by Neville Teller

On May 6 delegates from the two military groups slogging it out for control of Sudan met for pre-negotiation talks in Jeddah, each side represented by a three-person team.  The discussions are being masterminded by the US and Saudi Arabia, who began by urging the combatants to agree to an effective short-term ceasefire while the talks take place.  That exhortation has so far fallen on deaf ears, but both teams agreed that they bear a heavy responsibility to help alleviate the suffering of the Sudanese people, including the urgent need to reach agreement on delivering emergency aid.

On May 12 the BBC reported that the warring factions had signed an accord to protect civilians and admit badly needed humanitarian assistance. They are still discussing a proposal for a truce and a mechanism to monitor it.

Although formally the two sides are the Sudanese Armed Forces (SAF) and the Rapid Support Forces (RSF), in effect they are the respective leaders – Abdel Fattah al-Burhan, the de facto ruler of Sudan, and his rival, Mohamed Hamdan Dagalo, better known as “Hemeti”, who is still nominally Burhan’s deputy on the ruling Council.

Army chief Burhan will insist that he represents the legitimate government which Hemeti is seeking to overthrow.  Hemeti will demand equal status for the two sides.  Since his paramilitary RSF fighters control much of Khartoum, he will want a freeze on the current military position.  Burhan will want a return to the positions before the clashes began.

As for the political issues that will need to be addressed, each will demand an agenda that suits their interests.  There is one matter on which Burhan and Hemeti agree -­ neither wants the sort of democratic government that has been the nation’s objective ever since the overthrow of Sudan’s dictator, Omar al-Bashir, on April 4, 2019.  Even so, national and international pressure may force both to go along with the goal of a fully democratic state based on free and fair elections.

“Though the mills of God grind slowly,” wrote the American poet Longfellow, “yet they grind exceeding small.”  It took a full 30 years for Bashir to receive just retribution for the excesses of his regime, but in the end it came.

            Back in June 1989 Bashir headed a military coup in Sudan.  Ousting the previous regime, he assumed full executive and legislative powers, declared himself president and established a dictatorship.  For 30 years he held Sudan in an iron grip.

Bashir’s rule came to an end in April 2019, when widespread popular uprisings precipitated a coup by the army.  The Forces for Freedom and Change (FFC), an umbrella group agitating for complete change in Sudan, were determined that this uprising would not be hijacked by another military junta.  So a Transitional Military Council was set up in August 2019 to help the country move to democracy.  The Council appointed Abdalla Hamdok as prime mininster.

Few politicians in modern times have experienced such a see-saw of events.  He was appointed in August 2019, but despite the FFC’s best intentions there was indeed a coup in October 2021 led by army chief Burhan.  Hamdok was deposed and arrested.  Intensive negotiations between the FFC and the military followed.  An agreement of sorts was concluded, and on November 21 Hamdok was reinstated as prime minister.  The following March he survived an assassination attempt.  On January 2, 2022, he resigned.  He remains a potent factor, though, on the political scene.

The agreement between the Sudanese military, led by Burhan, and the FFC led to the  establishment of a new transitional administration. Its declared intention was to lead the country toward a democratic and civilian government, but in reality it was dominated by Burhan, who became the effective leader of the country. 

What followed was economic instability and political unrest, and it was not long before armed militia troops headed by Hemeti began attacking SAF forces.  Soon the two armed groups were engaged in a vicious civil war.  

Sudan, of course, is nominally one of Israel’s new Arab partners under the Abraham Accords.  Where does this chaotic state of affairs leave its normalization deal with Israel?

Shortly after the overthrow of the Bashir regime in April 2019, the US and the United Arab Emirates (UAE) brokered contacts between Israel and Sudan’s transitional administration dominated by Burhan.  He and his military supporters wanted to distance themselves from the old Bashir regime, which had hosted Hamas and Islamic jihad, and had allowed Sudan to become an open conduit for weapons and supplies passing to Hamas in the Gaza Strip.  So Burhan and his supporters seized the chance to join the new regional order that was emerging, predicated on opposition to Iran and a working partnership with Israel.

It was in February 2020 that Israel’s then-prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, met Burhan, head of Sudan’s Sovereignty Council, in Uganda, where they agreed to normalize the ties between the two countries. An initial agreement on October 23, 2020 saw Sudan removed from the US government list of countries promoting terrorism, and on January 6, 2021 in a quiet ceremony in Khartoum, Sudan formally signed up to the Abraham Accords.

Just how substantive is the Israel-Sudan normalization deal? Whatever the outcome of the conflict bedtween Burhan and Hemeti, Sudan is a nation in transition, on the road to parliamentary elections intended to usher in full democratic civilian rule.  The then military leadership that concluded the normalization deal with Israel was acting perfectly legitimately on behalf of the state of Sudan.  A democratic government, once in power, could doubtless either endorse or renounce it.  Which way will the chips fall?

By Neville Teller

Neville Teller’s latest book is “"Trump and the Holy Land: 2016-2020". He has written about the Middle East for more than 30 years, has published five books on the subject, and blogs at Born in London and a graduate of Oxford University, he is also a long-time dramatist, writer and abridger for BBC radio and for the UK audiobook industry. He was made an MBE in the Queen's Birthday Honours, 2006 "for services to broadcasting and to drama."