Saudi government. This arms pipeline ties the American government to the TMC, and Saudi Arabia has regularly propped up the transitional Sudanese government with cash injections to increase their stability and power.
Protestors to Foreign Influence: “Stay Away”
For their part, Sudanese protestors and civilian groups are on top of the impact that many Middle Eastern countries have on their internal politics. Already in April, protestors were recorded chanting in the streets urging Saudi Arabia and the UAE to “please keep your money” a day after the governments sent Sudan a $3 billion aid package.
The protestor’s suspicions are well-warranted considering the Saudis’ crushing response to protest movements in neighbouring countries during the Arab Spring.
Egypt and the African Union have also played an important role and drawn the ire of protestors for extending the transitional deadline at the behest of strongman Egyptian President el-Sisi.
As Sudanese protesters and civil society build distrust for foreign intervention, more needs to be done to ensure that actors with ulterior motives are limited in their impact on the future of Sudanese political and civil life.
The European Union has made strong comments, but more needs to be done to hold the United States to account for their abetting strategy of Saudi Arabia. Unfortunately for the Sudanese, they seem to be caught in the crosshairs of a hawkish anti-Iran strategy that is spilling out all across the globe and further destabilizing countries such as Sudan.
Recent Constitutional Declaration
Despite the odds against the pro-democracy movement, the Sudanese people did achieve a huge victory on August 4 when the TMC agreed to a constitutional declaration with the opposition coalition which will form a three-year transitional government.
The former power of former leader al-Bashir still has deep roots in the country’s political system, and the military will still get to decide the minister of defence and interior. But it is viewed as a positive step in the drawn-out battle for democracy.
Unfortunately, it is unlikely that the military will change its foreign policy strategy, and Sudan will likely still rely on contributions from their allies including Saudi Arabia and Egypt. And despite the positive moves, the pro-democracy protestors and the international community will still have to keep an eye on proceedings to assure that the military does not cross the line once again.